Of the many acclaimed works of G.K. Chesterton, Lepanto is among his most cherished and is widely recognized as a perfect poem by various literary critics. Penned in 1911, this epic poem reminisces and celebrates the Holy League victory over the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. The combination and pace of the irregular rhyming stanzas, the tetrameter couplets, and the dimeter lines provide the poem the base to bring about the genius of Chesterton.
Although there is no doubt that the poem is about the Battle of Lepanto, it can be said that, in typical Chesterton fashion, he allegorized erroneous philosophical and religious views of the time and personified them throughout the poem. In addition to the writing prowess of Chesterton, it was reported that as the naval fleet of the Holy League departed the Sicilian port of Messina on September 16, 1571 that all of the men had a rosary in hand. Henceforth, nearly four and a half centuries after this famous battle, the Church holds the 7th of October in honor of victory for Christendom, honoring Our Lady of the Rosary.
Yet, here at present we find Christendom ravaged and ruptured by the chaos of modernity in its moral relativism, atheistic humanism, and dogmatic apathy. With all of this turmoil, what purpose, if any, does Our Lady of the Rosary play today? I believe that the answer is found somewhere between fiat and the courage to be not afraid.
In his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope St. John Paul II references the repetitive dialogue between Christ and Peter after the Resurrection: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times this question is put to Peter, and three times he gives the reply: “Lord, you know that I love you.” John Paul II goes on to say that, “none can fail to recognize the beauty of this triple repetition, in which the insistent request and the corresponding reply are expressed in terms familiar from the universal experience of human love.” Therefore, in its simple repetition, “to understand the Rosary, one has to enter into the psychological dynamic proper to love where the Rosary is thought of as an outpouring of that love.” What this looks like in practice is the personal fiat to a simple request in order to build the habit of caritas. At the Annunciation, after reciting the first half of the ‘Hail Mary,’ the angel Gabriel tells Mary to “be not afraid.” Thus, with her simple fiat, Mary provides the world the template for repeatedly and courageously giving oneself to Christ out of love for him.
We find multiple examples of this template in Lepanto. A request is made and various responses given. Pope St. Pius V’s request for the great rulers of the West to unite against the invading Ottomans is initially met with callous indifference. As told by Chesterton, “The cold queen of England is looking in the glass.” Surely, this is a knock on Queen Elizabeth’s vanity, her ongoing rivalry with Spain, and her persecution of Catholics which all provide her little reason to help the Pope.
The response from France is met with equal apathy: “The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;” a clear indication that the Royal House of Valois had little interest in papal summons. In spite of these replies, and in following the lead of the young Virgin, it would be the young Don John of Austria to give the first personal fiat. “The last knight of Europe…tiny and unafraid…Don John of Austria is going to war.” The fruit of his fiat is seen as the unknown drama unfolds on the day of battle. The stage was set: the Holy League outnumbered by nearly eighty boats and the wind severely at odds with the fleet. Thus, history was made legend. Through recitation of the rosary, and the courage to be not afraid, the winds miraculously change and the outnumbered Holy League sails to victory proclaiming Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of the Rosary.
At the heart of this is the simple personal fiat to the request that was made. Albeit we are not responding to a papal summons to arms in the Mediterranean, we are still prompted by the Holy Spirit to strive daily to form our lives more closely to Christ’s. The tiring monotony of our days, our personal struggle with temptation, and the resolve to want to try again are all challenges that must be faced. So, it is here, in this daily arena, that there is purpose for the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The feeling of running the small beads through one’s fingers, the rhythm of the prayer, the peace of the meditation, and the depth of the mysteries all serve as channels of grace to faithfully form habits of charity. Though we may not see immediate strides in the defeat of moral relativism and atheistic humanism, nonetheless, in shaping our lives to Christ, this process has lasting results in the small spheres that each of us live and are part of. A fitting example of this is seen in the drama currently unfolding throughout Europe, the old hearth of Christendom—particularly on the Iberian Peninsula where Lepanto is a daily devotion.
Laying in the shadow of the Sagrada Familia is the stunning, yet, less gaudy Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia of Barcelona. This medieval masterpiece not only serves as the seat of the archbishop but it also boasts the “Holy Christ of Lepanto” crucifix. Located near the main facade, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament and of the Holy Christ is splashed in ornate burnt-orange candlelight revealing the dark and slightly slanted corpse of Christ which dangles to the right side of a smooth black cross as Our Lady of Dolores sits at the foot in sorrowful contemplation.
The reason behind the slanted angle of Christ’s body is debated on account of two separate but similar stories of the statue becoming animate during the Battle of Lepanto. The first Catalan legend maintains that the Christ figure dodged an incoming cannonball which crashed into the gallery of the flagship commandeered by Don John. While the other holds that the figure moved in order to obstruct water from seeping into the hull. Regardless of the definite reason, the fact remains that this crucifix served as a miraculous sign for the Holy League during the Battle and it still serves as an influential sacramental for all pilgrims of the chapel.
If you happen to be in Barcelona and get the chance to pass through here, what you will find is a chapel full of faithful praying the rosary. And much like the Holy League fleet when they left the port of Messina, these faithful are praying the same prayers and meditating at the foot of the same Holy Cross. However, unlike Don John’s crew, these faithful cannot visibly see their aggressors. As Europe has been rattled the past few years with terror attacks, Barcelona is no different. In summer 2017 thousands of Barcelonans took to the streets in show of solidarity to mourn the 15 killed in a terror attack on the popular Las Ramblas. The great multitude carried with them banners bearing the defiant message “No tinc por” — Catalan for “I’m not afraid.”
Though it is not the rosaries that the Holy League clutched, the message “No tinc por” is still a good start. But the question that this message raises for each of us is: what will the fiat that this courage demands look like? If our response to terror attacks, moral relativism, atheistic humanism, and dogmatic apathy is one that does not take serious the call to a repetitious school of prayer in order to form consistent habits of charity that mold us to Christ, then we have given an answer no better than Queen Elizabeth and the House of Valois.
On the other hand, if our response is taken to follow the fiat of Mother Mary, then we can be assured of the drama of the unknown, but with it comes the confidence of knowing that God looks with favor on his lowly servants. Indeed, as Lepanto proclaims and the rosary has proven, victory can be achieved, but it takes faith, courage, and a little help from Our Lady.