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A Look Back at the Annual Event from the Fraternity's Missive "a dispatch from the District" 

Terrible as an Army Set in Array

By Jane Dochterman


On October 7, 1571, one of the most decisive and astonishing naval engagements in history unfolded in the Gulf of Patras, near Lepanto, in what is now Greece.

Selim II was Sultan of the mighty Ottoman Empire and successor to the famous Suleiman, who had declared that he would wage jihad by land and sea until all Europe lay under the banner of Islam. Politically divided, the leaders of Europe had done little to stop the Turkish advance.  Christendom had been torn by the Lutheran revolt, and Catholic nations had no armies to spare.

These developments in Europe had not escaped Selim’s notice.  The island of Cyprus was a strategically important possession of the powerful city-state of Venice.  Seeking to annex Cyprus as the next step in Turkish domination of the eastern Mediterranean,  Selim demanded that Venice cede Cyprus or face war. Venice chose war.

Pope St. Pius V correctly discerned that if the Turks were not stopped now, every port in Europe was in danger of brutal attack.  He entrusted the Venetian cause to the Blessed Virgin Mary and called on all Christians to pray the rosary.  Through painstaking efforts, he formed a Catholic alliance, the Holy League, with Don Juan of Austria in command.  Don Juan had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin; he permitted neither blasphemy nor immorality aboard his ships.  On taking up his commission, Don Juan and his men fasted for three days.

Fulfilling their threats, the Turks landed on Cyprus in force, and besieged and captured first Nicosia and then Famagusta under its dauntless commander, Bragadino. They destroyed both cities, slaughtered many civilians, and dispatched men, women, and children to the slave markets of Istanbul.  Finally, they murdered Bragadino with horrific cruelty.

The Holy League’s fleet assembled in response.  On September 16, 1571, the papal nuncio blessed each warship as the Christian fleet sailed from Messina, each crewman with a rosary in hand.  With battle imminent, the Pope ordered the churches of Rome opened day and night for public recitation of the rosary.  The Christian fleet was significantly outnumbered as it sailed to the Gulf of Patras, but in the early morning hours of October 7, the wind abruptly shifted in its favor.  The Turkish admiral raised the green banner of Islam while on Christian vessels, priests heard confessions and offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

With the Turkish galleys in their trademark crescent formation, battle was joined. Cannon roared and archers spat clouds of arrows that spattered the decks like deadly rain. The battle raged on while across Italy, wave upon wave of fervent entreaty soared to Heaven: “Hail Mary…Hail Mary… pray for us…pray for us…pray for us.”

Soon the Turkish line began to disintegrate. Christian galley slaves broke free and joined the fight.  Aboard the Turkish flagship, the green banner was down, the admiral decapitated, and Don Juan’s banner, blue as Our Lady’s cloak, was flying.  By midafternoon, the Turks had lost 167 ships and 8,000 men, with 10,000 captured.  The Christians lost only 12 ships and suffered 7,500 casualties.  Though the Ottomans had held on to Cyprus, their advance was checked and their naval domination of the eastern Mediterranean was effectively over.

In Rome, the cardinals conferring with Pius V suddenly became aware they had lost the Holy Father’s attention.  The pope was gazing through an open window, awestruck, at a vision no one else could see. He said, “Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for He has given our fleet a great victory.”  He wept when the official reports arrived. Church bells rang across Europe in both Catholic and Protestant lands; all Christians knew the import of the pivotal battle. The Pope ordered a Mass of thanksgiving and later declared October 7 a feast day, Our Lady of Victory, known today as Our Lady of the Rosary.


“Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” Cant. 6:10 (D-R)

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