The Muslims captured the Holy Land in 637 AD and in 711 AD invaded Spain. From those days on, Islam sought to gain political and religious control of Europe, East and West, through its policy of “Holy War”. European Christianity resisted this religious war, first by the medieval crusades and later by its campaigns against the Muslim Turks; but it was only in the 19th century that Islamic political power in Europe seemed at last contained. If we want to understand the mood of this 1200-year battle of the Cross against the Crescent, it’s helpful to consider a more recent parallel, the defense of Christian nations against international communism.
The popes naturally became leaders in this long struggle. Pope St. Pius V played a special role in one of the most notable battles waged against the Turks, the great sea battle fought off Lepanto in Greece on October 7,1571. The pope had been largely responsible for assembling the international fleet of 200 ships that sailed forth with his blessing under the generalship of the imperial prince, Don John of Austria.
As the time for battle in the Adriatic Sea drew near, the pope ordered public prayers in Rome for the success of the Christian fleet. Particularly did he urge the Rosary confraternities in Rome to pray the rosary of Mary for victory over the Islamic forces. To their prayers he added his own.
On the actual day of the battle, Pius was engaged in a business meeting in Rome, hundreds of miles away from Lepanto, with a number of cardinals. Suddenly he broke off the conversation, opened a window and looked up into the sky. Then he turned back jubilantly to his companions. “A truce to business!” he exclaimed. “Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory that He has just given the Christian army.” God had revealed to him the defeat of the Muslims at the moment it happened. It was a crucial victory, in that it broke the Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean, thus protecting European Christianity from Muslim enslavement. As poet Gilbert K. Chesterton put it in his stirring poem “Lepanto”: “Don John of Austria has set his people free!”
A year later, to commemorate the Christian triumph, St. Pius established the feast of Our Lady of Victory, to be celebrated annually on the date of Lepanto, October 7. His successor changed the name of the feast to “Holy Rosary”.
Later on all October was dedicated to Mary, “Help of Christians”, and to recitation of the powerful devotion of Our Lady’s rosary.
It was long believed that St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican friars, had originated the rosary in the 13th century. This is no longer held. What the Dominicans did (and St. Pius V was also a Dominican) was to consolidate a devotion that had been forming for several centuries. Earlier, this devotion consisted of 150 Our Fathers – the number paralleling the 150 psalms recited in choir. The strings of beads (like those used by Muslims, Buddhists, and other peoples) were merely counters to keep track of the number of prayers recited. (Since the early rosaries were to count Our Fathers – in Latin, Pater Noster – the beads were originally called Paternosters, and rosary manufacturers, Paternosterers.) By the year 1500, however, the Hail Mary (Ave Maria) had largely replaced the Our Fathers. Meanwhile a special mystery of Christ’s life had been associated with each of the 15 decades.
Thus the rosary evolved into a rich devotion that combined vocal prayer to God and Mary with meditation on the great events of the Redemption. It has been a prayer most pleasing to Our Lady, especially when her intercession is invoked to defend Christianity against error.
The beauty of the rosary is that it can be prayed with equal devotion by the most scholarly and the most unlettered Catholic. With good reason has Mary, in her apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima, urged all of us to use faithfully this magnificent method of prayer.
–Father Robert F. McNamara