(The Battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571)
One of the unexpected ironies of modern times was the establishment of a Catholic church, the first and only one, in the Emirate of Qatar within the last decade. The former emir saw it as a concession to the considerable Christian (Catholic) community of expatriate workers.
After the rise of Islam in Arabia and its conquests, all Christian institutions were destroyed and adherents to the teaching of Christ outlawed if not martyred. For Islam, the Quran is Allah’s book of laws for the conduct of worldly affairs – separation of God’s world from the state is itself haram, contrasting diametrically with the Christian precept: “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s."
Moreover, it was a matter of astonishment for the present writer that the dedication of this church in Qatar was to Our Lady of the Rosary – the title, equivalent to Our Lady of Victories, and also significantly resonating the words uttered at Fatima in 1917: “I am the Lady of the Rosary”.
Today’s feast day was instituted to mark the anniversary of the decisive victory of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7thin 1571 which prevented the further incursion of Islamic armies into Europe with their eye on the capture of its symbolic centre, “old” Rome. The Ottomans had established their caliphate in “new” Rome with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, bringing to an end the Roman Empire that had lasted for 1500 years.
The success of this greatly outnumbered and under-equipped Christian fleet was attributed to the pope, Pius V, who organising the coalition of forces, appealed to all throughout Europe to pray the rosary as the only hope to achieve victory. The pope’s call was effective. The rosary saved Europe. Is it any wonder that there is great unease today at the current influx of Islamic immigrants in those countries of Eastern Europe that had resisted the spoliation of their lands and the suppression of their faith and institutions, if not massacre, in the sixteenth century?
In its traditional form, the rosary as a prayer cycle was promoted by St Dominic and continued by his Order of Preachers since the thirteenth century. In essence, it was the divine office of the unlettered for it enabled ordinary people to meditate on the mysteries of the Christian faith through repetition of the mantra of Paters, Aves and Glorias.
In religious houses where those not literate in Latin could be admitted as lay brothers or lay sisters wishing to dedicate their lives to God in ancillary service, meditative prayer through the rosary accompanied the liturgy of the Divine Office sung by the Choir monks and nuns.
Throughout subsequent history, praying the rosary together with prayer at meals became the staple of family prayer, supporting a time honoured principle that the family that prays together stays together. The abandonment of such devotions in recent times can only have contributed to a widespread and alarming breakdown in family life and loss of respect for the institutions of marriage and holy order.
The call to prayer by the pope might be considered as the Christian response toجهاد (jihad). In “Bukhari”, the standard collection of hadith, that elucidates the teachings of the Quran, all references to jihad presuppose warfare, having the sense of armed struggle for the expansion and defence of the “Islamic state”. Theoretically, jihad will continue until all embrace Islam or submit to the authority of the Islamic state. Any Muslim who should die in achieving this would be شحيد (shahid, a martyr), thereby securing forgiveness of sins and entry into paradise.
While Islam poses a considerable threat to Christian society, should it achieve ascendency within our culture, we do well to realise that there exists an even more insidious threat from within. This was the situation in the sixteenth century and it remains the case today. The words of St Thomas More, writing from the Tower of London in the sixteenth century presage the situation and applicability in our present world:
“And then (for there is no born Turk so cruel to Christian folk as is the false Christian that falleth from the faith) we shall stand in peril if we persevere in the truth, to be more hardly handled and die more cruel death by our own countrymen at home than if we were taken hence and carried into Turkey.
Thomas More extracts penetrating and prophetic insights from the text: ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not stay awake one hour with me? Stay awake and pray that you may not enter into temptation. He suggests that the key to perseverance in the Christian vocation is watchfulness, developing this idea into a major theme in De Tristitia Christi. Its antithesis, inattentiveness, is considered a major cause of the internal and external disintegration of the Christian community.
This is evidenced at two levels. Inattentiveness breeds negligence on the part of the shepherds and this, in turn, contributes to intimidation into silence and paralysis when faced with heterodoxy, ill-discipline or outright opposition.
“And though he lays down this rule (Do not be afraid of those who destroy the body...) for everyone without exception when they have been seized and there is no way out, He attaches a separate charge over and above this to the high office of prelates: He does not allow them to be concerned only about their own souls or merely to take refuge in silence until they are dragged out and forced to choose between open profession or lying dissimulation, but He also wishes them to come forth if they see that the flock entrusted to them is in danger and to face the danger of their own accord for the good of their flock.
The prayer of the rosary, unlike mundane prayers of the faithful, takes us out of ourselves so that the soul and heart focus on the biblical scenes prompted by each mystery. There, by concentrating on the Incarnation, the centrality of the Cross and Redemption, then Resurrection and glorification, God is met in humility and love.
Through contemplation of the mysteries of the rosary the desire for God accelerates and gives multiple glimpses of his love and glory like sparks from a fire.
“By meditating on these mysteries of the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary may we imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise through Christ our Lord.”
Dr Peter Waters. Reflection for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. 7 October.