This post is about a powerful weapon: a weapon so great that it has been credited with changing the course of history and saving Europe from the Islamic caliphate. I speak of the Rosary. And I write this post in October because it is celebrated by Catholics as the Month of the Rosary.
There is a very good reason for this.
On October 7, 1571, the outnumbered fleets of Venice, Spain, Genoa and Malta faced the Turkish fleet of the Islamic Caliphate.
This armada was hastily strung together by Pope Saint Pius V from a divided Europe reeling from disunity and jealousy. The Reformation and bitter family rivalries were corroding the social fabric of the continent, leading to the rise of unchecked nationalism. It would eventually result in the most brutal civil war of all time: the Great War.
But in 1571 Europe faced a more immediate threat: the Ottoman Empire or Islamic Caliphate. This empire was unmatched in power. In 1453 it had captured Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. It was a city of power that stretched back to the Roman Empire itself. To give some idea of the historical context of this great shock, it would be akin to Washington or London falling today.
Over the next century, the Ottoman Empire pushed into Europe, capturing Serbia and most of Hungary. Its fleets were undefeated and raids were common. In 1570, it invaded Venetian Cyprus. In response, Pope Saint Pius V managed to cobble together a shaky alliance of forces that became known as ‘The Holy League’. But it did not arrive in time.
After mounting a formidable defence, the commander of the Venetian forces defending Cyprus, Marcantonio Bragadino, arranged a truce and secured an agreement allowing his soldiers to leave the island.
In August 1571, Bragadino met with the Ottoman commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha, to hand over the city of Famagusta. However, Mustafa Pasha reneged on his word to allow safe passage and instead cut off Bragadino’s nose and ears, leaving him to fester in chains for two weeks. The remaining Christians in Famagusta were massacred.
Mustafa Pasha then had Bragadino flayed alive, starting at his toes and moving upwards. Bragadino did not die until they began skinning his stomach. Eventually his skin was removed completely, stuffed and paraded on an ox.
Bragadino had suffered a fate most horrible – the kind of fate that we are unfortunately hearing about again today.
About six weeks later the Catholic fleet, consisting of 212 ships arrived. It was met by a larger Turkish armada off the coast of Lepanto, containing 251 ships. The fate of Europe hinged on the next few hours: victory would prevent a Turkish invasion of Italy; defeat would ensure that the Islamic Caliphate controlled the entire Mediterranean.
As they sailed into battle, the Rosary was prayed. Suddenly the wind, which had been favouring the Turkish fleet, changed direction. Four hours later the Caliph’s navy was destroyed. Whatever the reasons that led to the success of the outnumbered Catholic fleet, one thing is clear: the commanders all credited the Rosary for their decisive victory over the Islamic threat to Europe.
It is recorded that Pope Saint Pius V received news of victory in a vision that day. In thanksgiving he declared that October 7 would be dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary in honour of her intercession in that fateful battle. It was not until two weeks later that messengers arrived in Rome carrying news of the victory.
While the Battle of Lepanto occurred nearly 450 years ago, the Rosary is still credited with saving the lives of those soldiers who pray it today. Private Glenn Hockton was serving with British forces in Afghanistan when he stood on a landmine in 2010. However, he was saved because he realised his danger when he bent down to pick up his rosary beads. It took 45 minutes to defuse the situation and allow Private Hockton step off the bomb.
This is how The Telegraph describes the incident:
Guardsman Hockton’s mother Sheri Jones, from Tye Green, Essex, said she was physically sick when her son rang to tell her of his ordeal.
“He was on patrol and his rosary fell off his neck. He felt like he had a slap on the back. He bent down to pick his rosary up to see if it was broken,” she said.
“As he bent down to pick it up, he realised he was on a landmine.”
His brush with death echoed that of his great-grandfather towards the end of the Second World War when he and other prisoners of war were forced to march away from the advancing Allied armies.
“He was walking across a field with half a dozen of his platoon,” said Mrs Jones. “He bent down to pick something up and was the only one to survive a sudden bomb blast. He had picked up a rosary.”
While the cases above are stirring examples of the power of the Rosary, they are not how most of those who pray it have come to know it and love it.
My first encounter with the Rosary was as a child. I was about three years old and was visiting my grandparents with my mother, probably because my father was away on a military exercise with the Australian Army. In the evening, my grandparents knelt down to say this prayer. I was not used to such a thing and remember vividly skulking away: I had a balloon and it was much more fun.
But it was no fun all alone and my younger sister was in the room where they were praying the Rosary. There was only one thing to do: I had to run past her with my balloon.
I did so and reached the door on the other side without incident. Strike one to me. I also remember thinking, as I made it through the door, that I had better not do that again. Mum would not allow it.
But the exuberance of childhood got the better of me. I just had to continue. So, of course, I ran through the room again with my balloon bobbing along behind me.
However, this time I had pushed my luck too far. Mum called me over and I spent the next ten minutes sitting in silent boredom. To make matters worse, the voice of caution that I had ignored was now scolding me: I was suffering precisely because I had failed to heed its prudent counsel.
Now, thirty years later, the daily family Rosary is a favourite part of my day. That’s not to say that I have always faithfully prayed it or that there are not times now where tired eyes, a sore back, screaming kids or the pressures of life make this fifteen minute prayer seem like a burden. Sometimes it is difficult but the benefits of this prayer are always greater: far greater indeed.
For a family, the rosary is a blessing. Even the process of the rosary has enormous benefits.
Little children learn a lot from it. For a start, they learn discipline. If our children can sit through anything it is because they have been gradually taught to sit still during this prayer. Children do not have a natural inclination to silence or discipline: it must be taught.
I’m sure every other family that prays the Rosary knows this process very well. As babies learn to crawl and then begin to totter along on their feet, the Rosary appears to provide a stage for them. Older siblings are quick to be distracted: it is much more enjoyable to watch the antics of a baby or toddler cheekily showing off their new-found mobility skills than it is to concentrate on prayer.
This inevitably leads to toddlers showing off: they twirl in circles before an attentive audience; climb on tables; go about adorning themselves with all the Rosary beads in sight, or throw themselves in delight across the back of their kneeling father’s legs.
These moments all melt the heart. But they are also opportunities to curb the growing ego and instil discipline. As this happens, older children learn as well. They begin to understand that their actions set an example and that they also have the power to help maintain the discipline of others as well as themselves.
If this was all the Rosary did, it would still be valuable: an opportunity for the family to bond together and assist in the ordered development of children.
But it does far more.
Again, as any family that prays the Rosary will know, this fifteen minute prayer is an opportunity for children to learn about life. They do this by considering the life of Christ, which is recounted during the Rosary. And even if one does not believe in Christ, even if one rejects the historical reality of His life, it is still the most profound story ever heard by men and therefore of great value for any child.
This story has everything a drama could ask for: a miraculous birth; danger from wicked kings; a young man gaining prominence in society; prophecies of greatness; works of immense wonder; a growing threat from an increasingly hostile and hypocritical ruling class; a betrayal; a terrible death, and the great victory of life and love.
One may choose to reject all of this as fiction. But it would still be the greatest work of fiction: no other story can explain life and death, good and evil, justice and injustice, hope, suffering and the reality of humanity the way this story does. Even if it was just a fiction, the story told in the Rosary is of immense benefit for children.
Little ones love to ask questions about it. There is, of course, the story of Christmas. And there is also the story of Calvary. The first teaches children about birth and there is nothing more that they love to hear than about how they themselves were born. The latter details the reality of death and the importance of morality. Children learn, through the Rosary, about good and evil.
And for Catholics who do believe the reality of the story told in the Rosary, children learn much more. They learn about the effects of sin (evil actions). These effects were so great that they even resulted in the death of Christ Himself. But they also learn that sin has been defeated and with it death. This gives meaning to life in a way that no other reality can. And with it comes hope and courage and perseverance. There is not a virtue that is left out of the Rosary.
Children with hope and an understanding of a personal God who has shown such great love as that detailed in the Rosary also learn to pray with confidence.
And all of us need to pray. It is our conversation with God. Prayer consists of all the things that equal politeness, but raises them to the level of the divine. We pray to say hello and build and grow our relationship with God, just as we communicate constantly with any friend. We pray for His forgiveness when we have done wrong. We pray to ask for those things we require, just as we would ask any who could help us in times of need. And we pray to say thank you when we are blessed with God’s favours.
In doing so, we acknowledge He is the giver and that we are the receivers. Failing to acknowledge this results in a distorted view of our relationship with God.
The Rosary is also an opportunity to consider the needs of others and to pray for them, whether it be a family member preparing for an important event, a sick or dying friend, or even an enemy. These circumstances teach children about charity and how they can help others. All of these events prompt questions from little ones and the Rosary is an opportunity to help children understand the reality of the world we live in.
As for adults, the benefits of the Rosary apply equally. We should never grow so important that we forget that what is good for children is also good for us.
Personally, the Rosary is the moment where I can pray to God for help in all the difficulties that I have faced, whether they be large or small. Often I bring these troubles to Him, but as is the way with human nature, it is usually in the moments of greatest need; the moment where I realise I can no longer succeed on my own. I am sure God provides these difficulties for our own good: success breeds forgetfulness and pride, rather than thanksgiving.
Without these troubles and without the Rosary, I would lose all contact with the virtue of humility; a virtue that I continue to seek without much success. Instead, I would quickly succumb to pride and then despair. I remain weak and human. The Rosary is the prayer that allows me to transfer all my troubles to God and to acknowledge His enduring assistance. He has never failed to answer our prayers.
Importantly, the Rosary has kept my family together. All marriages face their difficult moments. It is during the Rosary that I remember how to love, to forgive and to soften myself so that I can seek forgiveness. And, trust me, it is the latter that I mostly need to do!
But best of all, the Rosary is the prayer that lifts me up. It is never so delightful and consoling as when it is 15 minutes in which I forget the world and instead contemplate God: His reality; His goodness and eternal life; His nature and the life of Christ.
One need only contemplate these for a moment to realise that there is an immense, untapped depth to them; a vastness that cannot be fully understood. When the mind returns to earthly things, they are understood in the context of eternity and a victory already won that we, too, can take part in if only we choose to do so. That choice always involves following in the footsteps of Christ. He suffered greatly for us; we must suffer a little to demonstrate our love for Him.
And this is the natural way: all victories in life are achieved by overcoming adversity. Love is about sacrifice.
Finally, the Rosary is directed through the Mother of Jesus Christ, Mary. It recognises her role in all the great mysteries of Christ’s life: His incarnation, His death and His resurrection and ascension. It also recognises her relationship with the Trinity and the reality of Jesus Christ’s words from the cross that allowed this greatest creation of God to take a special part in each of our lives: Mary is not just Christ’s mother, she is ours as well.
That is why the Rosary is such a powerful weapon. God raised the Blessed Virgin Mary to the pinnacle of creation and he did so by choosing her to be the mother of Christ; the mother of God. The Rosary recognises this reality better than any other prayer. That’s why it pleases God so much.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.