In 1570, Sultan Selim II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, had a problem. Well, actually a couple problems. First, was that he was a drunk. Second, was that his favorite wine came from Cypress, just under 300 miles away from him, off the coast of Turkey. Third, was that Cypress was a colony of Venice and he had signed a peace treaty with the Venetians. Not liking to pay for his favorite drink, he went to his highest advisors and concocted a way out of the peace treaty, which also created the justification for another of Selim’s goals: the conquest of Europe, starting with Venice and all of Italy, to include Rome and all the Papal states. With a religious fatwa decreed, the sultan landed a bunch of troops on Cypress in March of 1570. After plundering most of the island, killing all the Christians and taking about 2000 young girls and boys to be sent back to Turkey as sex slaves, the invaders came to the last stronghold: the city of Famagusta. Unable to take the city, they laid siege to it in September of 1570. The siege continued for months, and back in Rome, Pope Pius V called the Holy League into action.
The Holy League was made up of Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Genoa, Savoy, and Malta. They gathered ships and soldiers — 212 warships and 28,500 infantry — and under the command of Don Juan of Austria they rowed east for Cypress on September 16th, unaware that just a month before, Famagusta fell, and General Bragadino was skinned alive and his skin stuffed like a scarecrow by the Muslim forces. On October 7, the fleet of the Holy League met in battle in the Gulf of Lepanto. The Holy League fleet was outnumbered by an estimated 115 ships and almost 50,000 men, and the wind was in their faces. Then a miracle: at the last moment, the wind shifted. With the wind at their back, the Holy League grasped the advantage and won a decisive victory in what was the last major naval battle of galley warfare. On October 7th every year, we still celebrate the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
There are numerous accounts of the Battle of Lepanto that can be found. Going through them you will find most of the narratives tell one of two stories: Either they tell the story from a military perspective, talking about galley warfare, the weapons used, and the arrangement of the ships’ formations; or they tell the story of how it was a victory that was due in part to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the praying of the Rosary by all the men on the boats, as well as by Catholics throughout the Holy League, with the intention of the success of the mission. Both of these are interesting stories. But what isn’t often considered is the story of the men on the boats.
Seventeenth Century galleys were primarily moved by oars, with the sail only a secondary means of propulsion. The oarsmen were a mix of prisoners, slaves, and criminals. Below decks they suffered brutal conditions, and with a life expectancy of about 4 years, to be an oarsman on a galley was, for all intents and purposes, a death sentence. The fleet of the Holy League did something completely different for this mission. They said to the prisoners, the slaves, and the criminals, “Fight with us and fight bravely, and after the fight you will be set free. But if anyone blasphemes, they will be put to death.” Then each of the prisoners, the slaves, and the criminals was given a weapon… and a Rosary. Starting on September 13th, three days before they set off for Cypress, everyone on the boats fasted and prayed. There were non-stop lines for Confession and Communion. The Papal Nuncio blessed each ship as it rowed out the harbor, and each ship had anywhere from one to three priests on board, who continued to provide the Sacraments up until the start of the battle several weeks later.
In the book of Acts, we read of how Peter and the Apostles were brought before the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin. A Pharisee advised the Sanhedrin, “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” Certainly, the fleet of the Holy League had help from Almighty God, thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of Victory. But what was necessary to secure the blessing that ensured the victory?
Let us consider: would God have helped boats full of blasphemers? What if the priests on the boats were heretics? What if there were no priests on the boats at all because they were too cowardly to enter battle and perhaps be martyred? What if the entire mission of the Holy league was ordered by a pope who’s purpose was for selfish reasons of wealth or power? What if the people throughout Christendom weren’t united with the men on the boat in prayer?
Right there lies the key to success at the Battle of Lepanto: holy unity. From Pope Pius V down to the criminal oarsman, everyone involved was united. They understood the stakes. They knew what would happen if the Turks couldn’t be stopped at Cypress. They knew the mission was so important that the penalty for blasphemy was death. There were neither heretical priests nor apostate prisoners on those boats. And from the pope to every church, convent, monastery, and home, everyone was “on the boat.”
When closing on Cypress, one of Don Juan’s men suggested they gather a council to determine what to do. Don Juan said, “The time for council has passed, the time to fight is now.” Brother Knights, the time to fight is now. The time to fight apostasy and heresy is right now. The time for fasting and the Rosary is right now. The time to abandon blasphemy, get holy, get to Confession, and receive frequent Communion, is right now. The time to call others to the fight is right now. The time has come to unite in one holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith… and get on the boat.
Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of the Rosary… pray for us.
If you want to read more on the Battle of Lepanto, here are a few great articles: