The Holy League: the first Avengers

Our Lady of the Rosary Nuestra Señora del Rosario— holds a special place in the hearts of Filipinos of old. As connoted by the blessed title, it is connected the most to the Rosary. According to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Dominic (Santo Domingo de Guzmán) in 1206 and gave him the world’s first rosary beads, hence the Marian title. But why is October reserved by Catholics as the Month of the Holy Rosary?

The answer lies in foreign history oceans away from ours: the Battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest naval battles in world history. It was a naval warfare waged between the Liga Sancta and the Ottoman Empire that took place off the coasts of Lepanto (now Nafpaktos in Greece) on 7 October 1571. The Battle of Lepanto was the last great battle between Christians and Muslims.

The Battle of Lepanto of 1571 full version by Juan Luna.jpg

“La Batalla de Lepanto“, oil on canvas by Juan Luna (1887).

During the late 16th century, Christendom in Europe was facing a huge threat from the formidable Ottoman Empire especially since the latter controlled maritime power in the Mediterranean Sea. They even regularly raided the coastal cities of Italy, the seat of the Papal States. So when the Ottoman Turks were set to invade Cyprus, Pope Pius V was compelled to form the Liga Sancta, or Holy League, that was composed of several Catholic maritime states, including that of our former king, Felipe II or Philip II, from whom our country was named, and his half-brother, 24-year-old John of Austria.

It was Don John of Austria who became the over-all admiral of the Holy League against the Ottoman Turks. Before the naval confrontation, he successfully formed armies from volunteers across Christian Europe while Pope Pius V rallied their spirits with the power of the Rosary. What is remarkable is that these men, about 28,500 soldiers (one of whom was a young Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated writer) and 40,000 sailors and oarsmen, prepared for war not only through military training but through prayer and fasting, imploring the aid of God’s grace through the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

Come battle time, the Christians found themselves heavily outnumbered: the Muslims had more than 81,000 men! Indeed, only today’s imagination could determine how fearful or courageous was the temperament of each and every soldier of Christ during that moment at sea, when Western civilization was at stake. But being outnumbered by the enemy did not deter the commanders of the beleaguered Holy League to carry on, lest they lose Europe and the rest of the world to infidels. At the frontlines of the order of battle against the Turks was a who’s who of European Christendom: Venetian nobleman Agostino Barbarigo helmed the left wing, Italian admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria commandeered the right, while young and dashing John of Austria himself led the central command.

In the thick of battle, the Christian warriors, with swords and guns and rosaries, were invoking the name of the Mother of God asking for her intercession. Strangely enough, she appeared: with sword in one hand and a rosary in the other (many Christian fighters swore to have seen this apparition). This miracle provided the tired and wounded soldiers of Christ renewed energy to drive away the enemy. Towards the end of the day, their prayers were answered: the Ottoman Turks were defeated as more than 30,000 Muslim warriors perished during the battle. Several thousands more were taken as prisoners while hundreds of their galleys were either sunken, burned, or captured. There were Christian casualties, but smaller: 10,000 fighters perished. But as consolation to those lost lives, thousands of Christian slaves who were with the Muslim fleet during the battle were saved. And only less than 20 galleys from the Holy League were lost in the battle.

The Christian victory at Lepanto was the decisive turning point in which control of the Mediterranean Sea was finally taken away from centuries of oppressive Turkish rule. The Islamic Empire was never able to recover since then. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Holy League credited the victory not to themselves but to the Virgin Mary, whose intercession with God they had implored for victory through the power of the Rosary. That is why Pope Pius V, the brains behind the Holy League, instituted the feast day of Our Lady of Victory every October 7th, as well as the month of the Rosary every October, to commemorate Christendom’s exceptional victory at the Battle of Lepanto. The name of the feast day has since been changed in 1913 to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

The astonishing Battle of Lepanto can be likened to today’s big-budget Hollywood films, more so with the epic battle scene seen recently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Avengers: Infinity War”. We could even go a step further by pointing out that the Holy League composed of King Philip II’s imperial army, Don John of Austria, Sebastiano Venier of Venice, Marcantonio Colonna, and a host of others was the first Avengers. Pope Pius V served as the group’s Nick Fury. As for Our Lady of the Rosary… remember Thor’s surprise appearance in Wakanda in the said film just when our superheroes were close to being overwhelmed by Thanos’s four-armed Outriders? I think you get the picture. 😊 But instead of that huge Stormbreaker, the Virgin held a small rosary.

And yes, we can consider Miguel de Cervantes (who, by the way, was shot thrice during the battle) and reserve commander Álvaro de Bazán as their Marvel Netflix allies. 😂

Image: La Naval de Manila Facebook page.

While the climax of the Battle of Lepanto can be likened to that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest epic film, the battle itself has a mystical connection to Filipino history. Several decades later, the Virgin Mary once again had a special role in yet another battle, this time against another group of infidels who were craving for our shores: the Protestant Dutch. Nick Joaquín, poetic champion of beer and rosary, wrote the following in one of his most famous essays, the “La Naval de Manila“.

The Church was quick to acknowledge the role of Mary at Lepanto; October 7, the date of the victory, has ever since been her feast as Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, a feast and an avocation of hers around which maritime traditions consequently clustered: the Virgin of the Beads is popularly a Virgin of Sea Battles, a Virgin of Naval Victories. Some eighty years after Lepanto, she was again to justify those titles, to manifest her power in the faraway Orient of the conquistadores, to wield her mighty beads in favor of a handful of islands: the small necklace-like archipelago that had been named after the brother of the Lepanto hero.

The 1646 Dutch attacks, now known as the Battles of La Naval de Manila, occurred five times, between March 15 and October 4 (amazingly just a few days short of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto!). All those attacks were thwarted by the combined forces of Spaniards and Filipinos who, before going to battle, also asked helped from the Virgin for her intercession. So once more, as what had happened in Lepanto, many participants of the battles against the Dutch affirmed that they saw Our Lady fighting with them!

To give thanks to God for those five naval victories, the first celebration of La Naval de Manila was held on 8 October 1646. The 16th-century image of Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario —Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary— served as her representation.

May we make it a point to pray the Rosary every day, not only during the month of October. But on this day, may we pray it with more earnest, for it was exactly on this day centuries ago when God manifested to man that He can make the Heavens join them in battle against bloodthirsty infidels and other worldly evils if only they pray the Rosary fervently.

—¡Viva la Virgen del Rosario!—

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