Historians speak of a pax Romana, a period of Peace and prosperity under the Roman empire. Rome was not unselfish but it fostered productivity within the empire—it took its taxes, but people were able to be fairly well fed, sheltered, and clothed. One of the most important agents of this prosperity was the availability of safe and relatively inexpensive transportation. The empire was famous for its well-constructed roads—built, by law, “to last forever,” and for its protection from piracy on the waters of the Mediterranean. Transportation enabled the trading of goods all over the empire, thus pleasing consumers, and allowing producers to benefit from economies of scale.
While transportation was essential to prosperity, it also facilitated invasion when the empire began to fall apart in the fifth or sixth centuries. Mohammad conquered most of the Arabian peninsula during his lifetime. His followers conquered the Holy Land, it’s surroundings, and Roman North Africa in another twenty years or so. From Africa they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain in 711 but we’re stopped from entering France by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitier. In roughly the same timeframe they conquered the area at the South of the old Soviet Union, heading east through India and Mongolia to some of the Pacific coastal islands. In 827 they made the short trip over the Mediterranean to conquer Sicily. By 846 they sacked St. Peter’s and Saint Paul outside the walls of Rome. In 847 Pope Leo IV erected a forty foot wall around Rome to try to keep them out— that’s the wall which Pope Francis thinks is a bridge!
In all of this, we are talking about far more than the loss of lands. The occupational forces held Christians for ransom, tried to force them to renounce the Catholic Faith, cut off Christian heads and raped Christian women. Even if a territory was not occupied, it was subject to random raids.
A major reason that Christendom was less successful in defending its territory than it pagan predecessors is that the Christians were fare more divided. The empire had split into a number of kingdoms and principalities—and very often, loyalties we further divided between Church and King. Anyone who has read medieval history has read of a rivalry between “the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.” Originally these were two families, but Guelphs came to mean those loyal to the Papacy, while Ghibellines came to mean those loyal to the emperor or king. The papal Guelphs were usually of the industrial or commercial classes, while the imperial Ghibellines were usually aristocratic landowners.
I’ll give one example of how the rivalry between Crown and Pope weakened the entirety of Christendom. There are many more examples. Philip IV was King of France toward the end of the thirteenth century. In years past, France had often been called “the eldest daughter of the Church.” But now, Philip was obsessed with carrying on a continuous war with England (at that time still a Catholic country). To pay for war Philip taxed his people into recession; expelled the Jews and confiscated their assets; taxed the bishops and refused to allow them to send money to the Pope; sent soldiers to successfully capture the Pope; reneged on his debts to the Knights Templar who had been guarding the Holy Land, dissolving their order and murdering many of them; and finally causing the Papacy to split between Rome and Avignon in France for a schism lasting over sixty years.
Our patronal feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, observed today, commemorates a miraculous victory of Christian forces over the Moslem domination of the Mediterranean on the first Sunday of October in 1571, the Battle of Lepanto, at the Gulf of Patras off the Ionian Sea. I say it was miraculous for three reasons.
1) Martin Luther’s “Reformation” had further split Christendom. The armies and navies of the Protestant countries—important powers like England, Holland, and much of Germany would not side with the remaining Catholic countries.
2) The Catholic coalition, known as the “Holy League,” made up of mostly Spanish and Venetian troops and some Knights Hospitaler was vastly outnumbered. Led by Don Juan of Austria (actually a Spaniard), the Holy League did have an advantage in its artillery, its use of free men as oarsmen, and it’s General. Some Moslem ships were rowed by Christian captives who were prone to mutiny–serves ‘em right!
3) The greatest miracle was that Pope Pius V was not only able to put together this military coalition, but also to get great numbers of the Faithful to pray the Rosary for a coalition victory during the battle. It is said that Pope Pius received a vision at the moment of victory—long before word could be communicated back to Rome through normal channels!
Pope Pius instituted a feast on this day, honoring “Our Lady of Victories.” Some say “Victory,” but I like the plural, for there were other victories after Lepanto: The Battle of Vienna on 12 September 1683, the day that would become the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. In 1716, Clement XI inscribed our feast of the Holy Rosary on the calendar of the Universal Church, in gratitude for the victory gained by Prince Eugene in Serbia, on August 5, the feast of Our Lady of the Snow. No doubt there were and will be other victories. And they will correctly be ascribed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Victories.
One final word: As impressive as military victories are, they pale in importance to the victory we should always be asking from Our Lady. That victory is our victory over ourselves—that we may give up all attraction to sin, and be drawn only to what will make us holy and to Jesus Christ, her divine Son. That is the true victory!