Any casual glance at Roman Catholic history would be likely to reveal that our Church has a somewhat… complicated… relationship to war. The first example to come to many people’s minds would be the Crusades, that period of history when Western European Christians tried to “evangelize” those living in the Holy Land by force. But another example of that complicated history with violence can be seen in the feast we’ve celebrated this past week: Our Lady of Victory.
On October 7, 1571 a fleet of the Holy League decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The five-hour battle was fought off of western Greece, near the Ottoman naval station in Lepanto. The victory gave the Holy League temporary control over the Mediterranean, protected Rome from invasion, and prevented the Ottomans from advancing further into Europe. But credit for the victory was given to the Blessed Virgin Mary because a rosary procession had been offered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the success of the mission to hold back Muslim forces from overrunning Western Europe.
So when reading more about the origin of this day, my initial thought was to talk about the violence of our world and the degree to which religion is associated with it. In fact, I have a few friends who are atheists and one of the reasons they give for not following any religion is because of how much they associate religion with the violence of war. While those who are among the faithful might say that they are some aspects of religion they are overlooking, it’s hard to deny that they have a point. But the question on how to understand this day gets even more complicated when a Paulist historian reminded me the other day at lunch that many an Ottoman sultan had designs to make St. Peter’s Basilica the central mosque in Rome, just as they had made the Hagia Sophia a mosque in what was then Constantinople. As a Roman Catholic, I’m also glad those plans did not work out.
Maybe the complications of Our Lady of Victory can be better understood if we remember the words of John Paul II. As another largely Christian nation (America) was ramping up its forces and claiming the side of God when attacking another Muslim nation (Iraq) in 2003, John Paul II said, “War is a defeat for humanity.” And if war is a truly defeat for humanity, maybe the victory for which we should be praying to Our Lady is peace.