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Sometimes—when you have troubles to deal with—it helps to remember that there are other folks “out there” who have things a lot worse off. And sometimes, it helps to see how those with the really serious problems cope with them. The story of this feast day in honor of our Lady's Rosary is just such a story—of almost insurmountable problems being met head on and being dealt with in a successful manner.
In 1566, at 62 years of age, a Dominican by the name of Michael Ghisleri was elected Pope, and took the name of Pius V. Now most people would see that as a great honor and a source of enormous prestige—but in 1566 the problems facing the Church were so over-powering that it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to be Pope.
The Church had endured centuries of internal troubles, with immoral living and corruption weakening a significant portion of its leadership—with so many of the faithful scandalized by this inner wickedness, to the point of losing their faith.
Again, for centuries, various reactions to the shortcomings of the clergy had spawned minor protest and occasionally small revolts among the laity. But in the 1500s this dissatisfaction erupted into the full blown challenge of Martin Luther and his Protestant opposition to the Papacy, the Church, and many Christian teachings. By the time Pius V came to office, much of Germany and France, and virtually all of England, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries had gone over to Protestantism. And in Italy itself, even in the Papal States, dissatisfaction with the clergy was at an all time high.
And, if losing a third or more of Europe wasn't bad enough, the Church's perennial enemy, Islam, was again on the move. Over the years, the Moslems had invaded Christian Africa, almost eradicating the Church along the southern rim of the Mediterranean, taking over great cities like Alexandria that had been Christianized by Saint Mark himself, and Carthage which Saint Augustine knew so well. Moslem forces had occupied Spain for nearly 800 years and briefly made it as far north as the French cities of Tours and Poitiers. By 1492, Christians had taken back Portugal and Spain, but in the 1500s they were facing new attacks from the east, where the Moslems had over-run Turkey, and represented a long term threat to Austria and Hungry. And, it that wasn't bad enough, they also exercised substantial naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, presenting a physical threat even to those who lived in the Christian coastal towns.
And, occasionally, something called “the plague” would work its death dealing influence, lest anyone get too complaisant.
Pius V was elected just after the Council of Trent, which passed a great deal of legislation for dealing with the internal corruption of the Church and external struggle against Luther. That is to say that he was tasked with making the theoretical policies of the council work in real world practice; not an easy task as you might imagine. But this sixty‑odd year old man fell to work with surprising enthusiasm: He began by urging the prayer of the Rosary as the surest way to combat the Church's difficulties. Under his administration was begun the reform of the training of the clergy, the issue of a comprehensive catechism of the Catholic Faith, and the formation of societies to educate the laity—so that all Catholics might know and defend their Faith. Pope Pius arranged to standardize the Missal for Mass and the Breviary for the Divine Office, so that all of the Western Church could pray in unison, and without fear of heretical ideas being introduced into Its worship. “In perpetuity,” no priest could ever be forced to say Mass according to any other rite. The brilliant composer, Palestrina, was enlisted to revitalize the Church's music.
Pope Pius inspired a far flung program of construction; refurbishing churches, buildings, aqueducts, walls, and fortifications. He began programs to combat unemployment and to relieve the poor—as well as to provide for the physical and spiritual well-being of those who succumbed to the plague. He forced the civil officials to do justice for the people; beheading at least one magistrate who had seriously abused his office. Rome and the Papal States became Christian again, much more than just in name.
And, under Pope Pius' direction, a military league was formed to deal with the new rising of Islam. Pius himself spent 3 days each week in fasting, and he urged the entire Christian world to pray the Rosary for Christian victory, and to support the efforts of the league. To make a long story short, it was on this day, the First Sunday in October 1571, that the Christian forces under Don Juan of Austria defeated the Turks in the decisive naval battle of Lepanto just southwest of Greece. The pope, who was praying his Rosary at the moment of conquest, became aware through a vision that victory had taken place two weeks before messengers bearing the news could arrive! This feast day was celebrated every year in commemoration of Our Lady's role in bringing about that victory—at first under the title of “Our Lady of Victories,” and later the title of “Our Lady of the Rosary.”
My whole point in recounting this story, is not so much to teach a history lesson (although knowing about these things is always good), as to suggest that the comprehensive way in which Pope St. Pius V dealt with the Church's problems in the 16th century is the way that the Church needs to deal with its problems today (and always), and the way in which we need to deal with out own problems.
In all cases, we need to deal with our problems under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and through the use of her Rosary. We need to deal with our own internal problems—the state of our soul, and our own personal holiness—before trying to change the things around us. The Mass and our prayer life must be paramount; we must deal with those around us with both justice and charity; we must know our Catholic Faith. And we must confront the realities of the world around us with “real world” solutions—it would be wrong to minimize the value of prayer in securing the battle of Lepanto, but it would also be wrong to minimize the role played by well trained and heroic fighting men. But yet, if there is any single message in today's observance, it is the need to pray the Rosary. Mary is the “Mother of the Church, ” the “Help of Christians,” the “Health of the Sick, ” and the “Consolation of the Afflicted,” every bit as much as she is “Our Lady of Victories”—and perhaps because she is Our Lady of the Rosary.