“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
1571 AD The Battle of Lepanto: Our Lady’s Naval Victory
The Islamic threat started in the seventh century when Arabs began their attacks on Christian Europe. One of the most famous battles was the Battle of Tours in 732 AD when Charles “the Hammer” Martel took a stand and defeated Islamic forces.
In the East, the Byzantine Empire was also under siege. Pope Urban II urged the Western kingdoms to organize Crusades, military expeditions to help Constantinople in the fight against Arab and Seljuk Turks and to reclaim the Holy Land.
Then came the Ottoman Turks with their powerful military and their goal of Islamic imperialism. While Europe continued to be distracted by domestic problems, plagues, schisms and multiple claimants to the Papal throne, the Muslims were building up their armies. They developed a way of building up “fanatically devoted soldiers,” called Janissaires by kidnapping young boys from the lands they occupied and turning them into “little Muslims.” Through education, rigorous physical training, circumcision and demanding loyalty to their captors, these boys were turned into an elite fighting group and the Sultan’s bodyguards.
Islam’s imperative is to convert the world to their religion. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed said it best: “The empire of the world must be one, one faith and one kingdom.”
With that goal, they moved in on Eastern Europe. Western Europe was too pre-occupied with its own problems to be much help when the Turks entered inadequately armed Hungary. If they could conquer Belgrade, then “all of southeastern Europe would be open to the Muslim armies.”
John Hunyadi, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army fought them bravely. The siege lasted three weeks in July 1456. The Hungarian army was “pitifully small and untrained.” Dangerously close to losing the fight, it was St. John of Capistrano who reassured the troops. Speaking of a vision he had where the Lord said, “Fear not, John. Go down quickly. In the power of my name and of the Holy Cross, thou wilt conquer the Turks,” he gathered volunteers and rallied the Hungarian army. “During the fighting, the tireless Capistrano would stand on a high point of the shore, within sight of both Turks and Christians, waving a banner of the cross and calling out the name of Jesus.” His battle cry was: “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” By July 22, the battle was over and the Turks were defeated. John Hunyadi died of illness shortly after and St. John of Capistrano died shortly after him.
With Hunyadi gone, Pope Callixtus needed a new warrior for Christendom. He chose Gjergj Scanderbeg, an Albanian, as the new commander-in-chief. The “Champion of Christ,” he held off the Islamic armies until his death in 1468. The Muslim Turkish army finally conquered Albania, positioning themselves closer to the West.
In the next century, Suleiman the Magnificent became the Ottoman ruler and the Ottoman Empire expanded. “The Turks controlled the Persian Gulf and all the trade routes to the East. North Africa from Egypt to Algeria belonged to them, while the Moors, defeated at Granada in Spain in 1492, were eager to ally with the Ottomans and reinvade the Iberian Peninsula.” Onward they moved, conquering Hungary in 1526.
Now it was time to conquer Vienna, “the gateway from Eastern to Western Europe.” Thankfully, Suleiman was unsuccessful.
When Suleiman died, his weak, drunkard son, Selim, succeeded him. During his reign the Ottomans continued their imperative of converting the world to Islam.
Pope St. Pius V perceived the threat but the rest of western Europe didn’t respond. Only Philip II of Spain gave a half-hearted attempt by sending his half-brother Don Juan of Austria and a few dozen ships. Don Juan managed to garner a small fleet of volunteers and 208 ships, much less than what the Muslims had. This small army was known as the Holy League. Pope St. Pius asked all of Europe to pray the rosary to ensure victory and when the fleet set sail from Messina on Sept. 16, 1571, “all of the men had rosaries, too.”
In the early morning of October 7, 1571, the Battle of Lepanto began. The battle was horrific. G.K. Chesterton described it thus:
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds………
Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Pius suddenly halted a meeting with his treasurer. He stood up, walked to the window and announced: “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” He had seen a vision of the Holy League’s victory. Pope Pius V pronounced October 7 as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. Later, it was changed to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
In time the Turks would rebuild and they would continue to be a menace until 1922. By then they were known as “the sick man of Europe.” After World War I, the Europeans divided up their conquests in the Middle East.
But the Islamic threat didn’t die. Diane Moczar ends the chapter on this note:
“One might have thought at that time that any further threat to the West from Islam was a pipe dream. Instead, it turned out to be a nightmare, one that has now come true. The British agents who taught the Arab subjects of the Ottomans to revolt against them found that – surprise – they later did the same to their Western ‘saviors.’ When those saviors then placed a Jewish state in the midst of the volatile nations they had arbitrarily created, they raised Arab consciousness still further. The rest we know. We might yet have need of another Hunyadi, Scanderbeg, or Don John of Austria in our time.”