On October 7 2021, on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto, the Roman Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Maestro Mons. Pablo Colino, performed in Rome, in the church of Saint Ignatius, a celebratory concert dedicated to Mary Most Holy. St. Pius V. The Holy Rosary. Professor Roberto de Mattei, president of the Lepanto Foundation, spoke the words presented here.RORATE CÆLI: Roberto de Mattei: Speech on the 450th Anniversary of the Victory of Lepanto, in the Church of St. Ignatius, Rome – “A moment engraved in golden letters in the history of the Christian West.”
We are here to remember and celebrate an event and its protagonists. The event is the victory of Lepanto on October 7 1571, the 450th anniversary of which occurs today. Who were the protagonists and the architects of the victory to which we dedicate this concert today? To understand this we must go back in time, to that day of October 7, which is engraved in golden letters in the history of the Christian West.
Art has immortalized that day of triumph. Suffice it to recall the famous painting by Paolo Veronese, entitled Allegory of the battle of Lepanto, kept in the galleries of the Venice Academy. This painting focuses on the crucial moment of the battle, which took place on the afternoon of October 7. In the lower part of the canvas the painter depicts the furious melee of the fighters, against the background of a sea, dark and agitated, in which the galleys are enveloped in smoke and fire. At the top of the painting we see saints and angels paying homage to the Virgin of the Rosary and hurling lightning bolts upon the Turkish vessels.
But let us remove ourselves from the fray and try to return in memory to that moment of supreme silence which preceded the start of the battle. This is not fantasy, it is history, it is reality.
It is eleven in the morning. The Angels and saints, who are not oblivious to human affairs but participate in them with more intensity and clairvoyance than do the men who experience them, are contemplating from Heaven an extraordinary scene. The sea of Greece, at the latitude of the Calzolari islands, sparkles in the rays of the sun, while two fleets, the most imposing that the Mediterranean has ever seen, advance against each other, preparing for a deadly clash.
The first fleet, which forms a large crescent, comes from the East and moves fast with the wind in its sails. On the mainmast of its flagship galley flutters a green standard from Mecca, bearing the name of Allah embroidered 28,900 times in gold letters. The second fleet is deployed in the form of a Cross and from the west moves towards the enemy against the wind, powered only by its oars. Who makes up this fleet? Its commander it is a young man of 24 who wears around his neck the relic of a fragment of the Cross given to him by the pope. His name is John of Austria, son of Emperor Charles V, half-brother of the king of Spain Philip II.
Alongside his galley are those commanded by a Roman prince, Marcantonio Colonna, admiral of the pontifical fleet, and by a seventy-five-year-old Venetian patrician, Sebastiano Venier. On the left wing of the deployment Agostino Barbarigo commands the fleet of Venice; on the right wing Gianandrea Doria leads that of Genoa. The rearguard fleet is commanded by the Spaniard Don Alvaro de Bazan. On the two hundred and forty galleys of this fleet, thirty thousand fighters are at this moment on their knees. Only the priests are standing. Jesuits on the Spanish ships, Capuchins on the pontifical ones, Dominicans and Franciscans on those of Genoa, Venice, and Savoy. They have just celebrated Mass. The theme of all the homilies was “no heaven for cowards.” Then on each ship there is a proclamation of the papal bull granting a plenary indulgence to all those who may fall while fighting the infidels. With solemn gestures the priests impart general absolution.
Then, on the mast of Don Giovanni’s flagship, the great banner of the Holy League is hoisted, bearing the image of the Crucifix on its blue background. A cry explodes and runs through all the ranks, repeating itself like an echo from ship to ship: “Victory!” There we have it.
We are here today to pay homage to those men who prayed, fought, and won. Many of them are resting, until the day of the Resurrection, in the waters of the Mediterranean. Others went home and are buried in different corners of Europe where they await the day of judgment. On that day, having repented of their sins, they will be able to turn their gaze with confidence to the Divine Savior, murmuring: “I was at Lepanto.”
However, if this day of glory was possible the credit goes above all to one man who was spiritually present at Lepanto: the holy pontiff Pius V, to whom we paid homage today in the chapel that houses his remains in Saint Mary Major. It was he who, from the first day of his pontificate, made one of his many goals that of defending Christianity from the danger of Islam. To this end he used all his strength, created the Holy League and supported it with financial means, men at arms and, above all, with prayer. When the battle ended at five in the evening on Sunday October 7 1571, Pius V was examining the accounts with his general treasurer Bartolomeo Bussotti. All of a sudden, almost moved by an irresistible impulse, he got up, opened the window, and stared toward the east as if absorbed in contemplation; then he turned back, his eyes shining with a divine light: “Let us not deal with business anymore,” he exclaimed, “but let us go to thank God, because our armada has just won the victory.”
The episode is historical and was one of the miracles recognized for the canonization of Saint Pius V. Official news of the victory did not get to Rome until fifteen days later, brought by a courier who arrived from Venice on the night of October 21. The pope burst into tears of joy, uttering the words of the aged Simeon: nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine (…) quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum (Lk 2:29-30) Saint Pius V was convinced that the true victress of the battle of Lepanto was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ordered an addition to the Litany of Loreto: “Auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis,” establishing a feast in honor of Our Lady of Victory, which was later turned into that of Our Lady of the Rosary.
We too are convinced of the Virgin Mary’s decisive role in history. All the evil that, from the first sin until today, renews itself on the earth every day comes from men; all the good that spreads itself over the earth comes from God. But God has arranged that the good He communicates to men, the spiritual and material graces He bestows, fruit of the redeeming sacrifice of the Incarnate Word, should reach men through Mary’s hand. There is no grace that does not pass through the hands of Mary, there is no victory that cannot attributed to her. And She, Mary, was the true architect of the triumph of Lepanto, as the Venetian senate had inscribed in its meeting hall with these words: “Non virtus, non arma, non duces, sed Maria Rosarii, victores nos fecit.” “Not valor, not weapons, not leaders, but Our Lady of the Rosary made us victors.”
Mary triumphs, in time and in eternity, in souls and in all of society. But in order to triumph Mary needs our cooperation, our correspondence to her graces. The splendid choir we are about to listen to is more important than my poor words, and the Holy Rosary we recite touches Heaven more than music and words do. But these words, this music, this Rosary, testify to the awareness of a truth of faith that we proclaim aloud: “We can do everything with Mary, nothing without her.” This truth fills us with confidence, gives us courage, makes us certain of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, of which we would like to be instruments with our small everyday gestures, like that of today, in which we are gathered to remember and celebrate Mary Queen of Victory, and with her the great Saint Pius V and all the combatants who, not only at Lepanto, but also in its spirit, have lived and died in defense of the Church and of Christian civilization.
Note: The Lepanto Foundation celebrated the 450th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto with two events on the day of the anniversary, 7 October. In the afternoon, a Mass in the traditional Roman rite was celebrated by Mgr Marco Agostini in front of the tomb of St. Pius V in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, accompanied by the choir of the parish of St. Stephen of Hungary who came from Pennsylvania especially for the event. In the evening, the Vatican Philharmonic Choir, directed by Msgr. Pablo Colino, held a festive concert dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Pius V and the Holy Rosary on the 450th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto in the church of St Ignatius. During the concert the event of 1571 was commemorated by Professor Roberto de Mattei, president of the Lepanto Foundation and author of a recent book dedicated to Saint Pius V: Story of a Holy Pope (Sophia Institute Press and Lindau 2021).