Pope Pius, who had done more than anyone to make the Christian victory at Lepanto possible, is said to have burst into tears when news of it reached him.

They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,

They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,

And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,

And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross …

G.K. Chesterton (“Lepanto”)

For those who are familiar with G. K. Chesterton’s glorious poem, “Lepanto”, St. Pius V will always be the pope who “called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross”. His heroic holiness during the crisis of 1571, when it looked as though the forces of Islam were once more threatening to overrun Europe, deserves to be branded on the conscience and consciousness of all civilized people. This aspect of Pius’ papacy, seen in the context of his other achievements, was summarized by his eighteenth century biographer:

Zeal for the Kingdom of Christ was our Holy Pope’s predominant virtue; for while he was thus employed in restoring the Faith in Europe, and propagating it to the most distant parts of the known world, he was as industrious in his endeavours to stop the progress of the common enemy of our most holy religion, who took advantage of the divisions of Christendom, and attacked Malta. [1]

The “common enemy of our most holy religion” was, of course, Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire. The siege of Malta, to which the anonymous biographer refers, actually took place in 1565, the year before Pius became pope, but one of his first acts as pontiff was to send large sums of money to Malta so that the fortifications could be rebuilt and a new town could be erected on the rubble of the old. He also declared the first year of his papacy a Jubilee, exhorting the faithful to penance and almsgiving to obtain the victory from God over the militaristic might of the Muslims. Apart from his financial support for the Knights of Malta, he also sent money for the fortification of towns throughout Italy, furnished monthly contributions to the besieged Christians of Hungary, and worked tirelessly to bring the major Christian powers together for the defense of Christendom. In 1571, a year after the Turks had attacked Cyprus, thereby threatening to dominate the Mediterranean, Pius was instrumental in the founding of the Holy League, an alliance of nations and city states, including Spain and most of the states in what is now modern Italy. Although he tried to persuade the Holy Roman Empire and France to join the League, they both refused. The Empire preferred to maintain its truce with the Ottoman Turks, while France was actually in league with the Muslims, forming an anti-Spanish alliance with them.

Pius sent his blessing to Don John of Austria, the commander-in-chief of the Holy League’s fleet, urging him to leave behind all soldiers of evil life, and promising him victory if he did so. As the Christian fleet headed west to meet the Turkish fleet in battle, Pius ordered public prayers, and increased his own supplications to heaven. As for the Battle of Lepanto itself, which took place on October 7, 1571, we could do worse than to take up Harry Crocker’s action-packed and triumphalist strain:

When the two forces collided, it was the largest naval engagement in the history of Christendom. Galleys crashed into each other, grappling hooks secured them, and armed men leapt at each other’s throats, arrow against harquebus, scimitar versus sword, blasting muskets meeting charging pikes.…

At battle’s end, 7,500 Christian combatants were dead, compared to between 20-30,000 Turks. On a brighter note, thousands of Christian slaves, perhaps as many as 12,000, chained below decks as rowers for the Turkish ships, had been freed. The Christian victory was a devastating blow for the Ottoman Empire, which lost all but thirty of its ships, and was the most decisive naval battle since the Battle of Actium in 31BC.

Pope Pius, who had done more than anyone to make the Christian victory possible, is said to have burst into tears when news of the victory reached him. In gratitude for this triumph and the devastating blow that it had dealt to the power of Islam, he instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory [2] to celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Lepanto. He also added to the Litany of Loreto the supplication “Help of Christians” (Auxilium Christianorum), in honour of the role that he believed the intercession of the Blessed Virgin had played in bringing victory to the Christian forces.

On May 1, 1572, a few short months after the victory at Lepanto, Pius V died. He would be canonized in 1713, the official recognition that the Holy Pope who had founded the Holy League had gone to bask in a Glory beyond all the victories that this world has to offer.

This is an extract from Joseph Pearce’s book, Heroes of the Catholic Reformation

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[1] Anonymous, The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2, op. cit., p. 241

[2] Now usually known as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Church still celebrates the victory of Lepanto every year on October 7.

The featured image is “Papa pio V ridà a don giovanni d’austria il titolo di vicerè di sicilia dopo la battaglia di lepanto” (c. 1600-20) by Francesco Brizio. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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