The instructions for this practice homily were for (a) the subject to be on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, October 7th; and (b) to use either the readings of the day, or the readings from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I chose the later, with the First Reading from Gen 3:9-15, 20.
The world has just learned that three more Assyrian Christians have been executed in a particularly barbaric way by ISIS… who’ve promised to continue this murderous campaign if the Christians of the Middle East don’t submit. Pope Francis has repeatedly tried to call our attention to the ongoing genocide of these Christians, and that’s exactly what it is: a systematic attempt to wipe Christians off of the map, permanently.
All of this bloodshed is being perpetrated in the name of a radical and expansionist form of Islam. To be sure, this isn’t the only form of Islam practiced, but it is nothing new, either. From the very beginning, there have been groups, beginning with Muhammad himself, who sought to spread Islam by the sword.
In the sixteenth century, it seemed like they might actually succeed in crushing Christianity. Let me set the stage a little bit. By this time, the Church in the Middle East and North Africa has been virtually destroyed. The Crusaders are long gone. The prior century, the Ottoman sultan had conquered Constantinople, a city previously believed to be unconquerable, and declared himself the new Roman Emperor. The Ottomans made no secret of their plot to conquer Europe and destroy the Church. And they seemed strong enough to achieve it.
Under Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the greatest military commanders in history, the Ottomans made it all the way to the gates of Vienna, Austria, right in the heart of Europe. After this, Suleiman turned his attention from the land to the sea, and started mounting a massive expansion of Ottoman power in the Mediterranean.
And what was Europe doing during this time? Tearing itself to pieces. The Reformation pitted Protestant countries against Catholic ones, and none of them rushed to help the Eastern Orthodox kingdoms falling like dominoes under the Ottoman boot. And even the various Catholic countries were so consumed with nationalism and self-interest that they continually betrayed each other, and all of Christendom, for short-term gain.
So, how was Europe saved, then? How was Christianity saved? Pope St. Pius V organized a “Holy League” of southern European nations to assemble a fleet of ships to combat the Ottomans. And yet the Christians were still woefully outmatched. But Pius has another, greater tool in his arsenal: he called upon Christians across Europe to pray the Rosary.
Pope Pius was a Dominican, and if you’ve ever seen the Dominican habit, they have a Rosary on their left hips. Why there? Because that’s where a knight put his sword. It is a recognition that the Rosary is a powerful spiritual weapon.
And this tool worked, just as he had hoped. In 1571, at the naval battle of Lepanto, as a result of the heartfelt rosaries and prayers of believers across the continent, the Holy League pulled off an incredible victory and forever stopped the Ottoman invasion of Europe. In response, the pope declared October 7th a feast day for Our Lady of Victories, the feast that we now call Our Lady of the Rosary.
I share all of this, both to explain what we’re celebrating today, but also to call us to a greater love for the Rosary. You know, “rosary” comes from the Latin “rosarium,” meaning a garland or a crown of roses. When you pray the Rosary, it’s like you’re bringing a beautiful boutique to your mother. And that image is true, and it’s beautiful. But it risks telling only half the truth. It can come off as overly sentimental; and worse, it focuses on our efforts, what we’re doing for her.
Today’s feast tells us the other half of the story. The Rosary isn’t just a crown of roses, but a spiritual sword. It corrects our mushy view of a weakling Mary, too dainty to be of any use in the spiritual life. The Mary we celebrate today is the same one we hear prophesied in the First Reading, who makes war against the devil, and who – along with her Divine Son – crushes the head of Satan. We go to her not simply because she enjoys our flowers, but because we need her sword.