As nearly 300 Ottoman ships closed in on Europe, intent on conquest and toppling the cross above St. Peter’s Basilica to replace it with their own banner, Pope Pius V called for another crusade. But this crusade, called in 1571, was not to be one of weapons but one of prayer — most especially the Rosary.
Pius V, a Dominican (and now a saint), decreed that every church in Rome be kept perpetually open and available for prayer and called on all Christians across Europe to join him in fervently praying the Rosary.
Hundreds of miles away, Constantinople, the last vestige of the once mighty Roman Empire, had already fallen to the rising power of the Ottomans.
It seemed that the Ottoman invasion was inevitable, as its empire had spread to Egypt, North Africa, and the Balkans. One by one, Christian islands had begun to fall as the Ottomans moved to envelop the entire Mediterranean world.
Now, Rome itself was poised to topple before the new seemingly irresistible world force.
Rather than waiting for the enemy to come knocking at Rome’s gate, the Pope had helped to organize the “Holy League,” a fleet of various Catholic states, including Roman, Venetian and Spanish ships under the command of Prince Juan of Austria.
With just more than 200 ships, the Holy League had set out to meet the Ottomans in what would end up being a turning point in the history of Europe and the world.
Just off the coasts of Greece, in the Ionian Sea, the Holy League met the Ottomans at the shores of Lepanto (modern Návpaktos).
It is said that crew members throughout the Holy League fleet spiritually joined Christians across Europe by praying the Rosary as the battle drew near.
On Oct. 7, 1571, the two fleets finally met. Though outnumbered, the Christian force was more disciplined.
What ensued has been called the last great galley battle in which hundreds of ships fired upon, rammed and boarded each other. At one point, Prince Juan’s ship was rammed by the Ottoman leader Ali Pasha, and the two men engaged in heated hand-to-hand combat.
Ali Pasha was killed; and after hours more of fighting, his fleet dissipated, with some ships escaping to the open sea, while hundreds of others were captured by the Christians.
Lepanto was a complete victory for the Christians.