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How the Church Has Changed the World: Europe Set Free


The young priest quietly opened the door to the private chambers of his superior.

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piusSaint Pope Pius V

He was holding a tray with some bread and cheese and wine.  Before him, kneeling on the floor, was an old man in a white robe.  His head was bowed, and his lean countenance bore the furrows of long habits of severe self-discipline.  In his hands was a black rosary.  His fingers moved from one bead to the next.

"Holy Father," said the priest, "I have brought you some refreshment."

A slight nod from the old man was the only reply.  The priest set the tray on a table and left the chambers, shutting the door.  In the halls he met one of his fellow servants.  "On his knees," was all he said.  The old man had been on his knees all night.

From an open window came the fresh breeze of the fall, a sunny, musty scent of hayricks and ripening fruit.  A man with a cart full of apples trundled down the street, calling out his wares.  Children played a noisy game with a ball.  Women came back from the baker's with baskets of loaves, balancing them on their heads with one hand, the other hand free for Italian conversation.  All over the city near the sea, and in a hundred seaport cities all over Europe, there were these sights and sounds and smells; but in Rome that old man knelt and prayed, because on his shoulders lay the burden of this decisive morning, October 7, 1571.

Then he rose and joined the cardinals in consistory.  Work to be done.

De Profundis

Sometimes, the once in a week when Joao smiled, you could see that he had been a beautiful youth, with glossy dark hair and high cheekbones, but in a moment that hint of beauty would harden into settled hopelessness and hatred, like a mask.  He was a merchant's son from Oporto, and had had the rounded muscles of a young man used to loading and unloading ships, with their barrels of wine and oil and casks of spices, muscles softened by the sleek flesh you get when you eat well and drink well.  Now all that was left of him was bone and sinew, and the mask.  Most of his hair had fallen out.  His skin was taut and yellow, with hardly a shred to hide his nakedness.  The stench of human excretion round about him was abominable.  Lice nested in his hair and crawled upon his flesh, but he had ceased to care.  His feet were in irons and his hands dared not let go of the oar.

In the hull of that galley were two hundred prisoners, many of them Christians seized by Turkish raiders from ships at sea or from the ports exposed to their piracy.

A turbaned Turk with a whip lashed about him left and right, crying, "Pull, pull!" In the hull of that galley were two hundred prisoners, many of them Christians seized by Turkish raiders from ships at sea or from the ports exposed to their piracy.  Joao was one of those galley slaves.  He'd once hoped to be sold back for ransom, but the hope had passed.  All he knew of the outside world was what he managed to pick up from the scattered Turkish he had learned in the past two years.  He would die in this stinking hull.  There was no question of that.  But he prayed that his tormentors would sink to the bottom of the sea with him.  For this morning they were going into battle.  He had no idea what day it was.

He had no idea what month it was, though it seemed, from the little he could glimpse through the oar-holes, that the days were growing shorter.

"Break their teeth in their mouths, O Lord," he prayed, "break the teeth of the lions!"

A More Pleasant Meeting

It's the same day, in Vienna.  A small congregation of men have gathered in the cellarage of a local nobleman whose protection they enjoy.  Farther down the Danube River, the Turks are well established, so that Vienna has long been a city under siege.  Its people have been riven with dissent; some are Catholic, some favor Luther, some favor Calvin, and some, like the men in the cellarage, look upon all of the others alike as dreadful heretics.  These men are called by their enemies Anabaptists, meaning people who baptize themselves all over again, considering the baptism in infancy to be of no effect.

"Don John and the fleets from Genoa and Venice set sail ten days ago," says their leader.  Don John is the brother of the Hapsburg king of Austria, Maximilian.

"Then the League of Evil meets the infidel upon the high sea," he continues.  "If the League should be victorious, then the Turks will be hungry for vengeance.  We should then expect the Danube to run red with Austrian blood.  That may well be to our purpose.  We shall be masters then, since the Turk will never be able to hold the city without our assistance.  If the Turks are victorious, then Don John is put to shame and the Archpriest of Satan is foiled."

"Either way," says one of his fellows, "there is something to seek, and something to fear."

"Let us then pray that the will of God be done."

They are not thinking of men such as Joao, but then, Vienna is not a town on the seacoast.

Queen and Devoted Subject

The royal court in Windsor.  A woman with red hair, something too pointed of a nose, shrewd active eyes, and restless hands, looks at the young seaman before her.

"So," she says, "you have been peppering Spanish ships in the Indies, have you?"

"Yes, my liege."

The pope had ordered that all the men aboard should be shriven before battle, and should pray the rosary.

"Yet you return to my court with holes in your shoes and a hat that a bargeman would be ashamed to wear."

"We must both give and take in battle, my liege."  But he was smoldering.

"You should be more careful than to measure your might in battle with my brother of Spain," said the queen, with a wry grin.  The king of Spain, Philip II, was the husband of her none too beloved sister Mary, who now lay moldering in her tomb.

"I shall be to them like a fiery thorn," he replied.  "If you will help me to rig a ship.  Your majesty, only a few thousand pounds" — but she stopped him.  She squeezed the pommels of her throne as a man might squeeze an orange.

"I do not finance pirates," she said.  "But if you should like a ship to bring me news and commodities from distant islands and coastlands," she said, wryly, "I shall not take it amiss.  I cannot afford anything lavish, you understand."

"Perfectly, your majesty."

Then she twisted her form upon the throne as her mind returned to a preoccupation.  "You have been defeated by Spaniards," she said, with some scorn.

"As I said, my queen, we gave and we took."

The Holy League, we hear, will set upon the Turk in the Greek seas.  Perhaps they are even now at it.  What think you?" She seemed to be asking a sailor about naval warfare, but in her mind's eye she saw an old crabbed man penning the writ that excommunicated her from the Church, her, a throned monarch!  Yet she knew that England was stuffed hill of cousins with royal blood.  The pestilent Cardinal Pole himself had been one of them.  Indeed, her firmest legal claim to the throne was that she happened to be sitting upon it.

"No cause for worry," he said.  "The Turks are unmatched on the water."

"God's blood!" she spluttered.  "You take much upon you!  You think I wish the death of Christians at the hands of infidels?" But she calmed down and motioned him to come forward, extending her hand to kiss.

"Master Drake," she said, "you shall have your ship."

You Teach my Fingers to Fight

We are on board the royal ship of the Christian fleet, off the port of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571.  The pope had ordered that all the men aboard should be shriven before battle, and should pray the rosary.  Strict discipline must be maintained.  No coarse or blasphemous language; no grumbling; no excess of meat or drink.  Don John was meeting with the other chiefs.  What should they do?  The weather was poor, and they appeared to be outnumbered, and the Turk had long been master of the sea.  Many of the chiefs recommended delay, to wait for a more propitious time.

"My lord," said one of the admirals, "I am not a learned man, nor can I tell the future, but Peter has commanded the attack, and I will put my trust in him!"

"So be it then!" said Don John.  "We will attack!"

The Poles would, time and again, drive the Turks back down the Danube, saving Europe from the east.

And they did.  Far away in Rome, the old man suddenly rose from among the cardinals, looked out the window, and cried, "Enough of business!  We must now thank God for the victory he has given the Christian army!"

The Battle of Lepanto marked the beginning of the end of Turkish dominance in the Mediterranean, setting the ports free of the terror from the east.  Thousands of galley slaves like Joao were liberated.  A young Spanish nobleman whom we know well as Cervantes fought valiantly in the battle and lost the use of one hand; he was ever after to boast that it was the greatest thing he had ever done in his life.  The Poles would, time and again, drive the Turks back down the Danube, saving Europe from the east.  Merchants in the north of Europe could ply their trades because Spanish, Italian, Austrian, and Polish soldiers made it possible.  They saved the continent for freedom.

When confirmation of the victory reached Rome, the city erupted into joyous celebration.  A new feast day was declared: the Feast of the Holy Rosary.

The old man in Rome died the next year.  We call him Saint Pius V.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Europe Set Free." Magnificat (October, 2016): 204-209.

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The Author


Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.

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