Lepanto, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (formerly, Our Lady of Victory), and Living with Islam Today

The title of this post proclaims that I am both an insider, for I write as a Catholic and erstwhile historian, and an outsider, for I also write as a Benedictine trained in an English tradition which regards the rosary as a purely private devotion and I am clearly not a Muslim. However, it is the nearest I can get to ‘thinking aloud’ about the significance of this day and the focus it puts on something many of us find perplexing and, at times, troubling: how Christians in the UK live with Islam.

Some Obligatory Historical Background
If you want an overview of the Battle of Lepanto and its importance from a European perspective, I suggest you read this Wikepedia post. It’s not too long, and it does note the link between between the rosary and the victory over the Ottoman Empire. Pius V instituted ‘Our Lady of Victory’ as an annual feast to commemorate the victory, which he attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dedications to Our Lady of Victory had preceded this papal declaration. For example, Simon de Montfort  built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Albigensians at the Battle of Muret on 12 September 1213.  However, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the feast from ‘Our Lady of Victory’ to ‘The Holy Rosary‘. Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the General Roman Calendar in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope St Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913, as part of his effort de-clutter the Sunday liturgy of devotional feasts and commemorations. In 1960 Pope St John XXIII changed the title to ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.

A Contemporary Dilemma
You can see from the above that today’s feast confronts us with something our politicians are often nervous about: the Christian origins of Europe. Anyone who, like me, has been a student of Spanish history, will readily acknowledge the interplay of Judaism and Islam with the Christian history of Europe, including not only the contributions made by Jews and Muslims but also the terrible sufferings unjustly inflicted on those who did not conform to the religious norms of the day. The problem, as I see it, is that today we are both hesitant about identifying with our Christian heritage and woefully ignorant about the difference between mainstream Islam and the Wahabist perversion of it that has perpetrated so much terror and violence — chiefly, let it be said, against other Muslims.

When Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an academic lecture in Regensburg, quoted (without any approval or identification with the sentiments of the author) a few sentences expressing a negative view of Islam, he released a maelstrom. Many commentators dismissed the pope as out of touch, prejudiced, etc, etc. They did not bother to read what he actually said, nor did they understand or care about the context in which he spoke. He simply failed to conform to their ideas of what was acceptable. Others seized on his words to ‘justify’ their hate-filled torrents of abuse (in both directions). It was ugly; it was unnecessary; but it was also revealing.

It would be foolish to deny that Christians in the UK do have a problem with Islam. Most of us have Muslim friends whom we love and respect and know to be as far away from from being terrorists (the usual accusation) as it is possible to be. We also know that the media aren’t very interested in stories about mutual co-operation and help. They bear a great responsibility for the negativity towards Islam in this country. But it wouldn’t be honest, either, to dismiss the concerns of people who are troubled by the way in which some elements of Islamic practice seem to be undermining historical freedoms and customs. Many are concerned, for example, about the operation of Sharia courts, instances of the separation of men and women at university lectures, or the use of Halal meat in general catering. It isn’t just an unease with difference (think how exotic Catholicism seemed to the average Englishman of a hundred years ago!), but a sense that something important we can’t quite identify and can’t in any way control is being changed.

I see today’s feast as an invitation to reflect and pray about my own attitides — from my wimpish silence at times about what I truly believe to my casual complicity with views I’ve been too lazy to think or do anything about. That may not sound very much, but in the past it has made me read the Koran and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. It has also made me challenge, at least interiorly, much of the media’s speculation about the motives of others and their narratives of Islam in the UK. I think it matters because to believe something untrue about another is a great injustice; it is an even greater injustice to act out of that untruth. It is also, for a Christian, wrong to deny our Christian heritage or play down or dismiss its importance for today. The key to reconciling these sometimes contradictory aspirations is surely the search for truth and the desire to live in peace and harmony with all. May Our Lady, revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions, aid us with her prayers.

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3 thoughts on “Lepanto, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (formerly, Our Lady of Victory), and Living with Islam Today”

  1. Thank you for this. Thought provoking.

    I grew up in East London, alongside the start of the multi-cultural changes that migration brought. I can remember the fear and suspicion that seeing a different race present in our than, nearly 100 white british community, brought.

    But as man of their children came into our Catholic schools – we discovered that just like us, they wanted to learn (well some of us) and that they had families, living in the conditions of poverty and deprivation that we all shared, and wonder of wonders, they could play Cricket in the play ground, just as well as us.

    The prejudice was among the adults, whose fear of change, was cascaded to their children. My father was I discovered, quite a racsist and I really wanted to get away from that culture and I left as soon as I could to join the Army – and I don”t regret that decision, although I wonder if it was a cop out to get away from the issues that were facing the whole of the East End at the time. Poverty was still about, but relatively good jobs were easy to come by and I was working as soon as I left school. Which took me away from the East end into Central London, where it was much busier and much more enlightened.

    Now, I look back to that heritage and can see how it formed me – unconscious prejudice which I would have denied, had been there all along. But, fortunately, I had become self aware enough to recognise it and could change. And I thank God for that inspiration.

    And the Rosary – I can remember in care of our household, kneeling on hard, cold, wooden floors to pray the decades of the Rosary, which turned me off praying it for years afterwards.

    Nowadays, as an Anglican, I use it occasionally as part of a prayer discipline, and in a much more structured way, to celebrate her relationship with her son and our Saviour.

  2. This post deserves a much wider audience. Which is why I will be sharing it, in the hope that my friends will share it too. Whatever our religious beliefs, we must remember that ignorance is the father of prejudice, which generates mistrust, fear, and anger. Which puts us firmly on the road to spiritual, moral and physical destruction.
    Thank you, Digitalnun, for this piece. My respect as always to you and to Quietnun.

  3. Thank you, Dame Catherine, for this excellent thought provoking piece. I was sitting on the bus with my rosary beads when a Muslim gentleman sat next to me with his prayer beads. We both looked at what each of us was holding and this began a most interesting and stimulating conversation about what each bead meant and how important it was to pray regularly for peace and for our suffering brothers and sisters. A wonderful and treasured encounter for us both.

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