If you were raised Catholic, you might know October as the month of the rosary. The rosary, in the Catholic tradition, is a string of beads where each bead represents a prayer.
During the years I was in Catholic school, we’d be told to sit by the grotto and pray a decade every day of October. A decade is a fifth of the rosary: ten Hail Marys, an Our Father, and Glory Be. To be fair, most of us just sat around by the grotto and gossiped. But the rosary and its connection to the month of October has a gossip-worthy story relating back to political and historical events—none as peaceful as prayer would suggest.
According to Catholic legend going as far back as the Middle Ages, the spirit of Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to St. Dominic de Guzman and gave him the rosary as a method of prayer. Keep in mind, this story is has been disputed by theologians and religious scholars and, like most medieval legends (and gossip), the story of the rosary has adapted and evolved over time. But the tradition of the rosary remained important in the minds of many Catholic popes for centuries—most importantly, Pius V.
In the 16th century, Pope Pius V was part of the Dominican Order of Preachers, a religious order of the Catholic Church that based its practices on St. Dominic. But the 16th century was also the time of the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, as the Ottoman Empire became more powerful and expanded toward Central and Western Europe. One of those expansions included a humiliating loss by Venice to the Ottomans. The island of Cyprus, a Venitian outpost, was invaded shortly after by Selim II, the emperor of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Venice turned to Pius V for help.
The Catholic Church had significant political influence over Europe at the time, bankrolling countries and wars. Pius V had been waiting for something like this to bring together the Roman Catholic countries—but the rest of the gang was preoccupied. Concurrently, there was the Protestant Reformation, the French-Habsburg rivalry, and other ongoing revolts. It took almost an entire year after Cyrus had already been taken that the pope was finally able to rally everyone together.
In a cross-over that would put the Avengers to shame, the cast included Habsburg Spain, Venice, Malta, Genoa, and a few other Catholic states. Pius V called this the Holy League, primarily led by Don Juan de Austria, the half brother of King Phillip II of Spain. It took some wrangling, but it all came together at the Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle in the Gulf of Patras.
The Battle of Lepanto took place on October 7, 1571. Long story short, the Holy League defeated the Ottomans in a decisive victory. Some historians argue that this battle has significant ramifications, shaping the way that Western and Christian Europe saw itself in relation to the Turks. But in the immediate aftermath, news of the victory spread fast across Europe. Pius V, as a Dominican priest, was quick to attribute the victory to the divine intervention of Mary and praying the rosary. He instituted “Our Lady of Victory” to celebrate the win and dedicated October to prayer.
Obviously, it was not the end. Pius V died the next year and the Holy League would disintegrate. By 1573, Venice would sign another peace treaty with the Ottomans, recognizing the Turkish sovereignty over Cyprus. Moreover, the Ottoman-Habsburg wars would continue well into the 18th century.
The religious dedication to the rosary that Pius V instituted back then continues today, in the 21st century, bringing us back to the month of October.
Today, the Catholic Church is not the same political force that it was then, and the separation of church and state has become a norm in many countries, even Italy, at the heart of which the Vatican State resides. But it’s worth remembering that while politics and religion have commonly been referred to as “strange bedfellows,” they’ve also been comrades in war. And while this background is not necessarily common knowledge among most Catholics, the rosary is just one of many religious practices today that are rooted in political history.
Most Catholics simply celebrate the month of October by praying the rosary every day. I remember in my last year of Catholic school, we were asked to make rosaries out of clay. These rosaries were to be gifted to teachers and local parishioners. But I was late to class and left with the unwanted colors: orange, purple, and brown. “It’s so ugly. It looks like the colors of my grandmother’s house,” my friend said. I agreed and resigned myself to making the ugliest rosary necklace that ever existed.
A few minutes later, the religion teacher passed by. “See, those are just the perfect, earth-tone colors for a rosary,” she said, oblivious to our looks. There is no way to sugarcoat this: her words couldn’t make it pretty, but when she walked away, it added humor to this otherwise serious activity. In some small way, it reminds me that—amid the Catholic Church’s devotional prayers and seriousness around rosaries in October—the background of these symbols and events can be silly, strange, and simply human-made.
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