When Catholics Saved Protestants From Muslims

By Casey Chalk Published on October 6, 2018

Two generations after Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, a Catholic armada saved Protestantism. In 1571, a fleet of the Catholic “Holy League” defeated an aggressive, awe-inspiring Muslim invasion. That invasion would likely have captured not only Catholic southern Europe, but the lands of Protestantism as well.

A Growing Crisis in Europe’s South

After several hundred years of warfare, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, in 1453. Soon, they conquered the Byzantine Empire. It did not take long for this Muslim empire to look west and north.

Their sultan, Suleiman, and his son, Selim, built an impressive navy and began capturing various Christian islands throughout the Mediterranean. Their army conquered Hungary and threatened Vienna. Christians living along the coasts of southern Spain and Italy became frequent targets of Muslim pirates like Barbarossa and his brother, Dragut Rey. Entire Christian towns and villages on the coast were sacked. Inhabitants were slaughtered. Or taken aboard galleys bound for slave markets in North Africa.

For years, the pope’s appeals to Christendom to unite and defeat this growing threat went largely unheeded. There were a few successes: a small Christian garrison at Malta in 1565 repelled an assault by the largest navy ever assembled. In 1570, the Turks got their revenge by conquering Venetian-held Cyprus. They inflicted unparalleled barbarity on the Christian populace there.

That event terrified and energized the Venetians. It also unified a number of Christian powers. The challenge brought togehter Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Genoa, the Knights of Malta, and a few smaller Italian states and knightly orders. Europe’s Catholic south decided to fight for the survival of Christian Europe.

The Role of Faith

The “Holy League” fought back not only for religious reasons, of course. They fought for political and economic reasons as well. But the role of Christian faith in the battle was central.

On October 7, 1571, the Catholic navy sailed from Sicily. Pope Pius V, well aware that the Christian forces were outnumbered, called all Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. He himself led a rosary procession through Rome. The banners of the Catholic fleet under its admiral John Australia bore all manner of religious iconography, and Masses and prayers were said on board the ships as battle neared.

Though having more than sixty fewer ships and more than ten thousand fewer men, the fleet of the “Holy League” triumphed against the Ottoman navy. Historians credit much of the Christians’ success to their numerical superiority in guns and cannon as well as the superior quality of the Spanish infantry aboard many of the ships.

Not only did the battle result in the near-destruction of the entire Ottoman power, weakening the empire’s stranglehold on the Mediterranean. The Christian fleet freed more than 12,000 Christian slaves who had been forced to work in the Turkish galleys.

Prayer and Politics

Those without the eyes of faith will see in the story of Lepanto only political maneuvering, economic calculations, and the desire for fame and glory. Surely, as with all human events, there was plenty of this. Yet intimately tethered to these secular concerns was a true and abiding Christian faith on the part of the fleet of the “Holy League,” and its creator and sponsor, Pope Pius V.

If not for that religious fervor and desire to protect Christendom, victory may very well have evaded the Catholic navy that day in 1571. Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of the high expenditures and risks to personal safety taken by the Catholic states apart from the reality of their religious faith.

For the sake of His people, both Catholics and Protestants, God responded to the energetic prayers offered across Europe that day. Despite the flaws of those Christian nations, God acted through them to save Christian Europe, and 12,000 brutalized Christian slaves, besides.

At least one Protestant ruler joined the pope in thanking God for deliverance. The news reached England about a month later. Queen Elizabeth I ordered bonfires to be lit across England and prayers said in every church to thank God for deliverance. 

Note: Because of an editing mistake, this was first credited not to Casey Chalk but to David Mills. Casey Chalk is a graduate student in theology at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

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