It all started in 1571, when the Catholic League entered into battle against the Ottoman Empire to protect Italy from invasion. The Turks were on a warpath to overthrow all of Europe, killing millions of people and forcing Islamic conversion on survivors. They had conquered the Middle East and Mediterranean islands of Cyrus and Crete. Italy was next.
As the impending battle loomed, Pope Pius V called on various religious communities throughout Europe to join him in praying the rosary, including public recitations, to defeat the Islamic threat. Heading into battle, every man in the Catholic League’s forces carried a rosary. Their fleet was no match for the competition, vastly outnumbered.
Miraculously, the Catholic League returned victorious after a daylong battle known as the Battle of Lepanto that took place off the coast of Greece. In thanksgiving for Mary’s intercession and protection, Pope Pius V declared the day — October 7 — as a feast day for Our Lady of the Rosary. To celebrate, a rosary procession was held in Saint Peter’s Square.
The presence and protection of our Mother Mary has immense power — requested, channeled, and honored through the rosary. Her immaculate intercession has won wars and conquered hearts. After the feast day was established, the entire month of October was dedicated to the rosary in 1884 by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Superiore Anno:
“Last year, as each of you is aware, We decreed by an Encyclical Letter that, to win the help of Heaven for the Church in her trials, the great Mother of God should be honored by the means of the most holy Rosary during the whole of the month of October. In this We followed both Our own impulse and the example of Our predecessors, who in times of difficulty were wont to have recourse with increased fervor to the Blessed Virgin, and to seek her aid with special prayers.”
Although the commitment to the rosary was formalized in 1571, it was an established prayer long before then. The rosary was first given to Saint Dominic by the Virgin Mary during an apparition in 1214 in Prouilhe of southern France. She presented it as a source of strength and grace to persevere in his efforts to convert Albigensian heretics, saying:
“Wonder not that you have obtained so little fruit by your labors, you have spent them on barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of Divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the earth, He began by sending down on it the fertilizing rain of the Angelic Salutation. Therefore preach my Psalter composed of 150 Angelic Salutations and 15 Our Fathers, and you will obtain an abundant harvest.”
Saint Dominic went on to found the Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans. The image of Our Lady of the Rosary reflects this apparition, with Mary holding the child Jesus in one hand and the other hand extending to give the rosary beads to Saint Dominic. Pope Benedict explained the meaning behind the image in a 2007 Angelus:
“This important iconography shows that the Rosary is a means given by the Virgin to contemplate Jesus and, in meditating on his life, to love him and follow him ever more faithfully. It is this message that Our Lady has also bequeathed to us in her various apparitions.”
We know it to be one of the most recited and celebrated Catholic prayers — used to implore our Mother Mary for her intercession and blessings. Saint John Paul II expanded on the rosary’s power in his 2002 apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, when he announced the Year of the Rosary and the addition of the Luminous Mysteries:
“With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer.”
As we enter the final days of October, let us renew our devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary — reflecting on its origins saving nations and individuals in times of conflict and despair.
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Originally published in USA Today.