Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Our Lady of the Rosary - "The forgetting of history is a dangerous thing."

Sermon for the Solemnity of Our Lady of the Rosary

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla 


Today we celebrate the external solemnity of the feast of our Lady of the Rosary, whose actual feast day is October 7.  We celebrate this feast with joy in honor of that prayer that lies at the very heart of Catholic piety.  But this feast has a history, and for Catholics history is very important because of the Incarnation, that God entered human history at a certain time in the person of Jesus Christ.  The original title of this feast was Our Lady of Victory.  This feast commemorated the victory of the Catholic fleet over the Ottoman Empire at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571.  The goal of the Ottoman Empire, the powerful Muslim Empire, was to conquer Europe and destroy Christianity.  

The Pope at that time was the severe and deeply faithful Dominican Pope Pius V. It was he who organized the Catholic opposition to the Ottoman attack.  Remember that the Protestant Reformation had already occurred, and the nations which had become Protestant were not interested in supporting an offensive against the Muslim aggression. So the Pope cobbled up a naval fleet made up of Catholic countries and cities who had remained faithful to the Catholic Church.  

This was not an easy task, because the members of this coalition, including Venice, were interested in protecting their own interests quite apart from their allegiance to the Pope.  But the armada was formed and set sail to do battle with the Ottoman Turks.  The Pope asked that the Rosary be prayed by all in support of this cause.  Despite being outmanned, the Catholic coalition destroyed the Ottoman fleet off the coast of Greece at Lepanto and saved the Christian West.  A significant event in history, especially for Catholics.  Dare we ask how many Catholics today would recognize in a historical context the battle of Lepanto?

That was not the end of the Muslim threat.  For they were at the gates of Vienna in 1683 threatening once again the Christian West with extinction.  One of my avocations has been to be a tour guide in Italy, taking small groups, almost all Catholic, to experience the many delights of that country in the context of its history.  I would take the groups of course to the Vatican Museums.  How could one not?  There is a section before one enters the Stanze di Rafaello that almost all tourists pay little attention to.  But there is a large portrait of a man on a horse, obviously a soldier, before which I always paused and asked if anyone had ever heard of Jon Sobieski.  No one in the many years I did these tours ever could tell me who Sobieski was or what the painting was depicting.  What the painting was celebrating was this Polish king’s bravery in leading the European forces against  the Muslim forces laying siege to Vienna and the ultimate defeat of the Ottoman Empire.


The forgetting of history is a very dangerous thing.  And that forgetting is the mark of contemporary American society.  Forgetting history is indeed dangerous, for to not know where you came from makes understanding who you are today difficult.  To not know history is to put oneself at the mercy of those who will invent history in order to impose their understanding of reality on everyone to advance their cause that they claim is supra-historical.  This is clearly seen in the Communist regimes from the Soviet Union to contemporary China. But it is also seen in the contemporary Western culture, certainly including American culture, in which the foundations of what we have known as Western culture  are not merely questioned but denied.  The foundation of Western culture for nearly 2000 years has been the Christian faith with includes its roots in Judaism. That culture has never been perfect, for it has denied in selfish ways its foundation in Christianity. But there is no doubt that its foundation is Christian, and from that foundation the vitality of Western culture has been the basis of a truly great civilization, despite glaring imperfections that the Christian would understand as the result of the reality of original sin.  


The role of the Catholic Church has been central in the evolution of this culture.  

Even the tragedy of the Protestant Reformation has not and could not negate the central role of the Catholic Church in the Western world.  But something very bad has happened in the past 75 years.  That liberalism against which St John Henry Newman warned against, which denies that truth can be known in the absolute sense and that that truth is the person of Jesus Christ who informs his Church with that truth, has won the day.  If the truth be known, Catholics today are mostly indistinguishable from those of other faiths or those with no faith at all. What can one say in the face of objective data that less than 20% of Catholics go to Mass on Sunda?. And this is before the pandemic.  What can one say when the Speaker of the House and the Democratic nominee for President of the United States support abortion absolutely? What can one say when Catholics think they are fulfilling their obligation to worship God on Sunday by watching ghosts going through Mass on a TV or computer screen?  What can one say when large dioceses are filing for bankruptcy to get out of paying millions of dollars in legal settlements in cases of gross sexual abuse by priests, the majority of which involve young men?  What can one say when the successors of the Apostles are mostly silent or mouthing pious phrases during a world wide pandemic?  Have they ever heard of St Charles Borromeo and his witness in the plague in Milano in the seventeenth century?  


Where is the alliance today to fight the battle at Lepanto, or the battle at the gates of Vienna? Nowhere.  Because despite the cynicism and infighting of the factions in the 16th century or the 17thcentury,  they had one important thing that we do not have.  They had a deep commonality in the worship of God in the Mass that transcended the deepest cultural and political divides. The destruction of that commonality and the destruction of the historical link to the worship of the Apostolic and Patristic Church has left us in this parlous situation.  And the real hope we have for the future lies in what we do here together on this feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  To worship God in spirit and in truth, to worship God within history informed by the Incarnation, to worship God in truth, and goodness and, yes, in beauty.