Last month, His Holiness Pope Francis issued a most urgent call to prayer. The intention was for peace in Syria, where civil war has inflicted terrible suffering for the last two years. Recent threats of foreign military intervention and the presence of warships from Russia, America and France in the Mediterranean mean that there is currently much unsettling talk of the possibility of conflagration igniting on an international scale.
In response to the Holy Father’s plea, Syria sustained a concentrated bombardment on Saturday 7th September. This bombardment did not consist of weapons of destruction, thanks be to God. Instead, Syria was bombarded with grace, as salvos of prayer that were loaded with Faith, Hope and Charity were launched to Heaven while the Pope presided at a vigil for peace in Rome. A well-attended Mass for peace at the Oratory was followed by four hours of prayer, timed to coincide with the papal prayer vigil. With Rosary and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, we broadly followed the pattern of devotions and intercession at St Peter’s.
Pope Francis reminded us that prayers are fortified by penance. Confessionals were set up around the colonnades outside the Vatican Basilica because, as His Holiness explained, prayer rises from a heart that has been purified by reconciliation with God. When we are in a state of grace the Holy Ghost intercedes from the depths of our souls “with sighs too deep for words”, and our petitions merit a positive response from God. Before praying for any important intention, then, we should examine our consciences closely. If we are aware of any mortal sin, we need to receive God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. If our prayers are to be sure of finding favour before the Throne of Grace, it is necessary for the flame of charity to be alive in our hearts.
The Pope also declared 7th September a day of fasting. The connection between fasting and prayers of petition is evident in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Book of Jonah we see that “God repented” of the sentence of destruction He had pronounced over Nineveh, in response to the fasting of its inhabitants. In the Gospels, when the disciples fail to exorcise an evil spirit, Our Lord explains that this particular type of demon is driven out “by prayer and fasting.”
Perhaps we feel helpless as world events unfold around us. Fatalism and despair are easy temptations to give in to, especially when ‘the people in power’ seem hell-bent on a course of destruction. As Christians, however, we are never powerless. We can and we must pray. At the end of last month’s vigil in Rome, the Pope exhorted us to keep praying for peace in Syria.
The month of October is devoted to one of the most powerful forms of prayer, the Rosary. The magnificent Lady Altar in the Oratory Church can be read like a triumphal arch, testifying to the victories that God has granted to His Church in response to devout recitation of the Rosary in the face of imminent danger. Originally built in Brescia for a Rosary Confraternity, it was saved by the Oratory Fathers when the original Dominican Church in which it stood was closed during the Italian Risorgimento.
To the left of the altar is a statue of St Dominic, who is said to have been issued with the Rosary by Our Lady as an invincible weapon in his struggle against the Albigensianheretics of the Languedoc. Albigensianism was an expression of dualism that denied the reality of the Incarnation and aimed to abolish the Sacraments. For Albigensians, salvation involved spirit liberating itself from matter which was considered evil. This bizarre heresy, which forbade procreation and advocated suicide through starvation, actually gained a considerable following amongst the educated and powerful. The Rosary, with its traditional meditations focusing on Our Lord’s infancy, sufferings and Resurrection, and on Our Lady’s bodily Assumption and glorification in Heaven, proved the ideal antidote to the disembodied spirituality promoted by the heretics. Besides the graces given in response to its recitation, the Rosary played a crucial role on the devotional level in the eradication of an ideology which had threatened to overrun the whole of southern France.
On the right side of the altar stands another Dominican, Pope St Pius V. This pontiff organised a Christian League to defend Europe from the threat of Ottoman invasion and called for a Rosary Crusade to ensure a Christian victory over the Turks. When the warships of the Christians engaged a superior Turkish fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto in 1571, the Pope was granted a vision in which Our Lady revealed that the Christians had been victorious, thanks to the recitation of the Rosary.
The central niche of the Lady Altar is occupied by a nineteenth century statue of Our Lady of Victories. The first shrine to Our Lady of Victory was erected in 1213, after the defeat of the Albigensians at the Battle of Muret, which St Dominic attributed to the power of the Rosary. In thanksgiving for Lepanto, Pope St Pius V instituted a commemoration of Our Lady of Victory on 7th October, the date of the battle. This was altered by his successor Pope Gregory XIII to a commemoration of Our Lady of the Rosary, which he allowed to be celebrated as a feast in any church which had an altar dedicated to the Rosary. A century later, a Rosary Crusade and invocation of Our Lady of Victory also preceded the important Christian triumph over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna, which took place in 1683 on the 12th September, the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary.
These battles were all decisive in securing the freedom of Christendom. The Oratory Lady Altar was constructed only ten years after the Battle of Vienna, in 1693, while the fear of Ottoman invasion was still very much alive. Protection from Turkish aggression was a major concern for all of the Rosary Confraternities that were established around the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas at this time. Eventually, in 1716, the Holy Roman Empire would win a critical victory over the Turks at the Battle of Petrovaradin in Serbia. This occurred on 5th August, the feast of Our Lady of the Snows. In recognition of the role of the Blessed Virgin’s intercession on this occasion, Pope Clement XI extended the celebration of the feast of the Holy Rosary to the whole Church.
Throughout October, the Rosary is prayed at the Oratory’s Lady Altar twenty minutes before the evening Mass. A plenary indulgence may be gained from praying the Rosary in a group, under the usual conditions. At this time of great urgency, when it is no exaggeration to say that Christianity risks extinction in the Middle East and Holy Land, please join us in praying daily for peace, and especially in praying for our beleaguered fellow Christians. If you cannot come to the Oratory then unite yourselves with us at home or wherever you are. On countless more occasions than those mentioned above, the intercessions Our Lady of the Rosary have rescued Christendom from calamity.
Our Lady Queen of Peace, pray for us.