The past week has seen two historical anniversaries come and go and the reactions raise arresting questions about the different way that Christians and Americans (not always the same) understand the past. The first was the Battle of Lepanto, which prompted Kathy Schiffer to write:
On October 7, Catholics remember Our Lady of the Rosary.
The feast was actually instituted under another name: In 1571 Pope Pius V instituted “Our Lady of Victory” as an annual feast in thanksgiving for Mary’s patronage in the victory of the Holy League over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. Two years later, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of this feastday to “Feast of the Holy Rosary.” And in 1716, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. In 1913, Pope Pius X changed the date to October 7, as part of his effort to restore celebration of the liturgy of the Sundays.
The Battle of Lepanto
On October 7, 1571, a patchwork fleet of Catholic ships primarily from Spain, Venice and Genoa, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, was at a distinct disadvantage. The much larger fleet of the Ottoman Empire—a force with 12,000 to 15,000 Christian slaves as rowers—was extending toward Europe.
However, St. Pope Pius V, realizing that the Muslim Turks had a decided material advantage, called upon all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. Christians gathered in villages and towns to pray as the sea battle raged; and at the hour of victory the pope—who was hundreds of miles away at the Vatican—is said to have gotten up from a meeting, walked over to an open window exclaiming “The Christian fleet is victorious!” and shed tears of joy and thanksgiving to God.
Not sure if that qualifies as micro or macroaggression, but Schiffer’s comments suggest that extricating politics from piety for Roman Catholics is always a difficult proposition.
Then yesterday was the anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. About this event residents of the United States, free from Italian descent, are decidedly ambivalent:
Columbus Day was Italian Americans’ idea, and many of them want to keep it
After strong lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization consisting largely of Italian Americans, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12, 1937, as the first Columbus Day and “directed that flags be displayed on all government buildings on that date,” according to a front page item in the Los Angeles Times that September.
“Each recurrence of Columbus Day brings to all of us a greater appreciation of the heritage we have received as a result of the faith and courage and fortitude of the Genoese navigator and his brave companions,” Roosevelt said to mark the occasion the next year. (Celebrations in Los Angeles honoring Christopher Columbus were happening as far back as 1932, according to news reports at the time.)
Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law in 1968, establishing the three-day weekend for some federal holidays and adding Columbus Day as an official public holiday. By then, 45 states were already observing it.
Since then, efforts to eliminate or rename the Columbus Day holiday in various states and cities have met strong resistance from Italian Americans, who have said Columbus is an important figure in their heritage and calling such efforts “anti-Italian American.”
In 2002, the Los Angeles City Council voted to allow city employees to take Cesar Chavez Day as a paid holiday instead of Columbus Day, a move that prompted a slew of prominent Italian Americans, including former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, to send a strongly worded letter to city officials. As a compromise, the council allowed city employees to celebrate either holiday. (Although California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated the Columbus Day state holiday as part of a budget-cutting measure in 2009, Los Angeles city and county offices still observe it. The Los Angeles Unified School District does not.)
Perhaps the more important lesson here is the way that Americans want their history. We won’t tolerate any sin or injustice (don’t think the Old Testament). Mix any sordid parts of human exploitation in and you better close down the museum or rename the holiday. In other words, deep down Americans all want a Chamber of Commerce version of history. The right thinks of America as only great all the time. The left wants greatness but can’t handle anything less.
But related and not without significance is apologist’s argument that uses on history to vindicate a specific Christian communion. If you bring up the past, be prepared for the boomerang.
No cherry picking.