To Celebrate or Not

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.

8 thoughts on “To Celebrate or Not

  1. A (way) aside: There is is Lepanto in the Arkansas Delta near where I grew up. It was my mother’s family homeplace and is basically one and the same as Dyess, AR which is where Johnny Cash is from. My mom’s cousin dated his brother. Some dirt farmers or unsuccessful RC missionaries to the sticks remembered Lepanto, too — some time back in the 1800s amidst the mosquitos and the mud..


  2. I for one am happy the Turks were defeated at Lepanto – and that Columbus discovered the Americas. Not so sure Frau Merkel is coming to my annual Lepanto bash this year. No RSVP yet. But I think she has her hands full undoing that victory and the one at Vienna. Don’t think she’ll be hitting any Reformation Day festivities either.


  3. Is Lepanto like the 95 Theses for Protestants?

    If we had been alive in the 16th century we would have been existentially aware of not only of the religious upheavals caused by the Protestant Reformation, not only of the strong and necessary response of Catholic Counter-Reformation, not only of the exploration of what was known as the New World, but also of the constant and ever more serious threat to Christian civilization by the Turkish-Muslim determination to conquer the Christian West. Things rapidly came to a head in the late sixteenth century when the Muslim forces captured Cyprus and besieged Malta. The plan of the Turks was to attack Rome itself, and remember what time this was in the history of the West, to attack and conquer Rome and so establish Islam not only in Europe but in the New World as well. Under Pope St Pius V a coalition of forces gathered from Spain, Genoa and the Papal States was assembled to oppose the forces of the Turks. The Pope, St Pius V, no touchy feely guy, asked the whole Christian world to pray the Rosary for the success of the battle against the Turks and the preservation of Christian civilization. For that was what was at stake: Christian civilization, something not perfect, and yet open to perfection through the Christian faith. So the Pope led a Rosary procession in Rome, and Christians throughout Europe prayed the Rosary. And despite being outnumbered in ships and in men, the Christian forces prevailed at the battle of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. And in response the Pope instituted the feast of our Lady of Victory. The next Pope changed the name of the feast from Our Lady of Victory to our Lady of the Rosary. But if you go to the church of S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome, a church I love because it is so over the top baroque, you will see there a painting of the battle of Lepanto and Our Lady offering her intercessions for the Christian forces. And so in this way Our Lady of Victory became our Lady of the Rosary. But it was still a local feast. It was not until the battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the Muslim forces of the Ottoman empire were at the gates of Vienna, the entrance to Europe, and where the great Polish Catholic John Sobieski rallied and led the troops against the Muslim forces-here once again Christian civilization was saved when Pope Clement XI in thanksgiving for this deliverance from the hands of the enemy extended the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to the universal Church.

    And so you see that the roots of this wonderful feast lie not only in the piety of the people but also in history, the history of the Christian West. And this feast is rooted in the peculiar understanding of history that Christians share with Jews that God acts in history in behalf of truth against error. And while it is dangerous to declare at any given time what is God’s action in history, especially to declare that his action is in behalf of this nation or that, this group or that, and this pertains to papal conclaves as well, the Catholic Christian cannot believe that God does not act in history in behalf of what is true and what is consonant with his will. To deny this is to fall back on Newton’s God who created all things and got bored and went away and left us on our own. Or worse: to believe that if there is a God, he is ultimately not concerned with the presence of truth in the word he created.


  4. If you’re worried about American-Alpha-Achievement Culture, what about Roman Catholic Alpha Achievement Apologists doesn’t bother you?

    Any country or culture that cannot be self-critical is in danger. In this presidential-election year, we should stop and ask ourselves what we really believe will make us, our families, our communities and our country great.

    The idea that winning is everything is the bedrock of what I call the “American Alpha-Achievement Culture.” This is the unquestioned assumption that success is the main purpose of life and that success is measured by winning. The idea that life is all about winning is woven through American culture at every level.

    America’s passion for sports is about winning. America’s advanced technology is about winning. America’s economic muscle is about winning. America’s vast military supremacy is about winning. America’s educational system is geared toward winning. And even our social systems are often about winning and coming out on top.

    Is winning really what life is all about? Let’s start with being positive. Accomplishment is a good thing. Reaching one’s potential is fantastic. Reaching for the stars and achieving excellence in sport, the arts, business, personal growth or family life is to be applauded. Our destiny is to grow up into the full humanity of Christ — to reach our full human potential and to become all that God created us to be. After all, Christ promises us life that is more abundant than we can ask or think.

    What worries me about the American Alpha-Achievement Culture is that success stops being about personal excellence and reaching one’s full human potential and starts being about the American idol — the almighty dollar. For too many Americans, achievement means no more than financial success.


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