In the cathedral of Barcelona there is a side chapel with a large crucifix above the altar. It has great historic significance.
This crucifix was placed on the bow of the Spanish flagship leading a fleet of warships into naval battle with Muslim forces at the Battle of Lepanto off the coast of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea on Oct. 7, 1571. The Spanish were part of a coalition of Catholic powers in Southern Europe that joined to repel Turkish advances into their territories.
The Turks, for whom Islam was the state religion as well as a powerful inspiring force, already had footholds in Europe. The Balkans were under Turkish rule. While the majority of people living in the Balkan peninsula were Christians, many were Muslim. A considerable number of residents of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere in the region are Muslim today.
Before 1500, Spain had been home for many Muslims.
The Southern European Catholic powers thought that if Turkish force went unchecked, Islam would become more and more of a threat. In those days, religious conflicts were many. Farther north in Europe, the Reformation was well under way. Historically, Catholic societies were turning to Protestantism.
Rarely were these transitions smooth and uneventful. Everybody played for keeps. The Catholics had many martyrs, as did Protestants.
In this very tense atmosphere, Lepanto occurred. Pope St. Pius V had been a major figure in bringing together the Southern European Catholic powers. He placed the entire expedition under the protection of the Blessed Mother, and the sailors and their commanders responded. The Rosary became the hallmark of the engagement, as thousands upon thousands of Catholics went into the battle, and through the battle, praying the Rosary.
After the Catholic victory, Pope Pius V, who was a Dominican and was devoted to the Rosary, established Oct. 7 as the feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. The Catholic Church still observes the feast on this day.
The pontiff also perpetually exempted Spanish Catholics from the then-universal rule of abstaining from meat on Fridays. This exemption extended to the colonies Spain formed in South America and in the Pacific. When these areas achieved independence, they still enjoyed this dispensation.
Life for many Americans today would be different, in the religious sense, if the Catholic fleet had been defeated at Le-panto in 1571. There would not be the rule that most people of French, Italian or Spanish descent would be Catholics.
The relationship between Christianity and Islam has been filled with violence and struggle. It now is hard to imagine that the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt and Turkey, once were heavily Christian. They were. The small Christian populations in the area have a long history, as Christianity has had such an ancient presence.
It is heavy baggage to carry as Catholics today seek to follow the urgings of recent popes to respect Islam and to live with Muslims in good will. It is heavy baggage for Muslims to carry as they look upon Christianity and Christians.
The popes — including Pope Benedict XVI — are right, however. The cultural battle of this century is between believing in a Supreme Being or not.
Much of the baggage could be put down if Christians and Muslims better understood each other. Current events have not helped this process. Christians see Muslims as terrorists. Muslims see Christians as hating Islam. Nothing good will come if these misunderstandings continue, if everybody still clutches the old, heavy baggage.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.