Saint Mary of Victory
The Historical Role of Our Lady in the
Armed Defense of the Faith

by Gary Potter
Published with the Generous Permission of

Taken from THE HOUSETOPS, Spring, 2003 Issue.


1982, Argentina, a nation that loved Our Lady enough to have her by law as Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces, was beaten by Great Britain in a short but costly war fought in and around islands the Argentines know as the Malvinas and that the Brits, who have claimed them as a colony since the 19th century, call the Falklands. This was after an Argentine military government, calculating that its action would have no repercussions beyond the diplomatic, had sent troops to occupy the islands, regarded by it, as by every government Argentina has ever had, as part of the national territory.

The islands, which are thousands of miles from Britain, lie off the coast of Argentina within the Western Hemisphere. When the Brits surprised Argentina and the rest of the world by choosing to back their claim to the Malvinas militarily, it took weeks for their expeditionary force to arrive on the scene. The United States, deciding the Monroe Doctrine did not apply to this particular foreign invasion of the Hemisphere, greatly assisted them with satellite intelligence and by other means. The assistance was sufficiently valuable that the Secretary of Defense of the day, Caspar Weinberger, was subsequently rewarded by Queen Elizabeth with an honorary knighthood.

The U.S. assistance was valuable, but the truth was that the Argentine army, which had not fought seriously anywhere for a long time, was ill prepared to resist the forces of a nation whose record for bellicosity is unequaled by any other in modern times. The conscripts who had to face the invaders in the Malvinas acquitted themselves admirably, but the level of Argentine generalship was appalling. So was the logistical support given to the young fighting men. For instance, the Brits were able to make good use of night-vision goggles with which they were equipped. The Argentines lacked such materiel---in the field. It turned out after the war that there had been a warehouse full of the goggles back in Buenos Aires. They simply had not been issued to the men at the front!

Not long after the war, a priest friend from Argentina visited this writer, staying for several days with me and my wife at our apartment in Washington, D.C. I took him one afternoon to lunch with a few men who all worked on Capitol Hill. When the wine was poured, one of the men, a top aide to a leading conservative senator, raised his glass and proposed a toast "to the victory of Our Lady in the Malvinas the next time."

The priest from Buenos Aires let out a groan. It was the kind of sound a man makes when he means to say, "Spare us this."

The aide, obviously bent on being more Argentine than our Argentine visitor, lowered his glass in surprise. "Don't you believe, Father," he asked challengingly, "that Our Lady wants your army to win?"

"Of course she does," answered the priest. "But what she wants, first, is for the army to go train in Patagonia for six months before trying to take on the English."

The priest, I ought to add, was not a native-born Argentine. He was born and grew up in France. As a young man he had fought with the L.V.F. (Legion des Volontaires Francais; Legion of French Volunteers) against the Red Army on the Eastern Front during World War II. He knew something about what it takes to go up against a strong opponent in difficult circumstances.
What he was saying that afternoon in 1982 was that if you hope to win in a fight, it takes more than pious sentiments.
Those Who Help Themselves
It has seemed desirable to tell this little story by way of preface to the present article because the article has to do with the role the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Our Lady of Victory and under other titles, has played in the military defense of the Faith against two of its greatest historical enemies, Mohammedanism and Protestantism. As we shall see, that role has sometimes been direct and even visible. It was the case at Czestochowa in Poland in 1655. More often, the thought of Our Lady has served to inspire men in much the way the memory of loved ones at home would do. On every occasion her intercession was sought through prayer.
Think, in this regard, of the countless rosaries famously recited prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Prayers of petition are answered, of course, and a Catholic is bound to believe that those offered before Lepanto were heard, and that Our Lady---specifically, she as Our Lady of Victory---responded. That is, she was petitioned, and she in turn petitioned her Son, Who denies her nothing. We all know the outcome: a Christian triumph. (Knowing the outcome does not mean the story of Lepanto, or Czestochowa, is not worth retelling. Stories that stir an appreciation of heroism are always worth being retold. That is why both Lepanto and Czestochowa figure in the article that follows. Besides, there is always someone who has not heard the stories before.)

The question is whether it was the action of Our Lady, by itself, that secured the outcome. Was Christian victory foregone, almost as if there was no point to the warriors at Lepanto actually fighting the battle, as soon as all the prayers for it wafted Heavenward? Given the way the story of Lepanto is sometimes told, anyone inclined toward sentimentalism could be excused for reaching that conclusion. Doubtless the conclusion is reinforced when it is known Pope St. Pius V instituted a Feast of Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the battle.

We may be allowed to believe that if Pope St. Pius were alive today, he would be the first to teach that such a conclusion is dangerous as well as sentimental.

It is dangerous because it is apt to make the doubtful more so. This is to speak of wavering souls who may tentatively accept that Our Lady of Victory secured the triumph at Lepanto, but will then wonder why God, if He really exists, allowed a storm to sink the Armada of Philip II on its way to England in 1588. As far as that goes, what about the defeat in the Malvinas of an army that had Our Lady as Commander-in-Chief? Even if the generals were incompetent, could she not prevail? Or did the Spanish and Argentines somehow forget to pray to her on these occasions? And what about the knights of yore who repeatedly set out to liberate lands of the formerly Christian East from the rule of their Mohammedan conquerors? Only the First Crusade ended in success.

As for the sentimentalism that is involved, there is not much difference between concluding that at Lepanto practically nothing was owed to the fighting spirit and skill at anus of the warriors, but nearly everything to the power of the rosaries recited in Rome and elsewhere, and the notion that at the moment of death it does not much matter what a man believes or what manner of life he has led. He will shoot---straight to Heaven anyway as long as he was "sincere" or maybe simply if his friends and loved ones wish for it. Deathbed conversions do occur and victories are snatched from the jaws of defeat, and no Catholic will doubt that Our Lady may have a role in either event. But unless we are going to be sentimental about these things, it seems more certain that when a man goes into battle or faces death some other way, she expects him to be prepared.
Beads and Bullets

Lest it be concluded this writer is without piety, let me tell another story, one that is appropriate to our subject and also has to do with the Malvinas war. I heard it directly from the lips of a young priest who was a chaplain with the Argentine army during the fighting.

To appreciate the story, the reader needs to know that if the Argentine fighting men at the front were not equipped with night-vision goggles, all of them did have rosaries. As would be expected of an army with Our Lady as Commander-in-Chief, they were issued to every recruit along with the rest of his gear after induction. Since they were meant for use in rugged conditions, the beads were made of metal. At least one of the soldiers, as we shall see, wore his around his neck.

I no longer remember in which engagement of the war this incident took place, but in one of the battles a particular Argentine position was finally overwhelmed by superior firepower, but only after virtually every defending soldier was wounded or killed. One of the wounded was also unconscious for a time. As he returned to consciousness, he heard sporadic small-arms fire nearby. He raised his head to see what was happening, and was instantly horrified.

What he saw was a company of Gurkhas, the tough little Nepalese who have been doing dirty work for the British army for generations, walking among the fallen Argentines and shooting any who still moved. For the soldier who saw this, there was nothing to do except stick his face back in the mud, play dead and pray like crazy, hoping that he had not been spotted.

He hoped in vain. Within moments one of the Gurkhas was standing over him. In another moment the Gurkha fired. The bullet was meant for the base of the soldier's skull---exactly where the metal beads of his rosary had ridden up the back of his neck and lay under the hood of his cold-weather parka. I am not a physicist, and neither was the priest who told me about this, so I cannot offer a scientific explanation of what happened, but somehow those metal beads deflected the bullet. It did not penetrate. The soldier was knocked unconscious again, and had a very sore neck afterwards, but he was not even wounded by this bullet, much less killed.
I am glad I am not a physicist. As a mere Catholic I can believe this story as it was related to me and as I have told it without feeling obliged to understand the "scientific" reason why the bullet was deflected. The point of my passing on the story here is twofold. First, we can extrapolate from it. That is, if we can see in small scale the possibility of Our Lady's intercession as explaining the event, whatever the physics involved, it becomes easier to believe that action by her can help account for something far larger in scale, like the outcome of an entire battle or even a war. Yet---this is the second point---let it be observed that if a miracle took place on that Malvinas battlefield, the young soldier also acted in several ways to open up, so to speak, the possibility of it occurring. He prayed; he had elected to wear the rosary around his neck instead of sticking it in a backpack or someplace else where it would be out of mind as well as out of sight; and, not least of all, he had in him what it took to lie there with his face in the mud instead of trying to run or crawl away or, worst of all, get to his knees and beg for his life. (Prisoners were not being taken. Had he begged, no doubt he simply would have been shot between the eyes.)
Prodigal Europe

Insofar as we are speaking of the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the military defense of the Faith against two of its greatest historical enemies, Mohammedanism and Protestantism, we are bound to talk about wars and battles that have taken place where these enemies most often posed a threat: in and around the heartland of the Faith, Europe. Today there is hardly a corner of the world where the Faith is not practiced, if only by a few and even if it is underground. It may very well be, as sometimes is claimed, that some of today's most fervent Catholics live in places where they have never been numerous and "religious freedom" as it is known in America and Europe does not exist; that the lukewarm and backslid are found mostly where it does. Certainly it is easy for the casual traveler in today's Europe to conclude that life there has become "post-Catholic". The poor attendance even at Sunday Mass celebrated almost anywhere in Europe outside a Traditional chapel is one evidence. That a weekday Mass is unlikely to be found outside big cities in a country like Spain is another. Then there is the disastrously low birth-rate everywhere in the Catholic parts of Europe, and the not-so-gradual replacement of native populations by Mohammedans and other non-Catholics. Does such evidence suggest that whatever was the outcome of the past battles we shall talk about, a larger "war" is being lost; that however many graces Our Lady formerly obtained for her sons in the Faith's heartland, she has ceased to be active on their behalf? The question demands to be considered before we proceed. After all, if the larger "war" is being lost, what do the past successes matter?

An answer lies where the casual visitor or tourist will not see it. His tour bus will stop at Notre Dame in Paris where, yes, he will see no one but other tourists, but it will not take him, even in Paris, to the Miraculous Medal Chapel in the Rue du Bac, much less to Lourdes or Fatima or to any other of Europe's great Marian shrines built in places personally visited by Our Lady. If it did, he would see the places packed. He would see unending crowds flocking to them, today as ever.

What is the point? Perhaps the crowds can be likened to a man who has been on his own for some years (as Europe has been Catholic for centuries), a man who feels he has outgrown all the prayers and devotions he once learned from his mother and no longer practices, but who has to admit to himself that on his rare visits to the family home he is strangely affected and even comforted by the little bowl of holy water beside the door and the statuette of Our Lady that all members of the household must pass when they go upstairs to bed. This man is accustomed to using language that once upon a time would have been heard in few places outside a barracks, but at dinner, with his mother at one end of the table, he keeps his tongue under control. What is most curious is that in this man's mind there is a connection he cannot define between the lady at the end of the table and the one depicted by the statuette on the stairs.
Give this man time and maybe some trouble in life---and in whose life is it lacking?---he may well join a crowd thronging a shrine where a larger statue commemorates a visit to the premises by the one depicted. The man, being "grown-up," may be too embarrassed to let friends know he was ever at the shrine, but he will not be able to deny to himself that he feels much the same way there as when visiting his mother's house: at home.
That the man's experience is one not easily had by Americans---there is no place in our country ever known for sure to have been visited by Our Lady---is a matter to which we shall later return. Right now a point is being made.

We all know what it means when someone asks, usually when things could not be more dismal, "Are we having fun yet?" It means it is impossible to set out in a determined way to have fun and then actually to have it. Our expectation will interfere. What we actually experience will never equal it. Failure will be more complete the more determined we were. In a similar way, determined but misguided Churchmen set out a few decades ago to make the Faith more "relevant". They merely succeeded in making it entirely irrelevant to the lives of countless men---in Europe, as elsewhere. As a result, hardly anyone not born Catholic can now see the point of being one, and many born in the Faith no longer see much reason for practicing it, or practicing it with much dedication. This does not mean, however, that Catholicism is "dead," that graces are no longer obtained by the faithful seeking them. There would be no crowds flocking to the Marian shrines of Europe were it so. In a word, none of the past battles fought for Our Lady were fought to no lasting end. None of the blood shed for her, and with her name on the lips of a dying warrior, was shed futilely. The crowds bespeak a future that can be more glorious than any past. The state of the Church today, the institutional Church produced by the misguided Churchmen of the past forty years, should not obscure that.
  Of course the cynic may observe that nearly everybody in all the crowds is seeking something for himself: a favor, a cure, relief from some suffering. The cynic has no understanding of how God works. One of the reasons He allows suffering is that some men never think to pray except when they have trouble. If their pain draws them to Him, it serves its purpose. The truth of this was once eloquently expressed by a great novelist who has never been well known in English, Leon Bloy. In a book he wrote about one place visited by Our Lady, La Salette, high in the mountains of France, he said, "The stars are never closer to us than when we look at them with tears in our eyes."
Mary, Quite Military

To speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary as we are doing, which is to say, as having a role in the armed defense of the Faith over the centuries, may be surprising to some. If so, it is doubtless on account of how we tend to think of her these days. How is that?

A figure in the Old Testament whom the Church has seen as foreshadowing Our Lady is Esther, she who won clemency for her people from King Assuerus by her beauty, gentleness and prayers. Is that not how we tend to think of Mary mostly, or even exclusively, nowadays: beautiful Mary, gentle Mary, prayerful Mary?

Yet, the Church has also seen Our Lady prefigured in Judith, she who saved the inhabitants of Bethulia from massacre by beheading Holofernes with his own sword. We do nowadays tend to forget Judith as a figure of Mary. THE SAINTED CARDINALEven more, we forget that the Church traditionally has applied to Mary the expression from the Canticle of Canticles, "terrible as an army set in battle array."

The expression was remembered by Bl. Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac, the heroic Archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, imprisoned for fourteen years by the Communist government of Yugoslavia after World War II because the militancy of his Catholicism led him into such political incorrectness that almost nobody outside Croatia dares to venerate him publicly, despite the official declaration of his beatitude in 1998. Recalling the 16th-century Mohammedan invasion and subsequent occupation of the lands which constituted former Yugoslavia, he once said: "The invasion by the Turks could have been enough to wipe us completely off the map, and yet we can testify to four centuries of a resistance unparalleled in history. Who can claim we could have achieved this through our own unaided strength? Surely it was, on the contrary, thanks to the help of her of whom the Church speaks as 'terrible as an army set in battle array'."

Surely it was. Let it be underlined, however, that the Christians of whom the Cardinal spoke---especially the Catholic Croatians---did not pray to Our Lady for her aid and then themselves do nothing. They resisted.

As it happens, the particular Mohammedan invasion of Europe of which the Cardinal spoke---at least one thrust of it---was halted in Croatia at Fiume, a town on the Adriatic coast. More specifically, it got no further than a sanctuary consecrated to Our Lady of Trsat. This was in 1527. At and around the sanctuary is where the Croatians were finally able to hold some ground, interdicting the Mohammedan advance. The sanctuary itself was built to mark one of the stages of the Holy House of Nazareth on its miraculous way to Loreto, where it can be seen today at another shrine consecrated to Our Lady (Our Lady of Loreto).
War on Two Fronts

The Mohammedan threat to the Faith in its heartland began almost as soon as the false religion arose in the 7th century. This was with a gigantic pincers movement up the Iberian Peninsula into France in the west, and northward across the eastern Mediterranean lands of the Byzantine Empire, toward the Balkans, in the east. Early in the 8th century, however, this menacing advance was halted in both east and west---at Constantinople in the east in 718, and at Poitiers in France in 732.

In the 5th century, Byzantine Emperor Leo I built a magnificent church in Constantinople, the Holy Reliquary, to enshrine the veil of Our Lady. In effect, the entire church was a reliquary. Our Lady would be honored in this church for 1,000 years under the title strategos, Greek for commander in war. To understand why, it only needs to be known that even before the victory in 718, the Mohammedans had mounted other unsuccessful attacks on Constantinople. (One, which took place in 678, is still commemorated in the liturgy of the Eastern Church.) Whenever they were under attack, the people of the Byzantine capital would venerate Our Lady---their strategos---with a procession of her veil through the city's streets, beseeching her in prayer to obtain Heaven's protection.


It was after such a procession in 718 and on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, the patronal feast of the Holy Reliquary Church, that the Mohammedans raised their siege. Their losses had been devastating. In fact, so decisive was this Christian victory on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption in 718 that it would not be until 700 years later, in 1453, that Constantinople finally fell to the Turks. If the city fell then and after an icon of Our Lady was carried around the city's ramparts, we should remember that by 1453 Constantinople was no longer in union with Rome. More than one commentator has seen its disappearance from history as a center of Christian civilization as reflective of the spiritual state into which it fell when it chose schism. However, 1453 may also be seen as a measure of God's mercy and patience insofar as four centuries did elapse between the schism and the final Mohammedan conquest. (The Mohammedan conquerors would completely destroy the Holy Reliquary Church so that there is no trace of it today. As for the veil, it had earlier been given by a Byzantine emperor to a king of France and is enshrined at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres.)

The victory in the west at Poitiers in 732 was more definitive than the one in Constantinople in 718 because the Mohammedans would never penetrate more deeply into Europe from that direction. Preparations for the battle included the erection of numerous altars for the celebration of Holy Mass, and the battle itself took place on a Saturday, the day of the week that belongs to Mary. Charles Martel, the victor that day, credited his triumph to her. (Of course he would. A real warrior is never boastful.)

The Saracens would advance into western Europe no further than Poitiers, but it would be a time before they were driven entirely from France. King Pepin had expelled most of them by 753, the year he founded an abbey, Notre Dame de la Paix, in thanksgiving. It would be his successor, the great Charlemagne, who eliminated the last pockets of Mohammedans from France. In 778 his campaign met the stubborn resistance of a particular Saracen prince. Rather than continue to try to defeat him militarily, Charlemagne decided to try to convert him. The mission was entrusted to the Bishop of Le Puy and was successful, thanks to Our Lady. "I am her servant;" the bishop told the Saracen prince, "be you her soldier." As a Christian, the Saracen took the name of Lorda, which became the name of the fief, the territory, of which he was lord. From Lorda we derive the name of Lourdes, the seat now of one of the greatest of Marian shrines.


Continued forward.


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