October, 2012

Dear Friends of St. Albert's,

I am delighted to report the view from my window has resumed much of its former charm: the squirrels have returned!  No one seems quite certain where they fled to, but they are back in abundance, and little rivals the pleasure of tossing a bite of a cookie in their direction as I walk between Saint Albert’s and the Provincial Office, which is next door.

The scenery within Saint Albert’s has changed, too, and you’ve no doubt noticed a difference in the composition of the younger part of our community since Labor Day.  This is altogether due to the odd process of addition and subtraction that takes place each year, which eventually determines the number of students who make up the younger members of the Priory. This year Br. Richard Maher and the two Christophers have temporarily left our midst to spend the year pursuing ministries in smaller communities, and two brothers who enjoyed that experience last year have returned. We have welcomed the four novices who professed vows last month, but Br. Corwin Low has gone to Rome, to study at the Angelicum. However, Br. Dennis Klein has finished his work in Washington, D.C., and has rejoined his classmates in Oakland, and we have welcomed the two student brothers from Poland, whom I introduced in my last reflection. Have I thoroughly confused you? If not, I haven’t properly introduced you to the itinerant life of the Friars Preachers.

This morning I rose “while it was yet night” and made my way to San Francisco, to celebrate a First Friday Mass for members of the Order of Malta. Although I go to bed as early as possible, I have always enjoyed wandering around in the middle of the night or early in the morning – on those infrequent occasions when I’ve had the chance to do so – just to see what occupies the night owls in our midst. Grocery stores are fascinating places at 2 a.m.

When I spent a year in my program of Clinical Pastoral Education, at Providence Hospital in Portland, my classmates and I were each “on call” to the Emergency Department one night a week. Our slumbers were seldom interrupted, but when they were, we – at least, I – had a wonderful opportunity to prowl about the vast, nearly-empty empty halls and ask the nurses and other workers why they choses to work what seemed to me such unfriendly hours.

Almost always the answer had to do with the convenience of family life. “If I work nights, I can be there when my children go to bed, and I can be there to send them off to school.”  Suddenly those nighttime hours seemed a great deal more compassionate – far more so than the schedule for Business School, when my married classmates came to school from work and arrived home after their children had retired for the night. Many of my classmates had commutes to San Francisco or elsewhere, so they left for work before their youngsters woke up, with the result they went nearly three days each week without greeting their children!

I have no idea what sacrifices my fellow BART companions had made for their journeys this morning, but we were certainly a sleepy lot. However, when we arrived at the Montgomery station, it was bustling with activity. What I noticed immediately were the musicians – two cellists and a bass player – making their way through a jaunty air designed to wake everyone up.

When I was a student at Saint Albert’s, in the days before we could select the hymns to begin Morning Prayer, our devotions began with the same hymn: “See the dim shadows of the night are waning/Lightsome and blushing, dawn of day returning….”  As I made my way along Montgomery toward California, I saw the dim shadows waning, but discerned no evidence of lightsome and blushing dawn. After Mass, however, the day was quite pretty as I made my way back toward the BART station, where the musicians were playing a much more subdued tune.

When you read this, the calendar will have moved ahead to October 7, the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, and the Dominican feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. At Saint Albert’s we’ve put off our celebration for a week, which has two advantages: it allows those students who have accepted invitations to preach or help make the traditional Rosary Sunday appeal in Bay Area ministries to return home for our celebration – and it allows me to pay a quick visit to Southern California to embrace my father as he celebrates his 90th birthday.

A 90th birthday speaks for itself; Rosary Sunday, on the other hand, may benefit from a little explanation. Recent weeks have shown us images of Muslim attacks on Americans in the Middle East. These images are frightening, but what is truly heart-breaking is to consider the centuries of friction and bloodshed that have characterized relations between Western Christian and Eastern Muslim forces in the Near East. 

Scroll back to 1570, and Venice, which had maintained its commercial domination of the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Adriatic, by steering clearing of the Muslim/Christian battles that caused everyone else so much anguish for several hundred years.  Venetian merchants now found themselves in bad straits. The Turkish Sultan, Selim II, demanded the surrender of Cyprus, which had allowed Venetians uninterrupted control of Mediterranean shipping. Perhaps because – not surprisingly – they had no one else to turn to, Venetian senators sought the help of the Pope, Pius V. The Pontiff was a Dominican, so anyone who has met a Dominican friar has an idea what happened next. 

Within a year, Pius was able to put together a multi-national naval force consisting of 108 galleys from Venice, 29 from Naples, 14 from Genoa, 13 from Spain, 12 from the Pope himself, and 3 from Malta. This was a time of transition in naval warfare, and Lepanto was the last major sea battle to be fought in ships powered by oars. The larger of these galleys were armed with cannons, and the sailors had guns or bows and arrows for long-distance combat, and swords for the up-close fighting that came when the ships engaged one another at nearer range. 

The Christian force was under the command of Don Juan of Austria, half-brother of Phillip II. He had 206 ships under his command and 80,000 armed fighters. This sounds like a large number, but Christians faced a superior force of 220 galleys, and 120,000 men. 

As Greece comes to its southernmost point, we find Athens at 38 degrees latitude. Corinth is about fifty miles to the east.  A man-made canal now unites the Gulf of Corinth on the west with Corinth and the Aegean Sea, but in the 16thCentury the gulf was a dead end. Lepanto is located toward its western end. I’m no naval tactician, but why anyone would park a naval fleet there, as the Turkish commander did – unless he were trying to hide – makes no sense to me.

In any case, on the morning of October 7, Don Juan sailed past the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth and spied the Turkish fleet. He lined up his ships, from the north to the east, and the battle commenced. The Turkish leader, Ali Pasha, led his ship, the Sultana, toward Don Juan’s ship, the Reale. The Turkish ship rammed the Reale, and because it sat higher in the water, Ali Pasha’s fighters overran the deck. Just at that moment, two Christian ships were able to come to Don Juan’s defense. Ali Pasha’s ship was captured, and he was killed. 

With three hours before sundown, the Christians had declared victory. Uluch Ali, who inherited the Moslem leadership when Ali Pasha was killed, fled the battle, but Christians decided not to follow him as the sun was beginning to set, and a night battle would be too difficult to pursue. 

Christians divided among them 117 Moslem galleys and six smaller ships. They shared 117 large cannons and 250 smaller ones. 9,000 Christians died in the battle. Moslem losses, however, were more than three times as great.  Perhaps the most hopeful number is the 12,000 Christians who were released from slavery in the Turkish galleys.

As I said, October 7 is an anniversary dear to Dominicans because it was the Dominican pope, Pius V, who helped put together the multi-national naval force that won the battle, and who attributed the victory to his – and to the Christian sailors’ – praying the rosary.  If you visit Santa Sabina, the Dominicans’ headquarters on the Aventine, you can visit Pope Pius’ chapel. A painting on one wall shows two cherubs holding what looks like a square mirror. This portrays the legend that says Pope Pius saw all that went on during the Battle, while he prayed. G.K. Chesterton, in his poem, “Lepanto,” wrote

     The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke, 
     (Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.) 
     The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year, 
     The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear. 
     He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea 
     The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery….

What a temptation, I think, to conclude that as we seek out our country’s enemies throughout the Muslim world today, praying the Rosary will guarantee a result similar to the victory Christians enjoyed against the Turks 411 years ago! But that’s not the point. The Rosary – which calls us to identify ourselves with Mary – reminds us more clearly than any prayer other than the Eucharist, that the God in whom we trust has loved us enough to take on our flesh, face our trials, and draws us together to be a sign of His everlasting presence in our midst.

In any case, the Battle of Lepanto, for all its bloodshed, accomplished very little. Pius V died seven month later, and Phillip II faced another war with France, so there was no follow-up to the victory. The Venetian merchants were the only true winners in the fight. Two years after Lepanto, they signed a treaty with the Turks and abandoned their claim to Cyprus.

Now let me fast-forward to 2012 and next Sunday’s Rosary Sunday celebration here at Saint Albert’s. It will be characterized by appropriate solemnity and, I hope, a memorable homily. It will certainly be punctuated by the annual Rosary Sunday collection, one of the very few we take in our chapel. 

This collection is our appeal to you, our friends, on behalf of the young men we are training for the immense task of preaching the gospel to the 21st Century. Later this week, on Thursday, in fact, Pope Benedict will announce the beginning of a Year of Faith, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

For half a century, successive Pontiffs have stressed the importance of the lay ministry of Evangelization and Catechesis.  To commemorate this important anniversary, Pope Benedict has summoned a Synod (Assembly) of the world’s bishops.  The topic of their discussions will be The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. TheInstrumentum laboris, or document that sets out the plan and expectations of the Synod is available on-line; it explains the necessity of each Catholic’s participating in this universal ministry. The young Dominicans you see in our chapel are the Western Province’s contribution to this effort, and we strive to equip them with every tool they will need to become the most effective possible preachers, teachers, and supporters in your evangelical call.

We cannot do this alone. We depend upon your prayers and your financial support. I beg you to be generous next week when I ask for your financial assistance. Your investment in our students will repay interest to you, and it will touch the lives of a multitude of individuals you cannot see, but whose gratitude is no less real for being invisible.

Thank you for your prayers. Thank you, too, for your generous support of our formation ministry at Saint Albert’s. To work together with you to build the Church of the 21st Century is a great honor and a true joy!


Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.






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