[Homily preached first on Oct. 2, 2016] Traditionally in the Dominican Order, the first Sunday in October was observed as Rosary Sunday, although the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is observed on October 7. Rosary Sunday seems to have fallen by the wayside somehow. The Feast itself goes back to 1571, when Pope St. Pius V (a Dominican) instituted it to commemorate the naval victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, which was attributed to the prayers of Christians and especially the rosary.
The battle, a dreadful one, changed the course of European history. It ended with the almost complete destruction of the Ottoman navy. Some 15,000 Turks were killed or captured, 15 Turkish galleys were sunk, 177 captured, and between 12,000 and 15,000 Christian galley slaves were rescued. The Christian allies lost 17 ships and about 7,500 fighting men were killed. Thousands more were wounded.
The Battle of Lepanto did not end the threat to Europe, but it was the first major Ottoman defeat by the Christian allies, and it destroyed the myth of Ottoman naval invincibility. When the Pope received word of the victory days later, the old man burst into tears. In memory of this triumph he instituted the feast of the Rosary on the seventh of October, and added the supplication “Help of Christians” to the Litany of Loreto in honor the Virgin Mary. And that’s why, if not exactly what, Catholics still celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary – another violent episode in the long struggle for supremacy between the Christian West and the Muslim East, so often a history written in fire, blood, and death.
Violence was very much on our minds then, and it is still on our minds today — perhaps differently, but not without a connection. And that concerns our readings today.
To begin with, scripture itself alerts us to the shock of violence with the prophet Habbakuk lamenting before God back six centuries before the birth of Jesus, as the armies of the Chaldean kingdom of what we now know as southern Iraq were threatening to destroy Jerusalem :
I cry out to you “Violence!”
But you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
The ancient prophet was protesting against war, destruction, and especially the violence associated with conquest, something threat the people of Iraq and so much of the Middle East are all too familiar with today.
By contrast, the word of God calls for patience. “The vision still has its time,” Habbakuk is told, “it presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.” But what vision? Not of rashness and bloodshed, for sure. What the prophet longs for is what we long for: justice, and justice is truly the child of faith as much as it is the parent of peace — “the just person because of faith shall live,” Habbakuk learns, and St. Paul will later cite this passage in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. It also appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Letter to Timothy paints on a smaller canvas but also places faith in the foreground: “Take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say in faith and love in Christ Jesus.” And in the gospel, Jesus, too, speaks of faith — a faith so powerful it can uproot large trees and cast them into the sea. And so Jesus asks us, if even seed-like faith — tiny, dry, and unpromising — can do wonders, what can full-grown faith accomplish?
But what has faith got to do with violence today? In one sense, everything, as we experience the consequences of conflicts in the Middle East, China, Ukraine, and perhaps more urgently here at home.
Social violence, war, insurgency, riots and the ruthless suppression of dissent do not erupt out of nowhere. As Jesus would say on another occasion, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” [Mark 7:20-23].
And so also violence. We don’t have to look far. It is often very close at hand – on our streets, in our schools, and in our homes. It is not just that the cycle of violence is begun at a very early age, but that the poisonous lesson learned there, and elsewhere in our world, is that the solution to conflict is violence. But the gospel tells us that violence is not the solution; it is the problem. But so are the ills that give rise to conflict – social injustice, bigotry, radical hatred, economic disparity, and political oppression.
What is too-often started in the home, can be ended in the home. When it comes to domestic violence, especially when the victim is a man’s wife and the mother of their children, seeds of far greater violence are being sown, seeds that unlike the mustard seed of faith, will grow into terrible and destructive acts of oppression, crime, and war. October, the month of the Rosary, is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. This year the week of October 20 to 26 has been designated as a National Week of Action. And we need to act. And we need to pray.
So let us pray for faith — faith not to uproot sycamore trees, but to do something far, far more difficult — to lift the great weight of violence and suffering from the backs of women, children, the poor, the sick, the elderly and defenseless, immigrants, and persons suffering from racial or ethnic prejudice. Let us patiently work for the triumph of love in our homes, schools, and workplaces, and the justice that works for peace everywhere.