Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
Many of us are upset, quite rightly, that twenty years after our intervention in Afghanistan, we seem to have accomplished little aside from the deaths of several thousands of our young men and women. The jihadist terrorists known as the Taliban are as firmly in control of the country as they were twenty years ago, only enriched by eighty-plus billion dollars of the most advanced military equipment, and buoyed by the prestige of having prevailed over the world’s greatest military power.
Twenty years, however, is next to nothing in the history of the long struggle between Christianity and Islam. Today, September 12th, we commemorate one of the great victories in that contest. On this date in 1683 a Christian army led by Polish King John III Sobieski defeated the Muslim Ottoman Turks in battle, freeing the city of Vienna from a two months long siege and freeing Europe, for a time, from the fear of Islamic conquest.
The siege of Vienna in 1683 was the final salvo of a period lasting almost a millennium, starting when Charles Martel’s victory at Tours in 732 stemmed the first Muslim incursion into Europe, during which the Christian West was constantly under the threat of subjugation by the followers of Mohammed. Had Charles Martel failed, or Sobieski, or any of the other Christian commanders in between, our world today would be very different. Consider what Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt might be like today – or Syria – if they had remained part of Christendom. Does anyone doubt that things there would be better, probably much better?
And we need to bear in mind that this was really a struggle not simply of peoples or of nations, but between Christendom and Islam. Sobieski’s force was called The Holy League, the same name borne by that alliance which defeated the Turks in the naval battle of Lepanto in the previous century. Like those earlier Christian soldiers, who prayed the Rosary before going into battle with the Turkish fleet, Sobieski’s army prayed: they attended Mass, after which Sobieski formed up his army and “commended their mission and their souls to the care of the Blessed Virgin.” After victory was achieved he informed the Pope that “we came, we saw, God conquered”, turning Julius Caesar’s proud boast to the Roman Senate into a humble acknowledgement of God’s saving Grace. In acknowledgement of the intercession of the Blessed Mother in the Christian victory, Pope Innocent XI designated September 12th as the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary.
There are two points that stand out here. One is that we need to recognize that sometimes it is necessary to fight; our opponents have been at it for almost a millennium and a half, and there’s no indication that they are any more interested in compromise, or anything short of total victory, than they were at any point since Mohammed emerged from his cave with the Koran. Certainly the outlook and behavior we’re seeing from the Taliban or ISIS is nothing new: during the battle for Vienna, the Turks murdered 30,000 defenseless Christian hostages.
The second, more important, point is that fighting itself is not enough: we will fail unless we rely on God: “Unless the LORD builds the house”, says Psalm 127,“those who build it labor in vain.” Our prevailing secular culture has shown it can’t do the job. Today’s Muslims, enabled by the moral decay and post-Christian depopulation of the continent, are gradually achieving by peaceful migration (although it’s becoming less peaceful) the capture of Europe that eluded the strongest armies of their forebears. The formerly Christian West is defeating itself before the literal battle even commences.
Today’s celebration of the Holy Name of Mary reminds us how little we can accomplish by our own efforts, and how completely we are in the hands of the Lord. Our only hope is to return to God and, as did John Sobieski, to make Jesus Christ the general of our armies.
Featured image top of page: Jan III Sobieski Sending Message of Victory to the Pope after the Battle of Vienna, by Jan Matejko (1880)