We are used to referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Queen of Peace. She is, after all, the Mother of Mercy, the throne of Mercy himself, since Jesus – God’s Mercy made flesh – sat on her lap.
However, there is a tougher side to Mary — she’s not exactly a warrior with a sword in hand, but she is known to be a protective mother. In fact, there are several feasts of Mary based on times when she was called upon for protection in military circumstances.
- These include the upcoming feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on Oct. 7. This feast honoring Mary and the rosary started in thanksgiving for victory at the Battle of Lepanto between the Holy League and the Ottoman Turks. This sea battle took place on Oct. 7, 1571, in the Ionian Sea. Pope St. Pius V had ordered the people of Rome to pray the rosary on the day the battle was being fought. Later, in gratitude for the win despite overwhelming odds, the pope set up a commemoration feast to be held the first Sunday of October. (Eventually the date became fixed on Oct. 7.) Sometimes, this is also commemorated as “Our Lady of Victory.”
- May 24, Our Lady Help of Christians This feast uses an older title of Mary, dating to at least the 16th century, but ties it to another struggle of the church. In January of 1808, Pope Pius VII was captured by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and taken as a prisoner to France, where he was held for six years. The pope was finally released in March 1814, after the Battle of Leipzig, and returned to Rome in triumph on May 24.
- Sept. 12, the Holy Name of Mary This feast, which had older roots, became tied to the victory of the Battle of Vienna. The battle took place on Sept. 12, 1683, under the leadership of the Polish King Jan III Sobieski. For three months, the Ottoman army had laid siege to Vienna, even tunneling under its gates to take the city from within. A combined army of about 80,000, led by Sobieski, attacked an Ottoman army of twice that size on Sept. 12. After a 15-hour battle, Sobieski’s troops routed the Turks and ended their attempt to conquer Europe.
- Sept. 7 is a local feast honoring Our Lady of Covadonga (also sometimes called Our Lady of the Battles) in northwest Spain. A statue of Mary, found hidden in one of the nearby caves, was believed to have aided a Christian-Muslim victory in 718 (or 722, by some accounts.) The battle is now commemorated as the start of the “reconquistador,” or the retaking of Spain from the Muslims. In 1989, Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica at Covadonga.
- Oct. 1, feast of the Holy Protection In Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, one of Mary’s titles is Agia Skepi, or the Protection of Holy Theotokos (God-Bearer, the official title of Mary in the East.) This feast has a long history, dating to ancient Constantinople (now Istanbul). On Oct. 1, sometime in the middle of the 10th century, the people of that city were under siege and gathered in church for an all-night vigil. St. Andrew (called “the Holy Fool”) was also there, with a companion. Both men saw a vision of Mary, with angels, holding her veil in her hands and praying for the city. The city was spared and, ever since, Eastern Christians have honored Mary’s protection.
During World War II, many Greek soldiers reported seeing Mary likewise protecting them with her veil. In 1952, the Greek Orthodox Church moved the celebrations of the feast of Holy Protection to Oct. 28, which is also Greece’s Oxi Day. Oxi means “No” in Greek and Oxi Day honors the Greek resistance to Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Mary, under various titles, is also the patron of several military groups. For example:
- Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquincuira (Nov. 18) is patron of Venezula’s National Guard;
- Our Lady of Mount Carmel (July 16) is patron of both the Chilean army and navy;
- Our Lady of Mertixell (Sept. 8) is mentioned in the national anthem of Andorra, a tiny principality between Spain and France.
Holding a stick
A more unusual image of Mary as a protective mother is seen in several images of Mary as “Madonna del Soccorso” (Our Lady of Help) in 15th century Italy. (The usual feast day is Feb. 2 — which is also the feast of the Purification of Mary.) In these images, a demon tries to snatch a child from its mother, who prays to Mary. Mary holds the child safe by one arm while raising a stick to threaten the demon.
While an image of Mary beating off a demon with a stick seems unusual to our eyes, think of how protective all mothers are when their children are under attack. As Jesus was dying on the cross, he told his mother, standing bravely by him, “There is your son.” By doing so, the church teaches, Jesus entrusted all of us to Mary’s protective care.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, writing about the Aug. 22 feast of the Queenship of Mary, said that, in ancient times, “The Queen Mother — like all of the monarchs of Israel — (was) a fighter. Israel frequently brought the Ark into battle with them.”
The Ark of the Covenant contained the stone tablets bearing God’s Law on them. One of Mary’s many titles is “ark of the new covenant,” since she carried Jesus — the living Word of God — safely within her own body. Bishop Barron continued, “The Queenship of Mary is not a sentimental feast. Whenever biblical people spoke of kings or queens, they were speaking of warriors.”
Whether we think of Mary as a warrior of many battles or not, the protection of Jesus’ mother is valuable to all of us.
Sources: dailycatholicgospel.com; ewtn.com; marian.org; Catholicism.org; mgr.org; Orthodox Church in America at OCA.org; Orthodox Christian Network at myocn.org; johnsanidopoulos.com;“Catholic Encyclopedia”; and theartofpainting.be