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Benedict's Lepanto

October is upon us, a whole month dedicated to the rosary. Soon we will be celebrating Our Lady of the Rosary, which is the new name given to the feast previously called Our Lady of Victory.

It may seem incongruous, harking back to Our Lady of Victory as Pope Benedict XVI takes remarkable steps to show his respect for Islam and rebuild bridges with Muslims. After all, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated on Oct. 7 - the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto.

But there are clear parallels to our day - parallels that we should take to heart.

As Ottoman invaders threatened to round the Gulf of Corinth into the western Mediterranean and threaten Europe, Pope Pius V (1504-1572) called for two kinds of action. One was a military defense, but just as important was his call for Christians to reform themselves. On the day of the decisive Battle of Lepanto, the holy father led a rosary procession in Rome, and called for all Christendom to pray.

It worked - the would-be invaders turned back in defeat.

Today, a new pope is calling for two a two pronged action of his own. Just like Pius V, he wants us to pray - and he wants us to join a battle every bit as difficult as the one Pius V called the church to in his day. Only for Pope Benedict, love and reason are the weapons of choice.

Not that Pius V was much different. It's as unfair to sum up his pontificate with the Battle of Lepanto as it is to sum up Benedict with his words quoting a 14th-century emperor on Mohammed at his Sept. 12 University of Regensburg speech.

Pope Pius V began his priesthood as a professor, and began his work in the Vatican in the office later to be occupied by Pope Benedict. His pontificate targeted sex scandals among the clergy, decried Protestantism - the relativism of his day - and demanded that the Council of Trent be strictly adhered to, not just a "spirit of Trent."

Pope Benedict's pontificate is also more focused on the Christianity of Europe than it is on any threat to the West or any other religion. On Sept. 8, speaking to Canadian bishops, the holy father spelled out his mission, echoing words that he has used throughout his pontificate.

The holy father identified the fundamental problem of our day as "the split between the gospel and culture, with the exclusion of God from the public sphere." The church's mission is to repair the split, he said, by helping people "recognize and experience the love of Christ."

It's of a piece with what we have heard from him before. He is critical of "the dictatorship of relativism" and sees the only answer in "friendship with Jesus."

In September, Pope Benedict spent far more time promoting this vision than he did speaking about Islam.

He continually pointed Catholics to Jesus, asking them to spend time with him, to get to know him. Before he left for Bavaria, he set the tone for what was to follow, saying Jesus "is not only a teacher but a friend, and, more than that, a brother. How can we know him if we keep a distance from him? Intimacy, familiarity and knowledge help us to discover Jesus Christ's true identity."

On Sept. 11, he begged parents to introduce their children to Jesus through the Mass. "Dear parents! I ask you to help your children to grow in faith. ... Please, go with your children to church and take part in the Sunday eucharistic celebration! You will see that this is not time lost; rather, it is the very thing that can keep your family truly united and centered."

That same day, he gave an impassioned plea to Catholics to turn to Mary as a way to get close to Jesus, saying, "Holy mother of God, pray for us, just as at Cana you prayed for the bride and the bridegroom! Guide us toward Jesus - ever anew! Amen!"

On Sept. 12, the day of the fateful words, he defined friendship as "being with" the other, saying "eucharistic adoration is an essential way of being with the Lord."

Pope Benedict XVI is much more concerned that we think about who Jesus is than that we think about who Mohammed is. He wants us to reconnect with the basic things that bring us into friendship with Christ: Sunday Mass, confession, prayer, works of charity.

That's why, for Benedict, the call to meet Islam in dialogue is as bold and courageous as Pius V's call to meet invaders in the Gulf of Corinth. For him, dialogue means telling the truth in love, no matter what the consequence - even when it infuriates.

Our job is to do what Catholics in Pius V's day did. Listen to the voice of Peter and act. If we turn to Jesus as they did, we'll be just as gratified with the results. And if we don't? Then today's "Battle of Lepanto" will end very differently.

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