King Jan Sobieski knew that the prayers of the Queen of Heaven were far more powerful than any army in the world.
“She is, and shall ever be, Our Lady.”
Vienna was surrounded. An invading Ottoman-led army, estimated at 150,000 troops, stood outside of her gates. Having refused the customary demand to surrender, made by Kara Mustafa, the Grand Vizier, she had been under siege for two months. The soldiers defending Vienna, and the peoples trapped behind her gates, were exhausted.
For over a thousand years, since the very dawn of Islam, the borders of Christendom had been pressed against, and receding.
The Holy Land had fallen long ago, as had Egypt, the Levant, and all of North Africa. In the centuries since the early Arab conquests the subjugated peoples, many of whom had the honorary status of “People of the Book” according to the Quran, had most all been converted, through policies of taxation and breeding and the force of law. The vision of God as the Holy Trinity, whose efforts to befriend mankind culminated in the Crucifixion of Christ, had been traded away for the vision of God as Allah, far too majestic to have ever been one of us, to whom all servitude must be given.
The Iberian Peninsula likewise fell long ago, to the invading Moors, and the conquered peoples had to expend centuries of energy for Spain and Portugal to finally be liberated, during the Reconquista.
In 1453 the great city of Constantinople had fallen into Ottoman hands. Churches such as the Hagia Sophia were converted to mosques (just as the Hagia Sophia was recently reconverted to a mosque). Non-Muslims became subjected to the jizya tax, and countless young Christian men were forcibly conscripted and converted in the system of devshirme.
History had offered those soldiers under the Ottoman banner plentiful reason to believe that the conquest of Vienna, a stepping stone for the eventual fall of Rome and final collapse of the Christian faith, was destiny for the “one true faith.” Having assembled such a grand army for the task, Kara Mustafa could relish in the thought that his own name would be recorded in history alongside the names of Muhammad, the Four Great Caliphs, Saladin, Mehmed II, and Suleiman the Magnificent (who himself had failed to conquer Vienna), and other greats before him who brought the light of Islam to new territories through their conquests. Mustafa, a brilliant tactician, had seized an opportunity to exploit tensions between Catholics and Protestants and recruited Hungarian prince Imre Thokoly to his side, among allegiances of other Christian vassal states with plentiful reason to believe that they were siding with a winner.
The Holy League, a Christian coalition, was formed during the months in which rumors of imminent invasion circulated. This alliance was largely formed through the efforts of Blessed Marco d’Aviano, an Italian Capuchin friar with a reputation for holiness, whom Pope Innocent XI had nominated as chaplain. Father d’Aviano had served as advisor to Leopold I, the ever-indecisive Holy Roman Emperor, and so he had been deemed apt for the difficult task ahead. As a committed Franciscan, d’Aviano viewed all forms of violence as repugnant. Regardless of his convictions, war was well on its way, so in obedience d’Aviano used his talents as a negotiator and an orator, as one called to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves,” to band together a delicate alliance that would be led by the King of Poland. Even still, the Christian armies would be vastly outnumbered.
When the siege finally commenced in July of 1683, d’Aviano steadfastly urged the faithful of Vienna to repent of their sins and to pray the Rosary, just as the faithful had been so urged during the anxious days leading up to the Battle of Lepanto (the anniversary of which is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary) a century before. “Vienna,” he had cried out, “Vienna, your love of lax living has prepared you a grave and imminent chastisement! Convert, and consider well what you are doing. O wretched Vienna.”
As the siege had neared its end, while Kara Mustafa readied himself to witness Ottoman soldiers breach the walls and flood into the city like waters from a burst dam, news had arrived that a relief expedition was nearby.
The Ottomans commenced their attack. Marco d’Aviano celebrated Mass before the battle. The Hapsburg armies spent the day courageously defending Vienna, doing what they could with what strength they had, without any certainty of the potential deliverance climbing the other side of a hill yonder north.
Jan Sobieski, the elected king of Poland, a veteran commander, had arrived with the relief expedition, made of Polish and German and Austrian troops. It was a much larger army than the one that was defending the gates. Still, the armies of the Holy League remained far outnumbered. Desperate situations call for daring measures. Sobieski and his army climbed the Kahlenberg, out of sight from the Ottoman army, with the intent to charge the hostile army, which was facing Vienna, from the rear. Such an undertaking hadn’t been considered plausible, and so the Ottoman command, practical as it was, had overlooked it. It was said that Sobieski was too heavyset, too old, that he could barely mount his horse. He would lead the charge anyway, with his 15-year-old son by his side. The army ascended the hill. On the summit of the mount the king placed his army under the protection of Our Lady.
“Woman, behold thy son!” Our Lord told the Virgin Mary while he was hanging on the Cross. After that he then looked to the disciple, saying: “Behold thy mother!”
Sobieski was a devout Catholic. He knew that we have a Mother who prays for us during trials, that the Queen of Heaven’s prayers were far more powerful than any army in the world.
The burst of cannons firing, the stamping of 18,000 horses, the roaring fury of men descending the mount, rang in the ears of the Ottoman forces like thunder from offended gods. The Winged Hussars dove upon the hostile army like eagles. The Ottoman armies were thrown into terrible confusion, and began to scatter. The charging cavalry shattered the lines of their enemies in one crushing blow. On Sept. 12, 1683, Christendom was saved.
“Venimus, vidimus, Deus vicit” King Sobieski later went on to say. “We came, we saw, God conquered.”
Kara Mustafa assigned blame for this failure where he could, upon Imre Thokoly, upon Murad Giray, the Crimean khan who was quickly disposed of thereafter. But it wasn’t enough. The Sultan ordered that Mustafa be strangled with a silk chord, as was custom for high-ranking officials in the Ottoman Empire, and the Grand Vizier’s last words after surrendering to his executioners were said to be “Am I to die?” and “as God pleases.” On Christmas Day in 1683, the life of one of the most talented commanders in Ottoman history was extinguished.
The Holy League continued to push the borders of the Ottoman Empire back, liberating swaths of Europe from Turkish control, until the Treaty of Karlowitz was finalized in 1699. A Muslim army has never been capable of overrunning Christendom with large-scale invasion since. After centuries of steady decline, the Ottoman Empire finally dissolved under the pressures of the First World War.
Father Marco d’Aviano continued to serve as chaplain until 1689. In several instances, such as during the Siege of Belgrade (1688), Muslims facing capture, fearing retribution, had successfully appealed to him for clemency. He was beatified in 2003.
“Hail Mary, Full of Grace…” – Major Julian Cook while crossing the Waal River during Operation Market Garden, in World War II
You, the reader of this article, could very well have been a Muslim today if a single event had had a different outcome some centuries ago. And I, once upon a time, would hardly have imagined that I’d be writing an article paying tribute to a Muslim army’s defeat. But I grew up with the freedom to choose my faith, a freedom which so many in the Muslim world are deprived of. We enjoy the freedom to openly practice our faith, because brave men had taken their stands in defense of the Faith long before any of us were ever born. How often do we take this for granted?
The feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary was first included in the general Roman calendar on September 12, 1684. It was removed from the Church calendar after Second Vatican Council, and restored in 2002 by Pope St. John Paul II, who was, of course, a Pole himself like Sobieski. Karol Wojtyla, a man from one of the nations of the Eastern Bloc, was no stranger to overt assaults upon our Faith. As a man deeply devoted to Mary, he understood that the survival of our Faith, whether the assaults be from invaders without or from ideologies within, depends upon the constant intercessions of Our Lady.
Attempts to overwhelm and discredit the Faith are as old as the Church herself. Regardless of whatever challenges any generation faces, our Church has survived, continues to survive, and shall survive until the end of time, because our Mother prays for us.
Have a blessed feast day!