On 27 April 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Rev Fr Mark of Aviano OFMCap (1631-99). The ceremony occurred without any world-wide protest from Muslims, and certainly nothing of the sort that accompanied the considerably more innocuous recent commentary of Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg.
Mark of Aviano was a Capuchin friar, born Carlo Domenico, in Aviano in the Republic of Venice. So keen was his zeal that, at the age of sixteen, he went to Crete – where the Venetians were then at war with the Muslim Ottoman Turks – to offer himself to defend the island.
Christendom was in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the Muslim Turks, and the Protestant Reformation had simply weakened the defences. Moreover, Catholic Christendom was fighting, now, on two fronts against both Muslim and Protestant and might, at any time, be swept away altogether. Particular determination, tenacity and courage was now needed more than ever from the defenders of Christendom. Fortunately, courage was not lacking.
In September 1529, after defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács, the Ottoman Turks and their allies laid siege to Vienna – the famous “Siege of Vienna” of 1529. After a tremendous struggle the Austrians, under the seventy-year-old Count Nicholas von Salm, were finally victorious, although Salm himself was killed during the siege.
On 7 October 1571, the Ottoman Turks had seized the opportunity to launch a vast fleet to conquer as much of Christendom as they could. Almost miraculously, they were defeated at Lepanto by the combined Christian fleets under the command of Grand Admiral John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
To this was added the prayers of Christendom since the pope, St Pius V, had ordered a Christendom-wide Rosary prayer campaign for victory. Later, at the “Battle of Vienna” of 1683, King Jan (John) III Sobieski of Poland, also accompanied by Christendom-wide praying of the Rosary, delivered Vienna and Christendom once again from the Muslim Ottoman Turks.
Mark of Aviano, knowing the dangers, set out to risk martyrdom at the hands of the Turkish horde. Arriving at a Capuchin convent, he was welcomed by the superior, who, after providing him with food and rest, advised him to return home. But Mark stayed in the convent long enough to be deeply impressed by their way of life and – not least – by their militancy in defending the Christian faith. In 1648, he entered the novitiate of the Capuchins.
This was in the year when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed and ended the bloody and internecine Thirty Years’ War. It was the year when the Long Parliament in England passed the Vote of No Address, breaking off negotiations with King Charles I and thereby setting the scene for the second phase of the English Civil War.
One year later, Mark professed his vows. He progressed sufficiently well in the Order that in 1664 he received a licence to preach throughout the Republic of Venice and other Italian states, especially during Advent and Lent. He was also given more responsibility when he was elected superior of the convent of Belluno in 1672, and of the convent of Oderzo in 1674.
Blessed Mark of Aviano
But it was in 1676 that his life took a sudden new direction. He gave his blessing to a nun who had been bedridden for some thirteen years, whereupon she was healed.
Soon his fame grew widely enough for the Emperor himself – by then Emperor Leopold I – to take note. Leopold met Friar Mark, was soon deeply impressed by him, and effectively made him one of his privy counsellors.
Around this time Mark was also appointed by the Venerable Pope Innocent XI as Apostolic Nuncio and Papal Legate. His status was now complete: he was the personal adviser of the Emperor and of the defending Catholic monarchs.
He turned his attention back to his original aim and desire: the defence of a free Christendom from Islam. A passionate and eloquent preacher, he used his skills to great advantage in keeping and maintaining unity among the Holy League armies of Austria, Poland, Venice, and the Papal States, by now under the leadership of King Jan Sobieski, who was called upon by the Emperor to defend Christendom from the once more invading Turk.
This time, the Turks came by land.
“Behold the Cross of the Lord!”
In the decisive Battle of Vienna of 1683, the Holy League armies succeeded in repulsing the invaders. Famously, during the fighting, Friar Mark brandished a crucifix at the Turks, shouting to them “Behold the Cross of the Lord: Flee, enemy bands!”.
From 1683 to 1689 he committed himself to the military campaign, promoting good relations between the various component forces of the Imperial army. He acted as Chaplain-General to the Army exhorting, consoling, ministering to, and leading the soldiers. In this, he mirrored the heroic life of an earlier Franciscan, St John of Capistrano, who had aided the Empire’s Hungarian general, Count Jan Hunyady, to lift the Turkish siege of Belgrade in the fifteenth century.
Friar Mark’s guidance helped bring about a second liberation of Belgrade. This time, it was in 1688, the year that, in England, the Catholic King James II was being treacherously ousted from his rightful throne by the Protestant revolutionaries.
Not only Protestants, but also the devious and scarcely Catholic King Louis XIV of France, did not hesitate to side with the Turks against the Empire; but Friar Mark and King Jan III overcame all odds. Moreover, Friar Mark, magnanimous in victory, was ever astute in protecting surrendering Muslims and prisoners from retribution. His zeal for the defence of Christendom was fierce, but always tempered by mercy and compassion.
The Ottomans fought on for another sixteen years, losing control of Hungary and Transylvania in the process, before finally giving up. Thus, the Battle of Vienna marks the end of Turkish expansion into Christendom, finalized by the Treaty of Karlowitz.
The combination of the spiritual and the temporal, the religious and the lay, pope and emperor, friar and king, had once again proved the ultimate defence for Catholic Christendom. Not for nothing did Our Lord say, mysteriously, when St Peter showed him two swords, interpreted to mean the lay and the spiritual, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38). Sobieski, doubtless influenced by Friar Mark, had entrusted all to the protection of Our Lady of Czestochowa before the battle.
Siege of Vienna
A significant date
Ironically, for us, the Battle of Vienna took place on a very significant date. It began on 11 September and ended on 12 September, the Vigil and Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, respectively. It thus began on the date that is now known to us as “9/11”, the day of the attack upon the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. The choice was doubtless deliberate on the part of the Muslim terrorists, but they did not reckon with its other resonances.
At Friar Mark’s beatification in 2003, the Pope said that Friar Mark reminds the European continent “that its unity will be more stable if it is based on its common Christian roots.” Other commentators like John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, feared that the beatification might lead to hostile reaction from Islam. But Italian director Renzo Martinelli, who is making a film based on the life of Mark of Aviano, countered by saying that “without him, Italian women would today be wearing the burqa.”
Legends surround Friar Mark. One says that the croissant was invented in Vienna to celebrate the defeat as a reference to the crescents on the Turkish flags. Austrian-born Marie Antoinette introduced the pastry to France in 1770.
Another legend from Vienna has the first bagel as a gift to King Jan Sobieski, to honour his victory. It was fashioned in the form of a stirrup, to commemorate the victorious charge by the Polish cavalry.
After the battle, the Austrians discovered many bags of coffee in the abandoned Turkish encampment. Using this captured stock, Franciszek Jerzy Kulczycki (a Polish merchant) opened the third coffeehouse in Europe and the first in Vienna, where, according to legend, Kulczycki and Friar Mark added milk and honey to sweeten the bitter coffee. The result was thereafter termed “cappuccino”, after the brown hood of the Capuchin friar.
Missions to Islam
Other saints also had a particular mission amongst the Muslims. St John of Matha and St Felix of Valois (of the Royal house of France) founded the Trinitarians for the ransom of Christian captives, and St Peter Nolasco founded the Order of Our Lady of Ransom after our Lady appeared to him in 1218.
Yet foolish commentators would have us believe that the view of the Church has historically been a bloodthirsty one, bent partly upon conquest and partly upon plunder, but only incidentally upon any good. It is a mendacious picture. No cognisance is given of the simple fact that the entirety of Christendom was under constant threat, at short notice, from complete conquest by the invading Ottomans whose janissaries often roamed at will, marauding, upon the hills of Austria and flat plains of Hungary.
The Church’s attitude was not only reasonable and rational, but it was also robust yet merciful, courageous yet compassionate, firm but fair. Moreover, it still remains the only solution to handling the modern threat from Islamic terrorism and extremism.
This, truly, is the legacy of Blessed Mark of Aviano. No coward, he was ready to defend Christendom with his life, by martyrdom if necessary, but he was also ever-compassionate to the defeated enemy; and, the threat neutralised, he, like St John of Matha, St Felix of Valois and St Peter Nolasco, sought to negotiate diplomatically to find peaceful solutions. Like them, he was ready to redeem captives by personal sacrifice, if necessary, neither shrinking from the duty to defend Christendom nor erring on the side of hatred or disrespect nor unwillingness to parley even with the worst of erstwhile enemies.
Not for nothing is Blessed Mark still honoured today in Austria and Venice. He and the whole Capuchin Order were, and are, especially venerated by the Habsburg imperial family, who, from the time of Blessed Mark, took as their personal chaplains the Capuchin friars, and often baptised their children with the name Markus d’Aviano.
Moreover, by imperial rescript, emperors were thereafter buried in the crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. The ceremony was seen once again at the death of the Empress Zita in 1989.
The great procession halts at the door of the Capuchin church, the coffin carriage guarded by the Tyrolean Schützenkompanie, ahead of the guards, hussars, uhlans and lancers, the ranks of the nobility and the throngs of the people of Vienna. The Chamberlain knocks with his staff and the voice of a Capuchin friar calls from within “Who is there?”. The imperial and other titles are read out in full, and the voice says “We do not know her”; again the same reading takes place, but with fewer titles; finally the Chamberlain knocks and says “Zita, a sinful mortal”. The friar replies, “Then we know her!”, and opens the great door to let the procession into the imperial friary Church.
It is a ceremony wholly in keeping with the spirit of Blessed Mark. All the more fitting, then, is the large statue of Blessed Mark of Aviano, outside the Church, holding aloft the crucifix, advancing and calling on all – emperor, king or mere citizen – to yield to the Cross of Christ, the source of all peace, justice, hope and salvation for every man who ever lived or ever shall live.
Blessed Mark of Aviano, pray for us!
Source: ORIENS - Journal of the Oriens Foundation