Given the last few centuries, who can blame the Poles for praying for their country?

On Saturday up to a million Poles gathered at the Polish border to pray the rosary, for the salvation of Poland and the world. Our magazine carries a report here. The event also attracted the attention of the New York Times as well as the BBC website, which saw the event as “controversial”.

This rosary rally, organised by laypeople but endorsed by the hierarchy, took place on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and on the first Saturday of the month, in the hundredth anniversary year of the apparitions at Fatima. With all these things coming together, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Moreover, the symbolism of praying at the border – showing Poland surrounded by prayer, and looking out to the world – was also powerful. We are always being told that we should go to the margins, are we not? Well, here was one group of people who did just that.

To what extent should this event be seen as “controversial”, though, to use the BBC’s lovely word? Was this some sort of nationalistic demonstration? Was it an Islamophobic one? For many of the participants, national concerns were not far away, nor was the question of Muslim migration. So, really we ought to examine these two issues, and see if these concerns are legitimate or not, and see too if these concerns are coherent with Christian charity or not.

Poland is a country rather different to, let’s say, Britain. In recent memory, it has been wiped off the map on several occasions. In 1939, it was partitioned between the Germans and the Soviets, both of whom did their best to make sure the country would never rise again. A generation previously, after the First World War, Poland fought a war of survival against the Soviet Union. And no one, at least in Poland, has forgotten the Partitions, in which the Austrians, Prussians and Russians effectively carved the country up in the eighteenth century. If the Poles seem more attached to national sovereignty than most, who can blame them? Their sovereignty has been much disputed. Moreover, the question of Polish nationhood is deeply connected to the Catholic faith. Both in matters of ethnicity and religion, the Poles have been steadfast in resisting Russification. Can you blame them?

Currently, Poland has not gone down the same path as the Federal Republic of Germany when it comes to admitting migrants. Quite a lot of people are cross about this, not least in Brussels, but the Poles are surely entitled to make their own decision on this matter. In liberal societies consent is paramount. The Poles have not consented in this matter. (A lot of Germans have not either, but that is a different matter.) Everyone has to respect their right to withhold consent in this and other matters.

Given the above, it still is not right to link the praying of the rosary exclusively to these explicitly secular concerns. One prays the rosary for an intention, rather than against something. To pray for the salvation of Poland and the world (the two necessarily go together) is admirable. The Polish example should spur others to do the same. As for the anniversary of Lepanto, this should be seen as a positive, rather than a negative. The Ottoman state no longer exists, so marking the anniversary is not aimed at another country. The victory of Lepanto contributed to the liberation of the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire (though this was a long time in coming), freeing them from a cruel, despotic and backward regime. The battle itself led to the immediate liberation of numerous Christian galley slaves. What is not to celebrate about that?

The Rosary is intimately linked to the victory of Lepanto, because Saint Pius V encouraged the faithful to pray for victory in this way. Praying for victory in war has long been the Christian way – it was certainly done in between the years 1939-1945, and I have seen prayer cards with the words “Give peace and victory to Britain and her Empire, and to your servant George V, our King”. Moreover, even today bishops in Nigeria are urging people to pray the rosary in the face of Boko Haram which is completely in keeping with Catholic tradition. Lots of people have been saying the same about ISIS.

Controversial? I don’t think so. Catholics have been doing these things for centuries. Let’s hope we continue doing them for centuries to come. As the website of the organisers of the Polish event reminds us, “the rosary is a powerful weapon against evil.” Let’s keep on using it!