Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
How, at Any Given Time, the Fate of Christendom May Depend on a Few
Heroic Saint’Elme Position in the Famous Battle in Malta, 23th June 1565
Saint of the Day, 12th June 1972
“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”
The words "Revolution" and "Counter-Revolution" are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.
As I spoke a few days ago about the Saint’Elme position, I wanted to read a text given to me on this subject from the March 1969 issue of Catolicismo. What then is a Saint’Elme position?
The Catolicismo article is titled: “How Malta Celebrated St. John’s Vigil in the Year 1565.” That is roughly 407 years ago.
In short, the text is as follows:
Placed in an incomparable strategic position, the island of Malta, bastion of the Knights Hospitaller...
An Order of Chivalry whose members, as you know, took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and waged armed struggle to free the Holy Sepulcher and to care for the sick and wounded at holy war, and the sick in general.
...made it terribly difficult to communicate between the extremes of the Ottoman Empire at a time when the Turkish power was at its height. The Battle of Lepanto had not yet been fought. To have an idea of this heyday, suffice it to remember that the armies of the Grand Turk were close to Vienna, and his troops were attacking the Spanish coast.”
To get an idea of the immense power this represents and to what extent Turkey was a superpower at that time, you just need to refresh your memory about its geographical situation.
The Turkish Empire occupied, among other territories, all of Asia Minor and the city of Constantinople, located in Europe on the other side of the Bosporus. It also held almost all the Balkans. The Turkish Empire, a Muslim empire, was so well developed that the troops of the Turkish Emperor attacked Vienna while his navy attacked Spain. Therefore, it was a kind of a vast and harmful vulture that waged a two-pronged attack on two ends of Christendom.
It turns out that these extreme parts of the Turkish Empire would only be conveniently reachable by sea, and any ships had to pass within reach of the island of Malta. The island of Malta made the cohesion of this immense Empire difficult because, with the Christian warships based on the island, well-stocked and equipped, they could attack their convoys with the possibility of retreating and taking the shelter on the island, fortified with good cannons.
Now, cohesion is the fundamental problem of great empires. They have strength, but how can they make all their forces move in the same direction? How to synchronize them so that they carry out the exact order received from the same master? Here’s the problem. The island of Malta threatened this cohesion was threatened. Malta was occupied by this Order of Cavalry, which was like a nail driven into the heart of Turkey. But it was a single, isolated and weak nail facing an Empire that surrounded Malta on all sides. You you must remember that North Africa was also Mohammedan. So Malta had a relatively small support, as you will see in this narration.
Determined to end once and for all with what he considered a personal insult...
In other words, the existence of Malta cutting his Empire in half.
Sultan Suleiman the Great summoned his soldiers from every corner of the Empire and assembled a formidable fleet of 193 ships, carrying over a hundred thousand fighters.
For that time, was a colossal army. A hundred thousand combatants was something never seen before.
Eighty thousand cannonballs and forty thousand yards of gunpowder. It was necessary, he said, to crush that “scorpion nest.”
So he decided to send an offensive that would finish off Malta. To understand the beauty of the situation, note that Malta was, therefore, a position in which Catholic Europe was defending itself against a threatening empire. If Malta fell, the whole of Europe would be much more threatened because the Mediterranean would be almost a mare nostrum for Muslims. With that, attacking Europe would be very easy.
You will now see how vital the Saint’Elme position was within Malta. Malta is a Saint’Elme of Europe, and Saint’Elme will be a Malta of Malta. You will see how, at any given time, the fate of a great continent, the fate of Christendom, may depend on a few. This is the thesis that is so dear to us.
For their part, the Monk-Soldiers were not idle. Warned by spies, the Order had summoned all its members scattered across Europe to rush to Malta immediately.
Therefore, you see how they knew how to do things. They had spies in Turkey to warn them of what was going on. And, of course, they were within their rights to have them. This destroys a certain white heresy idea that a true Catholic is incapable of ever having organized a well-equipped news and information service.
On the other hand, you see their presence of mind. The Order of Malta had many strongholds in Europe, with knights and warrior monks. Knowing that the sultan was preparing a massive attack against them, they called to Malta all knights of the various castles in Europe to man the entire island. They abandoned all other positions to face the ultimate assault.
At the same time, they send for help from the greatest Catholic monarch in Europe, Philip II of Spain, and the Pope, who had a small state capable of sending maritime reinforcements as he later sent to Lepanto. Above all, the Pope had a great international diplomatic influence to recruit volunteers from other countries to fight in Malta. In other words, in the face of danger, they mobilized all the resources at their disposal.
Under the tireless guidance of Grand Master La Valette, eight thousand women and children of the island’s civilian population were sent to the mainland, and the necessary provisions were amassed.
The Grand Master is the superior general of this Order. He was a Frenchman, La Valette, a nobleman, and had the foresight to send eight thousand non-combatant mouths out of the city so that all the food that could fit inside the small island would be consumed only by warriors so that, if besieged, they could resist for as long as possible. In short, to have in Malta as many warriors as possible, and out of Malta as many useless mouths as possible. When the island was attacked, it was in full shape to take the attack. But as you will see, the attack is really terrible.
This elderly leader, La Valette, is a singular character. Strong in body and mind at 70, he has been fighting the infidels since his adolescence.
He had joined the Order of Malta from a young age.
The infidels feared him so much that Dragut, the old fox, stated that the only thing he feared at sea was the appearance of the flagship of the Hospitallers, led by Commander La Valette.
La Valette was the one they were afraid of. Just imagine the perfect monk-warrior. He is smart and has spies and diplomacy. He is a strategist and a great warrior. He is frightening. He’s not just an ‘office hero.’ At times, he leaves the Office and sticks his chest out: “Now I am the one who’s going to fight and expose my life.” He is the perfect picture of a leader.
Malta’s main city, Borgo, was situated between two small coves. These coves led to a bay named Great Port.
That means that the main city depended on two small inlets that faced a gulf and a bay. As you will see, this bay was defended by a peninsula.
The Saint’Elmo Fort dominated the access to this port from the sea.
Here you see a peninsula that defends the island and thus defends Christendom. It is the right peninsula at the right place to receive the right heroes. It is Christendom’s strategic position par excellence.
On May 18, the Order’s watchmen announced the vanguard of the Muslim fleet, which immediately closed off the island in a narrow blockade and landed a detachment of Janissaries and Sipahis who proceeded to lay waste to the fields.
The Catholics had neither enough ships to prevent the blockade nor enough soldiers to prevent the landing on the island. From the start, they were so inferior to the attackers in numbers and power that the latter immediately descended on the island and were soon able to attack Borgo’s walls. In other words, from the first impact, the Catholics were reduced to this fundamental point: Borgo and the Saint’Elme position.
Then the first attack takes place:
The Turks prepared their artillery and attacked the Saint’Elme Fort. However, fighting with determination and supported by solid walls, the Maltese repelled the enemy, killing more than 2,000 Turks and losing only 20 knights and 120 soldiers.
It’s a beauty. Now comes the second attack.
Determined to conquer the fortress at any cost, the next day, the infidels unleashed another attack. This time they entrusted the enterprise to the elite corps of Janissaries.
These were soldiers born to Catholic slaves or children stolen from Catholic parents, whom they made into the elite troops of the Turkish army.
The Janissaries managed to jump over the ditches and lay pontoons over the ditches and were eventually repelled by the heroic defenders. However, the latter’s situation was critical, and a new assault would likely be the last.
The Janissaries launched such a strike that, predictably, there was no possibility of resistance.
The third attack took place. Under constant fire from enemy artillery, the survivors of the Saint’Elme garrison decided to send one of them, the Knight de la Cerda, to the Grand Master to ask if it would not be more useful for them to retreat to the Borgo, abandoning a position they could not prevent from being taken even if all of them were to die.
In other words, they would die anyway, and so they asked that question.
Mastering his emotion, La Valette ordered them to hold out to the end, noting that each day gained could allow the arrival of the reinforcements requested from Europe.
Here is the problem: There was the possibility that the troops they had asked from Philip II and the Pope would arrive. If they did, they could still keep the position. If they won the position, it would be much easier to send the enemy away. So, La Valette answered: resist until you die. I would rather have them there as corpses than have them here as combatants. It is a hard answer to give.
He later added that if Saint’Elme’s defenders wanted to return to the Borgo, he would personally replace them at the post with the knights who volunteered to do so. Saint’Elme Commander Juan De Guaras immediately declared that he would die there with his men.
Indeed he died. But you can imagine what the emissary’s return with that answer means. What an outrage it would be to go out and see the old Grand Master coming with other knights to defend the fort as they went over to Borgo to sleep. It was not possible. It was a situation in which a fighter prefers to die.
It also shows how the old La Valette knew how to handle the situation. He realized that those people were kind wobbly and put them into one of those positions with no way out. It’s over. Now fight!
A third attack takes place. Despite the daily assaults, the fortress still held out for twenty days. Seeing his soldiers discouraged, Mustafa asked for Dragut’s help, who placed 3,000 warriors from Africa at his disposal...
In other words, the Maltese did not receive outside help but still managed to discourage the much more numerous attackers. But the point is that the attackers received outside aid, and the Maltese did not. So the balance was tipping against the Maltese.
The fanatical Muslim members of the Yayalar sect had unparalleled ferocity. As Pierre Varillon tells [in his book L’Epopée des Chevaliers de Malte], they wore skins of ferocious animals, had verses from the Koran tattooed on their face and body, and a long hair gathered under a silver helmet. They climbed the walls roaring horrible blasphemies and swearing formulas.
You see that they are some kind of demons. Imagine those weary defendants seeing those Yayalars with tattooed faces, long hair, a silver helmet perhaps ending in a point and screaming hideous things, with camel skins on their backs, scaling the walls. Their aspect is the least suitable to encourage a fighter trying to resist.
Having arrived at the battlements, they collided with the 62 knight-friars of St. John and the one hundred soldiers left at the garrison, who did not retreat a step.
162 men against 3 thousand assailants.
With their spears and swords broken, the Maltese defended themselves with daggers, beheading their adversaries and hurling them from the walls. The knights were finally victorious. To explain the defeat, the Yayalars claimed that the demon had fought on the other side.
You see what a warrior friar genuinely devoted to Our Lady is like. What wonders they accomplished! The wonders have not come to an end.
We arrive at the fourth attack. The last assault on the Saint’Elme Fortress was launched on June 23, the vigil of Saint John the Baptist.
He was the patron of their Religious Order.
“We will celebrate the feast of the Hospitaller’s Patron in heaven,” the commander Juan de Guaras had written the Grand Master a little earlier.
Everyone knew they would be martyred and die the next day, their patron saint’s day. So he says: we will celebrate this feast in heaven.
At dawn on that fatal day, only 60 wounded men were left inside the walls. The others were killed next to their leader, De Guaras. When the Turks entered into what was left of the Saint’Elme Fortress, they immediately beheaded the survivors and hoisted the Turkish standard over it.
Imagine the sadness of those in Borgo seeing the banner of the crescent, the standard of Muhammad replacing the standard of the Order of Malta. It would be the same thing to see a communist invade the seat, lower the TFP standard and raise a standard with the hammer and sickle on the turret on Maranhão Street. What a sensation it would produce! That is what the men saw from Borgo.
Here comes the fifth move of the fight. In Borgo, hearing the Muslims’ shouts of triumph, the garrison stood on the battlements and hoisted the grand standard of the Order on a 40-foot pole.
It would be more or less like for us to hoist the standard of the Reign of Mary Hall as if saying: You took that turret and removed our standard from it. We take our most sacrosanct and solemn standard and put it on top of our turret, meaning: we will fight to the end. We will spare nothing, will back down from nothing, but we’ll do everything to destroy you. That was a great response to the challenge they received.
The bishop was beside the knights and chaplains...
Bishops habitually had the mentality inherent to their sacrosanct ministry; this lasted much beyond those times. But it serves a little to erase the false ideas about bishop mocorongo and white heresy so well known to so many. You will see the grand spectacle.
...with miter and crosier, not vested in the black colors of the dead but the red of martyrs, and carrying the miraculous veil of Our Lady of Philerme. The soldiers and priests, haughty and majestic, sang the hymn with which the Church celebrates champions of faith: “Deus, tuorum militum sors et corona, praemium” – God, reward and crown Thy warriors ‘destiny.”
They chanted from the top of the tower for the enemies to see. Of course, they were a short distance away. At that time, they did not have today’s prodigious binoculars.
Mustafa, surprised to hear the singing, asked one of his generals of Christian blood, heir to a great name – the Lascaris family…
It was a family of Catholic or schismatic sovereigns from Asia Minor or Byzantium, if I’m not mistaken.
... asked what the enemies were chanting. Moved, Lascaris replied: “Christians celebrate the death of their brothers with this hymn.”
They were celebrating their brothers’ death with a feast as if saying: we are not afraid of dying because our death will be a feast too. We will die, but mind you: we will die killing. That was their warning.
Thus informed, Mafona’s cruel follower, Muhammad, immediately ordered the bodies of Saint’Elme’s heroes and all the Christian prisoners held by his army to be brought to him. Dead and alive, they were placed in the center of a frame formed by the surviving Yayalars. By order of Mustafa, these ripped open the chests of Christians and tore out their hearts. Then the bodies were split in the shape of a cross, tied to boards and thrown into the sea so the currents would carry them to Borgo. When these poor but glorious spoils reached the city harbor, the Grand Master left the Office with the dignitaries of the Order.
It is beautiful to see their great calm. As there was no immediate attack they kept calm, celebrating the Office of their saint—a high-class attitude. You might say they show an exemplary psychological distance.
Then, look at the interesting coincidence: the doors of the cathedral of Malta swung open, a procession comes out with the bishop and warriors in an atmosphere of glory and tragedy, as the sea brings back the martyrs’ bodies when the Office comes to an end.
Moved to tears, La Valette proclaimed that the Turks’ barbaric challenge demanded an immediate response. With the approval of his Council, he had all the Mohammedan prisoners killed and their body pieces, previously bound to cannon muzzles, took [to the Saracens the dreadful response of the Catholic Religion].
People with a modern mentality would say: “Look, these people are furious. We better not challenge them too much because if they win, we are finished. Look, what happened to those people will happen to us,”
These are the people who will be defeated. Because whoever wages war with those weakly fears of dying is not worth two snails. He has already lost the war. One must wage war measuring millimeters. One must go for broke no matter what happens.
Sixth move: Philip II, finally responding the urgings of his zeal, determined the departure of a fleet commanded by Dom Garcia de Toledo with 14,000 combatants. Arriving by surprise, the Spaniards passed by and unloaded six cannons on the Turkish ships before docking at the port.
It cannot get any better. The party started even before they docked.
Now, what was La Valette thinking? You will be flabbergasted. You imagine Valette at the port jumping up and down with others, saying: “Come, come soon. They might suddenly arrive before you dock. Prepare for mooring.”
Not so. Those men had noble souls and regarded all things from a distance. La Valette was concerned about protocol. Such was the soul of an aristocrat, for whom kindness and good manners were important. Why? Here is the problem: the Spanish fleet entered given cannonades of salute in honor of the island of Malta. Because of that, they had no more bullets to shoot back. What to do? It is a heroic predicament.
That meant that all their possibilities to react were exhausted. He had fought to the last shot, to the end of the ammunition. Not to be outdone by the Spaniards in kindness, he found some firecrackers and set them off to pay homage to the squadron about to enter. He was thinking about every detail. That’s the way things are done, the way they should be.
La Valette had no more bullets to greet them and was forced to fire a few firecrackers not to fail to comply with his duty of politeness.
It must have been nice to watch the Spanish admiral descend from the Spanish fleet and be received on the pier by La Valette. It should be something [extraordinary]. And La Valette certainly did not go, because he was a sovereign, prince of the Order of Malta. Despite being saved by the Spaniard, he certainly sent someone to represent him at the docking and remained with dignity in his palace. The thing was done according to all good standards.
With their army decimated, their morale broken, and now forced to face not only the terrible Hospitallers but also the hardened Spanish troops, the Mohammedans were threatened with extermination. Understanding the situation, they withdrew as quickly as possible and set out to face the sultan’s wrath...
Because [a withdrawal] carried the death penalty.
...and so they would not see before leaving the standard of the Order of Malta flying over the ruins of the Saint’Elme Fort.
As it flew.
You can imagine the joy of the Grand Master, from the heights of his tower, watching from afar the raising of the Maltese standard over the Fort of Saint’Elme. The heroes of Saint’Elme had been the real heroes of the battle. Dying to the last man, massacred even after they had no more means to fight, accepting martyrdom, they did two things: they went to celebrate their patron’s feast of their patron in heaven and could see from heaven their glorification. The Spanish fleet arrived, the Turks fled, and slowly but surely with hosannas, Te Deum and Magnificat, the standard of the Order of Malta rose to the top, and the Spanish fleet surely saluted with Maltese artillery and cannons also supplied by Spanish ammunition. So you had artillery salvos, the bells of Borgo ringing, and the Island of Malta celebrating its great victory.
It was a handful of men at the Saint’Elme position that had achieved this. Here you truly see how few can do many and great things. That is the lesson we must learn.
You also see how on that island, that peninsula, within that Saint’Elme fortification, the resistance at times was probably done by very few. Because at times might have been discouraged and there could be some kind of soft appeasers and a group of anti-appeasers. The two may have fought for influence, and the fact that one side showed a little more energy than the other might have decided the fate of the peninsula, of the island, and Christendom. Centuries of history depended on the action of a handful of men.
How did that handful face that situation?
Seeing themselves in that predicament, there would be two ways of coping. One would be the following: “it is true that God called me; I’m here, I have to do my duty, I’ll even do my duty, there’s no way out... God has called me... what can I do? I will do my duty. But it would be nicer if God had called those people in Borgo... How nicer it would be if God had called so many people they have there in Europe... Oh God, why did you call me?” That would be a way out.
Another attitude would be: “thank God, we are few, and I was one of the very few called. The sacrifice is tremendous, but holocaust is the normal and glorious term in the life of a Catholic combatant, and above all, of a warrior monk of the Order of Malta. Thank God, I’m going to fight and I’m going to die. It is hard. Oh my God, give me the necessary strength. O my Mother, summon these forces to me. But within my agony and fear – or within my impulse and courage – I ask your help to persevere to the end. Now let’s fight with courage and emphasis.” Which of the two kinds of warriors wins? The first type or the second? Evidently, it is the second type.
In today’s immense psychological and ideological warfare, the TFP is a Saint’Elme position. How many good things depend on the TFP. There are two ways to belong to the TFP: one is, “God has called me, I have to bear this burden on my shoulders. Our Lady called me, here we go, She wanted it, what can I do? She commands, doesn’t she? There I go.”
Another attitude is: “How wonderful! What an ideal Our Lady gave me! What a cross to carry! This cross can be heavy at times, but I am willing to do anything to take it to the top of Calvary. My Mother, give me strength because I want to be much stronger than I have been to give absolutely everything you could want from me. I am going forward! When I die, I want to be able to say like St. Paul: I fought the good fight, I finished my career, give me now, oh God, the prize of your glory.” And go forward.
Of course, we must take the second attitude. And that is why I commented about this text with you today.
Also pray for those in our small Saint’Elme positions. If all those on these TFP peninsulas—the little groups about to go out or barely igniting—fight valiantly, the expansion of the TFP could have an extraordinary increase. Therefore, we ‘in Borgo’ need to pray for them and be ready to go to any Saint’Elme position if our vocation calls us. There you have it. I have nothing more to declare.