For all Oxonians, especially Catholics, October 7 is a date to remember because of:
1. Catholic Europe’s 1571 surprise victory over the Ottoman Empire’s navy in the Battle of Lepanto:
2. The Feast Day of Our Lady of the Rosary, adopted to commemorate that victory:
3. The birthday of the pastor (since May of this year) of Oxford’s St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Father Mark Shoffner.
The three are intertwined:
In 1570, the Ottoman Empire invaded Cyprus to take control of that island from the Republic of Venice, which, though still a great naval and commercial power, had been in decline since around 1500, and was no match for the Ottomans, then at their peak.
Pope Pius V, whose pontificate, 1566–1572, was concurrent with his temporal reign over the Papal States (whence my maternal ancestors derive), organized a number of majority-Catholic polities into a “Holy League” (European history has had many alliances so named) to assist Venice.
In 1571, Pius V called upon Catholics (not just clerics, aristocrats, and other elites, but all Catholics, whatever their station) to say the Rosary to plead for Mother Mary’s intercession on behalf of Venice. On October 7, the Holy League’s fleet challenged the Ottomans off the coast of Lepanto, Greece. In the Britannica’s telling:
“The flagships of both fleets engaged each other directly, and Ali Pasha’s Sultana targeted Don Juan [de Austria’s] Real with a ramming attack that rendered the decks of both ships into a single battlefield. After hours of fierce fighting, the Ottoman centre collapsed when Ali Pasha was killed and the Sultana was taken in tow by the Real. [Agostino] Barbarigo was mortally wounded when an Ottoman arrow struck him in the eye, and Mohammed Saulak, seriously wounded in combat, was executed when he was captured by allied forces.”
Although the Ottomans succeeded in conquering Cyprus in 1573, their empire never fully recovered its momentum after the 1571 defeat. Correspondingly, Christian Europe gained confidence that the Ottoman’s were not unstoppable.
And on October 7, 1986, Mark Shoffner was born. A few years ago, he was interviewed by Tereza Ma of Mississippi Catholic magazine, in which he reveals:
“I was born in King’s Daughters Hospital in Greenville, Mississippi on the Feast of Our Lady of Victory (the Rosary). In the same hospital as Jim Henson who created Kermit the Frog. I was born into a family heritage composed of German, French, English, Sicilian, Mexican, Scotch-Irish and Choctaw. With ancestors ranging from Native Americans, to German indentured servants immigrating to the colonies in the 1740’s, to a 20th century Mexican immigrant, my family covers all of what makes America.”
Further along, we learn:
“I graduated from nursing school at [Mississippi Delta Community College] as a Registered Nurse in 2010 and worked at Delta Regional Medical Center in the Cardiovascular ICU until entering seminary for the diocese …..
“I’d thought about priesthood since third grade and been encouraged by teachers, priests, sisters and parishioners. It was always in my head through elementary, high school, and college despite me not actively pursuing it.
“I was working one night in the hospital on an elderly man, and I thought of St. Mother Teresa and Father Richard Ho Lung …. I had a profound thought of, ‘What is their motivation for doing their work,’ which was much like my own in the hospital? I worked up the courage to reach out to Father Kent Bowlds who met with me regularly for about a year to help me see where the Lord was leading me. The motivation I was looking for that night in the hospital, it was Love. The love and mercy God has for us all and how we are called to be his hands and feet to bring that love to all people.”
And last, but not least:
“I am particularly excited about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, bringing people back to God, who loves them despite their faults and desires to be with them in every aspect of their lives. The loving and merciful heart of God, poured out for us through Confession is what I’m looking forward to.”
On the October 7 just past, Father Mark turned 36. After the noontime Mass that day, congregants young and old surrounded him to wish him a happy birthday.
One congregant (a Sicilian-American friend of mine) said of her and her husband, “We’re in our 80’s.” She then exclaimed, 36 is a baby — a baby!” I allowed that I’d be 74 in a few days. She shot back, “You’re a baby too!”
But no matter their age, no one who has performed healthcare in a cardiac ICU is unaware of life’s tragic dimension. From the pulpit, Father Mark’s homilies reveal that alongside his kind and gentle sense of humor, and deep knowledge, he has a gift for communicating that in our everyday decisions, eternity is in the balance.
All contemporary photos © Gaetano Catelli Studios.