Thursday, September 24, 2009

Our Lady of Mercy (Ransom)

Our Lady of Ransom:

This is my prayer to you, my prayer for your favor. In your great love, answer me, O God, with your help that never fails: rescue me from sinking in the mud; save me from my foes.

The Blessed Virgin appeared in 1218 in separate visions to St. Peter Nolasco, St. Raymond of Penafort and James, king of Aragon, asking them to found a religious order dedicated to freeing Christian captives from the barbarous Saracens or Moors, who at the time held a great part of Spain. On August 10, 1218, King James established the royal, military and religious Order of our Lady of Ransom (first known as the Order of St. Eulalia, now known as the Mercedarian Order), with the members granted the privilege of wearing his own arms on their breast.

Most of the members were knights, and while the clerics recited the divine office in the commanderies, they guarded the coasts and delivered prisoners. This pious work spread everywhere and produced heroes of charity who collected alms for the ransom of Christians, and often gave themselves up in exchange for Christian prisoners. This feast, kept only by the Order, was extended to the whole Church by Innocent XII in the 17th century.

Our Lady of Ransom

Would you risk your life to free someone from a concentration camp? Would you take the place of a prisoner? Would you sacrifice comforts and even necessities to save a slave? Would you pray and do penance for the freedom of Christian captives?

These things were done by the followers of Christ from the earliest days, but especially during the Middle ages. At that time the enemies of Christ's Church had conquered a great part of Christian territory and had carried off into slavery many thousands of Christians. Hit and miss, though heroic, efforts to free these unfortunates had been made here and there.

The Church decided to organize the work of ransoming slaves. In 1198 St. John of Matha and St. Felix of Valois founded the Trinitarians. From then until 1787 they redeemed 900,000 captives. The Order of Our Lady of Ransom, called the Mercedarians, and founded by St. Peter Nolasco, ransomed 490,736 slaves between the years 1218 and 1632.

St. Vincent de Paul, a slave himself, led his priests to save 1200 Christian captives in the short period between 1642 and 1660 at the staggering cost of 1,200,000 pounds of silver. An even greater achievement was the conversion of thousands in captivity, and steeling them against the sufferings of a cruel martyrdom for the faith.

All this has been admitted by a modern, competent Protestant historian, Bonet-Maury. He records that no expedition sent into the Barbary States by the powers of Europe or America equalled "the moral effect produced by the ministry of consolation, peace and abnegation, going even to the sacrifice of liberty and life, which was exercised by the humble sons of St. John of Matha, St. Peter Nolasco, and St. Vincent de Paul."

Our Blessed Mother herself appeared in a vision to St. Peter Nolasco, and requested him to found a religious order devoted to the rescue of captives. This was in 1218. Previous to that, since 1192, certain noblemen of Barcelona, Spain, had organized to care for the sick in hospitals and to rescue Christians from the Moors. St. Peter Nolasco, St. Raymond of Pennafort, and King James formed the new Order of Our Lady of Mercy.

The group included religious priests who prayed and gathered the means, while the lay monks or knights went into the very camps of the Moors to buy back Christians, and, if necessary, take their very places. We have mentioned the magnitude of their success, a success that was won through the heavenly assistance of the Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of Ransom.

Excerpted from the Feasts of Our Lady by Fr. Arthur Tonne

Patrons: Barcelona, Spain; people named Clemency, Mercedes, Mercedez, Merced or Mercy.


The story of Our Lady of Ransom is, at its outset, that of Saint Peter Nolasco, born in Languedoc about 1189. At the age of twenty-five he took a vow of chastity and made over his vast estates to the Church. After making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Montserrat, he went to Barcelona where he began to practice various works of charity.

He conceived the idea of establishing an Order for the redemption of captives seized by the Moors on the seas and in Spain itself; they were being cruelly tormented in their African prisons to make them deny their faith. He spoke of it to the king of Aragon, James I, who knew him well and already respected him as a Saint; for the king had already asked for his prayers when he sent out his armies to combat the Moors, and he attributed his victories to those prayers.

In effect all the Christians of Europe, and above all of Spain, were praying a great deal to obtain from God the remedy for the great evil that had befallen them. The divine Will was soon manifested. On the same night, August 1, 1218, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Saint Peter, to his confessor, Raymund of Pennafort, and to the king, and through these three servants of God established a work of the most perfect charity, the redemption of captives.

On that night, while the Church was celebrating the feast of Saint Peter in Chains, the Virgin Mary came from heaven and appeared first to Saint Peter, saying that She indeed desired the establishment of a religious Order bearing the name of Her mercy. Its members would undertake to deliver Christian captives and offer themselves, if necessary, as a gage.

Word of the miracle soon spread over the entire kingdom; and on August 10th the king went to the cathedral for a Mass celebrated by the bishop of Barcelona. Saint Raymund went up into the pulpit and narrated his vision, with admirable eloquence and fervor. The king besought the blessing of the bishop for the heaven-sent plan, and the bishop bestowed the habit on Saint Peter, who emitted the solemn vow to give himself as a hostage if necessary.

The Order, thus solemnly established in Spain, was approved by Gregory IX under the name of Our Lady of Mercy. By the grace of God and under the protection of His Virgin Mother, the Order spread rapidly. Its growth was increased as the charity and piety of its members was observed; they very often followed Her directive to give themselves up to voluntary slavery when necessary, to aid the good work. It was to return thanks to God and the Blessed Virgin that a feast day was instituted and observed on September 24th, first in this Order of Our Lady, then everywhere in Spain and France. It was finally extended to the entire Church by Innocent XII.

An English Revival:
The revival of the Catholic Faith in England in the 19th century saw the establishment of various feasts and traditions, in the conscious desire to restore and revive things that had been lost.

One such feast day was that of Our Lady of Ransom. This ancient medieval title was restored to Mary, and a Guild of Our Lady of Ransom was established, with the idea of praying for the full conversion of England and Wales to the Catholic Faith. The Guild still exists today. Its principal object is to raise funds to enable poor rural parishes -- in districts where few Catholics live -- to survive.

There are some areas of England where Catholicism is very much a minority religion -- Cornwall being one example. Some of these are holiday districts, where Mass attendance rises during the summer because of visitors coming to enjoy the seaside. But the regular work of the parish for most of the year is sustained by grants from the Guild.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember that this notion of Our Lady "ransoming" England and restoring our country to its true Catholic heritage was something that was mentioned by devout enthusiasts. It became a bit unfashionable in that chaotic period following the Second Vatican Council, but it never really died.

But it was only in the 1990s, when I began researching old feasts and traditions in some detail, that I discovered the origins of Our Lady of Ransom. And I found that the title was in fact of greater significance than I had thought -- and has a curious resonance for the Britain of today, in ways unimaginable in my childhood.

Our Lady of Ransom is a tradition originating in the 13th century, when Islamic forces were strong on the seas around Europe. These Barbary pirates, based in North Africa, made raids on the coasts of Spain and Italy -- and even, as recent research has shown, as far afield as Britain and Ireland -- and took off numbers of the local people as captives. Entire coastal villages would be burned to the ground, and terrified people dragged off to the ships, before help could be summoned.

The legend of being "captured by Saracens" became embedded in Christian folklore and tradition, and with good reason. Once taken away to a distant land, small boys who had been removed from their parents could be transformed into Muslim warriors, and girls into suitable subjects for a harem.

New religious orders were formed to meet the crisis. The Trinitarians were dedicated to helping imprisoned Christians in Islamic countries, and their preachers would travel from parish to parish -- much as visiting speakers from Catholic organizations or pro-life groups do today -- talking about the plight of those imprisoned and begging for funds to secure their release. This order had its own churches in England -- there is a magnificent one at Hickling, in Norfolk, and local legend says that the ghost of a Saracen warrior haunts the village at night. (Some versions of the story say that he was drowned in Hickling Broad, the stretch of water that is today a popular place for boating and fishing, and that he rises from the water on moonlit nights and walks to the church.)

The Trinitarians still flourish as a religious order today -- they run several parishes in the United States and have a range of work in different parts of Africa. Like other orders, they recognize their heritage and pay tribute to their founder (St. John de Matha), but they are busy with their current work, and their origins in the late 12th century, and great work in the 13th, are not widely known today.

And then there were the Mercedarians, another order that still flourishes today. It was established in 1218 and dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy -- or Our Lady of Ransom, as she was known in England. The founder, St. Peter Nolasco, devoted his life to ransoming Christian slaves -- no easy task, as Islamic society was increasingly economically dependent on slavery. Although Islam teaches that Allah desires that slaves should not be treated cruelly, this was not always observed, and many led lives of misery.

But it was possible to free such slaves by the payment of ransom money, and the original Mercedarians travelled as merchants through Saracen territory, freeing many Christian slaves. (The Mercedarian Web site has some fascinating historical detail, especially about the work done by the Order in Islamic Spain).

I find myself wondering. Should we not -- while recognising the delicacy of what we are discussing -- see in Our Lady of Ransom something tender, merciful, and important for today? We need her to ransom the West from its secular mindset; ransom us all from fear; ransom Christians under pressure from Islam (those suffering in Sudan today, for example).

We need to invoke her aid in giving back to Christians, especially in Europe, a sense of the truth that is at the core of Christianity -- God who became man, who took human flesh and became one of us, dying for us on the Cross -- and a recognition that we need to live this faith fully and be prepared to pass it on. And whether this is fashionable or not, we ought to understand that Christ died for everyone, including people born into Islam, and that Our Lady of Ransom might have something to say to us about that, too.

Millions of Muslims now live in Britain, and entire sections of our towns and cities are now culturally Islamic. Churches are closing and mosques are taking their places. Visit Bradford, or Preston, or Leeds, and see the minarets and walk among the veiled women in the shopping centers. Are we to assume that they are never to know the truth about Christ and what He won for them on the Cross? Evangelism is difficult, but prayer is not, and Our Lady of Ransom may achieve what seems impossible. We should invoke her aid, in our homes and in our parishes.

Perhaps we should not assume that all will be antagonistic. Mary is honored in Islam, and is a point of contact. Islamic women, raising families in modern Britain, have their own worries about the pressures on their young, and about their own hopes and fears for the future. A string of rosary beads, an image of Mary, a hymn invoking her aid in prayer, may not be as offensive as we think.

Perhaps it is time, gently but with courage, to pray with renewed fervor the prayer I remember in the rather different England of my youth: Our Lady of Ransom, pray for us.

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