Imagine yourself in a 13th-century North African prison where you are being held for refusing to renounce your Catholic faith. Conditions are cruel, and you are losing hope of seeing your family again. You wonder if it wouldn’t be so bad to convert to Islam.
Then an angel in white appears at your cell with the jailor, who unlocks the door. All at once, you are free to return to your home in Spain. The angel, you find out, is a monk from the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (also known as the Order of Mercy or the Mercedarians), who has paid a ransom for your release with money collected from Spanish Catholics.
Thousands of European Christians, including Miguel de Cervantes, author of the novel Don Quixote, were ransomed this way by religious orders such as the Mercedarians during centuries of intermittent warfare between the Christian kingdoms of southern Europe and the Muslim polities of North Africa, southern France, Sicily and Moorish portions of Spain. Cervantes died 300 years ago April 23, the same day as William Shakespeare.
For nearly 800 years, the Mercedarians prayed, labored and spent their lives to gain liberty for Christians imprisoned or enslaved because of their faith. Now in 17 countries, they rescue people from modern forms of social, political and psychological captivity in jails, marginal neighborhoods and hospitals. They also assist Christian victims of slavery and other persecution in the Middle East.
The 2016 Year of Mercy is an opportunity to consider how the Mercedarians devoted themselves to one of the works of mercy: rescuing captives. Lay Catholics can participate in this ransom work by traveling to foreign lands.
The Order of Mercy was founded in 1218 by St. Peter Nolasco, a French merchant who moved to Spain to escape a heresy prevalent at the time. He became a tutor for King James I of Aragon and moved with the king to Barcelona, where he donated his own property to free captives held by the Moors.
One night, as he was praying for captives, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and, giving him a white habit, asked him to found a religious order aimed at freeing those in captivity. Our Lady also appeared to King James and St. Raymond of Penyafort on the same night, and, subsequently, the two supported St. Peter Nolasco in founding the order.
In commemoration of the apparition, Our Lady of Ransom became the patroness of Barcelona, and her feast day is celebrated on Sept. 24.
In addition to the evangelical counsels, members took a fourth vow: to offer themselves as slaves to the Moors if they could in no other way obtain the ransom of the Christians. This was not a calling for the faint of heart!
The Mercedarians and other orders that sought to ransom captives first had to raise the funds before sailing for North Africa. Some of the orders staged theatrical demonstrations and processions to raise funds for the rescue missions.
Traveling often to Morocco, the monks sometimes were held captive or killed in place of the captives when they didn’t have all of the funds demanded. I can only imagine what those journeys must have been like and how the monks negotiated with captors.
The Mercedarians continue to help those in danger today. They are now working with the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil to provide assistance to Iraqi Christians suffering persecution, including being sold into slavery. The Mercedarians have been asked to pray, fast and sacrifice, as well as provide economic, social and educational support, along with spreading information about the dire circumstances.
Pope Francis has asked that we pray constantly for and be in solidarity with the persecuted Christians.
One way to pray and be in solidarity with suffering Middle-Eastern Christians is to follow the inspiration of the Order of Mercy and “ransom” one or more of the Christians with prayer. Members of our Christian body are suffering, and that means the entire Church suffers. A commitment to pray even one Hail Mary each day will help those who are being persecuted for their faith.
Few of us can actually free captives, the corporal work of mercy long practiced by the Mercedarians, but the brave, self-sacrificing monks in white — from centuries past to the present — continue to offer inspiration for us to care, through prayer, for our Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters in need.
As Pope Francis encouraged the order in a May 2 audience: “In the eighth centenary of the order, do not cease ‘to proclaim the Year of Favor of the Lord’ to all those to whom you are sent: to those held prisoner and persecuted because of their faith; to victims of trafficking; to the young people in your schools; to all those who are served by your works of mercy and to all the faithful you serve in the parishes and missions with which you have been entrusted by the Church.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.