St. Raymond Nonnatus, Ora Pro Nobis

Raymond was canonized by Pope Alexander VII in 1657. His feast day is celebrated Aug. 31.

Diego González de la Vega, “Saint Raymond Nonnatus Crowned by Christ,” 1673
Diego González de la Vega, “Saint Raymond Nonnatus Crowned by Christ,” 1673

I recall the first time I ever encountered St. Raymond Nonnatus. It was in a Bronx church and I was visiting a priest friend. We talked as we walked down a side aisle and a shiny object caught my attention. (I’m often attracted to shiny things.) And there, above and before me, was a three-foot plaster statue of a saint with a padlock on his lips.

“Holy Mackerel!” I said just a bit too loudly considering the venue. 

“Oh!” Father said. “St. Raymond Nonnatus! I get a lot of questions about him.”

I’m very accustomed to Catholic statuary. My parish in Manhattan had to build a separate wing to the church to accommodate all of the life-size statue donations it had received over the years and I’ve seen some odd iconography. Have you ever seen a statue of St. Lucy? Do an internet search so I don’t have to describe it. But a locked set of lips still stands out. 

We’ll leave the story about his lips for the end. St. Raymond has an odd last name. Really, it’s more of a sobriquet rather than a surname but it’s important part of his official moniker and biography. It seems that his mother died during childbirth, as often was the case in the 13th century. Thus, Raymond had to be delivered via Caesarean section. Thus, he was “never born.” (“Nonnatus,” the Latin non natus, means “not born.”)

Okay. One mystery down.

Raymond was born in 1204 in Portell, in the County of Segarra, the Principality of Catalonia and the Kingdom of Aragon, in what is now a part of Spain. Please recall that most of Spain at the time had been violently colonized by African Muslims between 711 and 1492. Thus, all parts of Spain and, indeed, all of Christian Europe, were constantly fearful that the Muslim army would advance further into the continent. Even at this point, 30% of Spaniards had been forcibly converted to Islam.

St. Raymond was born the son of the local count and his father had already planned a career for his son at the royal court of the Kingdom of Aragon. But, the best laid plans of mice and men and Catholic saints are never clearly laid out. Even as a child, Raymond was drawn to religious life. His father, wanting none of that, gave the young man a job managing one of the family’s farms. Thus, Raymond spent a great of time tending sheep, which gave him the opportunity to pray at an ancient country chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari.

Raymond’s desire to become a priest ultimately won over his father and he gave Raymond permission to join the Mercedarians in Barcelona. The order, however, was founded specifically to ransom Christian captives from the Muslim Moors of North Africa, even to the point of giving themselves up in exchange for the slaves. This leads us to the part of the lock on the saint’s lips. The order was new and thus Raymond was trained by its founder, St. Peter Nolasco. Raymond was ordained in 1222 and soon became Master General of the Order.

Raymond was eager to labor in the God’s fields regardless of the danger. His first ransoming was in Valencia, where he freed 140 kidnapped Christians from Muslim slavery. Once accomplished, he immediately left for Northern Africa, where he ransomed yet another 250 Christian captives in Algiers. Proving to be zealous and unstoppable, Raymond went to Tunis where, having run out of money, he surrendered himself as a hostage for 28 additional Christian slaves.

While he waited for his order to come up with the cash, Raymond spent his time evangelizing the Muslim prisoners in his jail cell. This infuriated the emir, who repeatedly demanded the saint keep his mouth shut. (Do you see where this story is going?) Getting tired of repeating himself, the emir ordered Raymond’s lips be pierced with a red hot poker and then locked together to prevent him from preaching Jesus Christ’s Good News.

Thankfully, Raymond was a skilled pantomimist. That’s why he’s the patron saint of mimes and, presumably, people who are desperate to win at charades.

Raymond exact death date isn’t known. Depending upon the document, he died either on Aug. 26 or Aug. 31, 1240, at the Castle of Cardona, 60 miles from Barcelona. Being known for his piety, everyone was pretty sure Raymond would be canonized as a confessor saint. Thus, the Mercedarian friars and the local duke both claimed his body.

The authorities, not knowing who he should infuriate, chose to place the saint’s body on a blind mule’s back and immediately set free. Without anyone assistance, the creature brought the saint’s remains to the St. Nicholas Chapel where Raymond had prayed as a youth. In theological circles, we call that a “showstopper,” folks. The duke gave up his claim and the friars buried Raymond at the chapel.

An inexplicable number of miracles were attributed to him both before and after his death. Thus, he was a confessor and a thaumaturge — a miracle-worker. 

There’s a now-debunked legend that in 1239, Pope Gregory IX nominated St. Raymond as Cardinal Deacon of Sant’Eustachio. This is most likely a pious tale or at least confused paperwork. But, after all, this was 13th-century Spain and these things happen.

Raymond was canonized by Pope Alexander VII in 1657. His feast day is celebrated Aug. 31.

Considering the unfortunate story surrounding his birth, St. Raymond is widely invoked by expectant women and midwifes. Interestingly, his other patronage is priests who are defending the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Confession, which certainly makes sense since the saint’s lips are sealed — literally.