24 Sep Commemoration of Our Lady of Ransom
Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Ransom (also known as Our Lady of Mercy). Ora pro nobis.
Our Blessed Lady ‘De Mercede,’ or for the Redemption of Captives
by Fr. Francis Cuthbert Doyle, 1896
The appropriateness of this beautiful title, given in 1218 to our Lady, will best be understood from a narration of the events which led to the institution of this festival in her honour, and to the foundation of a Religious Order under the same glorious appellation. In the year 1189, there was born in Languedoc a nobleman named Peter Nolasco, whose soul God filled, even in his earliest years, with a great love of virtue, and with a tender compassion for the poor. At the age of twenty-five he made a vow of chastity, and joined himself to Simon de Montfort in his crusade against the Albigensian heretics. After the defeat of these latter, James I., King of Aragon, appointed him tutor to his son, whom he accompanied into Spain. At that time the Moors had seized upon certain parts of the Peninsula, and the sight of the misery to which Christians were reduced in slavery under these cruel task-masters, filled the heart of Peter with a desire to lighten their heavy burthen.
While revolving in his mind how his good-will might best be carried into effect, our Lady appeared to him, in a vision during the night, and intimated to him that it would be very pleasing to her Divine Son, if an Order of religious men were established for the redemption of captives. On the following day, Peter went to his confessor, St. Raymund de Pennafort, to tell him of the vision with which he had been favoured; but to his great surprise, he found the Saint already acquainted with the fact, for the same heavenly visitant had graciously signified her wish to him also. Moreover, she had revealed to the King that this project had the blessing of her Divine Son. These three, therefore, at once determined to establish a Religious Order for the purpose of redeeming captive Christians from the tyranny of the Moors.
In addition to the usual vows of religion, they by a fourth vow bound themselves to remain, if necessary, in captivity till ransom could be procured for the liberation of the slaves. Pope Honorius III. by word of mouth approved of this Brotherhood, and Pope Gregory IX. in 1235, solemnly confirmed and established it as a Religious Order. He gave its members the Rule of St. Augustine to guide them to perfection, and a white habit to remind them of the purity to which they were to aspire under the patronage of the most pure Virgin. Thus, under the auspices of our Lady of Redemption, these holy men set about their heroic work, and while rescuing the bodies of Christians from the slavery of the Moors, they did their utmost to free their souls from the slavery of the devil.
You may judge from this indication of Mary’s love for the Christian people, and from her eagerness to free their bodies from the tyranny of cruel and infidel masters, what must be her zeal to free them from the still more cruel slavery of Satan. They are her children, committed to her care by Jesus Christ, loved by Him with unutterable tenderness, and purchased at the price of His bitter Passion. In her eyes they are, so to speak, invested with the personality of Jesus Christ. They are, in a measure, unto her what He was, and therefore the love which she bore to Him is transferred to them. Judge therefore of her sorrow, when she beholds them in the jaws of the wolves of hell. When men lose their liberty, and fall beneath the yoke of a foreign power, it is their bodies only that are in chains; their minds, their souls are free. No dungeon can darken their light, no manacles, no fetters can bind down their thoughts or their aspirations. The tyrant may threaten, may kill; but he cannot compel the will to bend. If, as a last resource, he strike with the sword, one sharp pang will forever free the poor wretched prisoner from his clutches.
It is far otherwise with the tyranny of the devil. He enslaves the souls of men. With a tempting bait, he first allures them into his nets, and having once entrapped them, he holds them fast. Very speedily sin enfeebles the will, darkens the intellect, and fills the soul with disgust for heavenly things. Hence, when from time to time grace urges it to rise again, it may do so for a season, feeling all the while how terribly strong is the hold which the devil has upon its powers. It struggles against him for a while, and then falls back. Thus the evil one, by his tyranny, succeeds in destroying not only the bodies of his slaves, but their immortal souls. Therefore, Jesus bids us not to fear those who can destroy only the body: ‘I will tell you,’ He adds, ‘whom you shall fear. Fear Him who can destroy the soul.’
Our dear Mother is, therefore, full of tender solicitude for her children. When she beholds them in the power of this cruel enemy of her Son, she lifts up her pure and spotless hands before the throne of God, and continually pleads with Him for them, that the ransom of the precious blood may be applied to them, that their chains may be broken, and that they themselves may be restored to liberty.
Knowing, therefore, the great love of your holy Mother Mary for poor sinners, you must strive to the utmost of your ability to second her desire for the redemption of souls from the slavery of sin. In order that your zeal may be according to knowledge, you must begin with yourself; for otherwise you will present to the eyes both of Angels and of men the ridiculous spectacle of one who saves others, but destroys himself; who points out to others the way to heaven, but will not himself walk in it.
Do not be so foolish. Let not sin dwell in your soul; suffer it not to enslave your heart. Be not of the number of those fools who fancy that they can for a time walk with the devil, and then easily withdraw from his fellowship; who imagine that they may float with the stream, and then return in safety to the pleasant shore. Those who think thus, little know the tenacious grasp with which sin holds a man down in its iron fetters, nor the velocity with which the stream of iniquity whirls him beyond the reach of help or the hope of return. If you are wise, learn this in time. Withdraw your feet at once and forever from the fetters of sin, and turn your back resolutely upon the glitter of the tempting stream. After thus manifesting zeal for your own soul, you may venture to be zealous for the souls of others; for he who is in safety may strive to help others, and he who is not sick may with propriety try to heal those who are. (1)
Our Lady of Ransom
Finding their power partly crushed in Spain, and in the East checked by the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Muslim Saracens in the 12th century became wholesale pirates, and scoured the seas to obtain slaves for the African markets. We shudder to think of the numberless victims, of every age, sex, and condition, suddenly carried off from the coasts of Christian lands, or captured on the high seas, and condemned to the disgrace of the harem or the miseries of the bagnio. Here, nevertheless, in many an obscure prison, were enacted scenes of heroism worthy to compare with those witnessed in the early persecutions; here was a new field for Christian charity; new horizons opened out for heroic self-devotion. Is not the spiritual good thence arising a sufficient reason for the permission of temporal ills? Without this permission, Heaven would have forever lacked a portion of its beauty.
When in 1696 Innocent XII extended this Feast to the whole Church, he afforded the world an opportunity of expressing its gratitude by a testimony as universal as the benefit received.
Differing from the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians), which had been already 20 years in existence, the Order of Mercy (Mercedarians) was founded as it were in the very face of the Moors; and hence it originally numbered more knights than clerics among its members. It was called the Royal, Military, and Religious Order of Our Lady of Mercy for the Redemption of Captives. The clerics were charged with the celebration of Mass and the Divine Office in the commandaries; the knights guarded the coasts, and undertook the perilous enterprise of ransoming Christian captives. St. Peter Nolasco was the first Commander or Grand Master of the Order; when his relics were discovered, he was found armed with sword and cuirass.
In the lessons of Matins for this Feast, Holy Church gives us Her thoughts upon these facts:
At the time when the Saracen yoke oppressed the larger and more fertile part of Spain, and great numbers of the faithful were detained in cruel servitude, at the great risk of denying their Christian Faith and losing their eternal salvation, the Most Blessed Queen of Heaven graciously came to remedy all these great evils, and showed Her exceeding charity in redeeming Her children. She appeared with beaming countenance to Peter Nolasco, a man conspicuous for wealth and piety, who in his holy meditations was ever striving to devise some means of helping the innumerable Christians living in misery as captives of the Moors. She told him it would be very pleasing to Her and Her Only-Begotten Son, if a Religious Order were instituted in Her honor, whose members should devote themselves to delivering captives from the tyranny of the Turks. Animated by this heavenly vision, the man of God was inflamed with burning love, having but one desire in his heart, that both he and the Order he was to found, might be devoted to the exercise of that highest charity – the laying down of life for one’s friends and neighbors.
That same night, the Most Holy Virgin appeared also to Blessed Raymond of Pennafort, and to King James of Aragon, telling them of Her wish to have the Order instituted, and exhorting them to lend their aid to so great an undertaking. Meanwhile Peter hastened to relate the whole matter to Raymond, who was his confessor; and finding it had been already revealed to him from Heaven, submitted humbly to his direction. King James next arrived, fully resolved to carry out the instructions he also had received from the Blessed Virgin. Having therefore taken counsel together and being all of one mind, they set about instituting an Order in honor of the Virgin Mother, under the invocation of Our Lady of Mercy for the Ransom of Captives.
On the 10th of August, in the year of Our Lord 1218, King James put into execution what the two holy men had planned. The members of the Order bound themselves by a fourth vow to remain, when necessary, as securities in the power of the pagans, in order to deliver Christians. The King granted them license to bear his royal arms upon their breast, and obtained from Pope Gregory IX the confirmation of this Religious institute distinguished by such eminent charity toward neighbor. God Himself gave increase to the work, through His Virgin Mother; so that the Order spread rapidly and prosperously over the whole world. It soon reckoned many holy men remarkable for their charity and piety who collected alms from Christ’s faithful, to be spent in redeeming their brethren; and sometimes gave themselves up as ransom for many others. In order that due thanks might be rendered to God and His Virgin Mother for the benefit of such an institution, the Apostolic See allowed this special Feast and Office to be celebrated, and also granted innumerable other privileges to the Order.
Blessed be Thou, O Mary, the honor and the joy of Thy people! On the day of Thy glorious Assumption, Thou didst take possession of Thy queenly dignity for our sake; and the annals of the human race are a record of Thy merciful interventions. The captives whose chains Thou hast broken, and whom Thou hast set free from the degrading yoke of the Saracens, may be reckoned in the millions. We are still rejoicing in the recollection of Thy dear Birthday; and Thy smile is sufficient to dry our tears and chase away the clouds of grief. And yet, what sorrows there are still upon the earth, where Thou Thyself didst drink such long draughts from the cup of suffering! Thou alone, O Mary, canst break the inextricable chains, in which the cunning prince of darkness entangles the dupes he has deceived by the high-sounding names of equality and liberty. Show thyself a Queen, by coming to the rescue. The whole earth, the entire human race, cries out to Thee, in the words of Mordochai: “Speak to the King for us, and deliver us from death!” (Esther 15: 3) (3)
Image: Madonna of Mercy, artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1472 (8)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff