Of the many different orders in Holy Mother Church throughout her history there have been none that are so inspiring simply by their very charism as the various orders of ransoming captives. These orders were established to free Catholics who had been enslaved, usually by Muslims (the founders of the African Slave Trade), first by raising funds to purchase their release but if all else failed the members of these orders would then offer themselves to take the place of these captives and go to be slaves themselves, which often was for the rest of their lives.
Probably the most notable order of this kind was that of the Order of our Lady of Mercy, or Mercedarians, who had as their patroness Our Lady of Ransom. They were founded in 1218 right around the same time as the great Mendicant Orders: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Their founder was Saint Peter Nolasco, whose feast is kept on January 28th each year. He was specifically asked to found this order by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself who appeared to him in a vision.
Saint Peter’s confessor the great Dominican Saint Raymond of Peñafort, whose feast is kept just a few days before his directee on the 23rd of January, was instrumental in encouraging and assisting Peter in founding his new community. And it was Saint Raymond who drew up the rule for this new order, which he was well suited for in part because he was a Canon Lawyer. The order receive provision approval under Pope Honorius III and which was finalized by Pope Gregory IX in 1230, and in the bull establishing the community it was determined that the order would use the rule of Saint Augustine just as the Dominicans did.
Now Saint Raymond was one of the earliest members of this wonderful new order in the Church and received the Mercedarian habit directly from the hands of Saint Peter Nolasco himself.
The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
Saint Raymond Nonnatus
August closes as it began, with a feast of deliverance; as though that were the divine seal set by Eternal Wisdom upon this month—the month when holy Church makes the works and ways of Divine Wisdom the special object of her contemplation.
Upon the fall of our first parents and their expulsion from Paradise, the Word and Wisdom of God, that is, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, began the great work of our deliverance—that magnificent work of human Redemption which, by an all-gracious, eternal decree of the three Divine Persons, was to be wrought out by the Son of God in our flesh. And as that blessed Saviour, in his infinite wisdom, made spontaneous choice of sorrows, of sufferings, and of death on a cross as the best means of our redemption, so has he always allotted to his best loved friends, the kind of life which he had deliberately chosen for himself, that is, the way of the Cross. And the nearest and dearest to him were those, who were predestined, like his Blessed Mother, the Mater Dolorosa, to have the honour of being most like himself,—the Man of Sorrows. Hence the toils and trials of the greatest Saints; hence the great deliverances wrought by them, and their heroic victories over the world and over the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
On the feasts of St. Raymund of Penafort and St. Peter Nolasco, we saw something of the origin of the illustrious Order, to which Raymond Nonnatus added such glory. Soon the august foundress herself, Oar Lady of Mercy, will come in person to receive the expression of the world’s gratitude for so many benefits. The following Legend recounts the peculiar merits of our Saint of to-day.
Raymund, surnamed Nonnatus, (that is not born) on account of his having been brought into the world in an unusual manner, after the death of his mother, was of a pious and noble family of Portelli in Catalonia. From his very infancy he showed signs of his future holiness; for, despising childish amusements and the attractions of the world, he applied himself to the practice of piety so that all wondered at his virtue, which far surpassed his ago. As he grew older he began his studies; but after a short time he returned at his father’s command to live in the country. He frequently visited the chapel of St. Nicholas, built near Portelli, in order to venerate in it a holy image of the Mother of God, which is still much honoured by the faithful. There he would pour out his prayers, begging God’s holy Mother to adopt him for her son and to deign to teach him the way of salvation and the science of the saints.
The most benign Virgin heard his prayer, and gave him to understand that it would greatly please her if he entered the Religious Order lately founded by her inspiration, under the name of the Order of “Ransom, or of Mercy for the Redemption of Captives.” Upon this Raymond at once set out for Barcelona, there to embrace that institute so full of brotherly charity. Thus enrolled in the army of holy religion, he persevered in perpetual virginity, which he had already consecrated to the Blessed Virgin. He excelled also in every other virtue most especially in charity towards those Christians who were living in misery, as slaves of the pagans. He was sent to Africa to redeem them, and freed many from slavery. But when he had exhausted his money, rather than abandon others who were in danger of losing their faith, he gave himself up to the barbarians as a pledge for their ransom. Burning with a most ardent desire for the salvation of souls, he converted several Mahometans to Christ by his preaching. On this account he was thrown into a close prison and after many tortures his lips were pierced through and fastened together with an iron padlock, which cruel martyrdom he endured for a long time.
This and his other noble deeds spread the fame of his sanctity far and near, so that Gregory IX determined to enroll him in the august college of the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. When raised to that dignity the man of God shrank from all pomp and clung always to religious humility. On his way to Rome, as soon as he reached Cardona, he was attacked by his last illness, and earnestly begged to be strengthened by the Sacraments of the Church. As his illness grew worse and the priest delayed to come, Angels appeared, clothed in the religious habit of his Order, and refreshed him with the saving Viaticum. Having received It he gave thanks to God, and passed to our Lord on the last Sunday of August in the year 1240. Contentions arose concerning the place where he should be buried; his coffin was therefore placed upon a blind mule and by the will of God it was taken to the chapel of St. Nicholas, that it might be buried in that place where he had first begun a more perfect life. A convent of his Order was built on the spot, and there famous for many signs and miracles he is honoured by the concourse of all the faithful of Catalonia, who come there to fulfill their vows.
To what a length, O illustrious Saint, didst thou follow the counsel of the Wise man! The bands of Wisdom, says he, are a healthful binding. (Ecclus. 6:31) And, not satisfied with putting thy feet into her fetters and thy neck into her chains, (Ecclus. 6:25) in the joy of thy love thou didst offer thy lips to the dreadful padlock, not mentioned by the son of Sirach. But what a reward is thine, now that this Wisdom of the Father, whose twofold precept of charity thou didst so fully carry out, inebriates thee with the torrent of eternal delights, adorning thy brow with the glory and grace which radiate from her own beauty! We would fain be for ever with thee near that throne of light; teach us, then, how to walk, in this world, by the beautiful ways and peaceable paths of Wisdom. Deliver our souls, if they be still captive in sin; break the chains of our self-love, and give us instead those blessed bands of Wisdom which are humility, abnegation self-forgetfulness, love of our brethren for God’s sake, love of God for his own sake.