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Medieval Religious Order Continues 800 Years of Rescuing Persecuted Christians

The work of the Mercedarians was in ransoming Christian slaves held in Muslim hands (1637).

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 official shield of the Mercedarian Order

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.

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