For many of us, the 1st week of August means the “dog days of summer”. This is the time when the summer heat can be oppressive. It is in this time of year that many of us take vacations spending time at a local pool or at the shore. In Spain things are not much different. August can be painfully hot in Spain so most people head to the beaches or other spots to “beat the heat”.
As August approached in the summer of 1218, Peter Nolasco, a young Spanish merchant, was enduring the summer heat in a much different way. For several years now, he had been working with friends to redeem captives who were in danger of losing their faith in Moorish Lands. Many of these Christians were in real danger of apostatizing in order to obtain their freedom and even preserve their lives. For Peter and his companions something had to be done. For several years, they dedicated themselves daily to collecting alms from the pious faithful throughout the Province of Catalonia and the kingdom of Aragon. Many were ransomed and their faith was preserved, but many more were left to suffer at the hands of their captors. It became clear to Peter that the problem of captivity was too great for such a small band. He wondered what could be done to preserve the faith so many.
In his fervent prayer, Peter sought divine inspiration to be able to continue God’s work which he had started. At that point and in these circumstances, during the night of August 1, 1218, a special intervention of Blessed Mary occurred in Peter Nolasco’s life: an amazing Marian experience which illumined his mind and stirred up his will to transform his group of lay redeemers into a Redemptive Religious Order. The experience was so profound that it touched the very fabric of Peter’s being. He now knew what must be done.
The next day, Peter Nolasco went to the royal palace to explain his project to young King James I and his advisers, the first of whom was the Bishop of Barcelona, don Berenguer de Palou. Peter’s plan, inspired by God through Mary, was to establish a well-structured and stable Redemptive Religious Order under the patronage of Blessed Mary. The King was very pleased with the project and gave his approval and support to the endeavor. He would even give his “coat of arms” to be worn as a sign of the kingdom’s support and protection.
On August 10, 1218, the new Religious Order for the Redemption of Captives was officially and solemnly constituted at the main altar erected over Saint Eulalia’s tomb in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Barcelona. Bishop Berenguer de Palou gave Peter Nolasco and his companions the white habit that they would wear as characteristic of the Order; he gave them the Rule of Saint Augustine as a norm for their life in common and he gave his authorization for the sign of his cathedral, the Holy Cross, to be on the habit of the Order. After that, Peter Nolasco and the first Mercedarians made their religious profession right there before the bishop.
That was the beginning of an Order that was destined to endure for nearly 800 years. Countless captive Christians have been aided by this Institute. Several women’s communities, lay confraternities, and other groups have been inspired by the same spirit given to Peter Nolasco on that night of August 1st. Truly that first week of August 1218 was a week that would change the history of the world and influence millions for centuries.
So as we endure the heat of early August, let us thank God for sending his mother, Our Lady of Mercy, to inspire this great work of redemption. She is the one who first inspired it and continues to do so today. What started in Spain has now spread to four continents. May this mission of redemption continue to grow throughout the world in order that all may be free to practice the Catholic faith.