Martyrdom and Charism — The Ransom of Christian Captives


Are we Christians headed toward persecution in the United States? This and many questions are raised and discussed in the following paraphrased transcription of the below video talk, given by Fr. Joseph Eddy, O. de M.  The first part is an introduction to the Mercedarians’ fourth vow, and afterwards Father takes a deeper look at white & red martyrdom.

Martyrdom is something that’s ever ancient and ever new. A charism is a spirit that the founder had when the community was started. The community starts under the bishop. It’s a slow process leading to pontifical approbation.

A charism is living Christ’s life. It is an aspect of Christ’s life that has been given to its founder. His/Her daughters or his sons carry the charism on for the length of the community’s existence.

Captive for Christ

The Order of Mercy was founded in the twelfth century. At that time the Muslims were creeping in. The purpose of the Crusades was to do something about this and prevent Europe from being taken over. Many people were taken captive… Imagine if your cousins or uncles were taken away – they just disappeared. The captives were probably taken to north Africa. Imagine the opening scene from Les Miserables, where the prisoners are working on a chain gang.

If the captives renounce their Christian faith, they can move up in society. Perhaps they would not have to work in a chain gang any more. There was great pressure to leave the faith.

Our founder Peter Nolasco was a merchant. As he went into the African areas – the Muslim-controlled territories – he would sell his goods. As he did this, he would see his fellow Christians who were suffering. He was cut to the heart by this suffering.

The real reason Peter mourned the captives was because of their loss of faith. He saw that they were losing their eternal salvation. He began collecting his money to buy them back. He gave all his property away. Although he was not a wealthy man, he was very shrewd. He was also a strong man, and a humble man, and these virtues helped him a lot.

It was not long before others came to follow him. Most people do not start out with the idea to start a religious community. Likewise, in Peter’s case it was, “I am going to help these people,” and others followed him.

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18)

But he was soon criticized. Others thought he was creating a market for the Christian captives. Greatly hurt, St. Peter took the matter to prayer. In a vision, Mary appeared to him, telling him that Christ desired that he found a community dedicated to ransoming these Christian captives. With the support of the king and the bishop, St. Peter began the Mercedarian Order, sending his friars – two at a time – to ransom the Christians, who would return, still in their chains, to Spain.

Our charism is the fourth vow – if necessary, we would give up our own life to save someone in danger of losing their faith. On occasion, the friars would take the places of those in captivity, exchanging their freedom for the prisoners’ freedom.

In Saracen lands, opposition was everywhere for the first Mercedarians. They were slapped, stoned, beaten, wounded, and dragged through the streets. In their first century, their white habits bore witness to the blood of over one hundred martyrs.

St. Serapion was Irish by birth, born around 1179. He was enlisted as a soldier in the service of Richard the Lionhearted, and later Alfonso VIII who was fighting the Muslims in Spain. There he met Peter Nolasco, and joined the order. Eventually, he was one of the two friars chosen to take part in the ransom mission. There was not enough ransom money, so Serapion offered to stay behind if the remaining captives were freed. While the Mercedarians rushed to collect money for Serapion’s own ransom, the Muslims grew impatient, and crucified the saint. He was declared a martyr, and is the patron saint of the sick.

“To bear witness to the light” (John 1:7)

The term for martyr comes from the Greek word meaning “to bear witness.” A witness testifies to a fact that they have seen and experienced. The reality of the early Church was that witnesses to Christ could easily be imprisoned or killed.

Once again we are seeing this in Iraq, parts of Africa, and China. Every single day, Christians in the early Church faced death, and all the apostles, except John, suffered a martyr’s death. At the crucifixion of Christ, Mary’s heart was “pierced with a sword.” At her side was St. John, who suffered his “white martyrdom,” or spiritual martyrdom, as well.

Today’s martyrs are those who have never seen the risen Christ, but are so firmly convinced of the truth of Christianity that they gladly suffer death rather than deny these truths. In our Order, thirty-three Mercedarian friars were martyred during the Spanish Civil War – 18 of whom have already been canonized, and the rest are going through the process.

Lumen Gentium says,

Since Jesus, the Son of God, manifested His charity by laying down His life for us, so too no one has greater love than he who lays down his life for Christ and His brothers. From the earliest times, then, some Christians have been called upon — and some will always be called upon — to give the supreme testimony of this love to all men, but especially to persecutors. The Church, then, considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the fullest proof of love. By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world — as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross. (no. 42)

This time period is heading towards the possibility of persecution in the United States. We may believe we could never have ISIS here, yet we have on demand abortion clinics, same-sex marriage, and other open affronts to Catholicism, to the point that the culture tells us, “you can’t believe same-sex marriage is wrong,” and “you can’t tell a women abortion is wrong.”

Living the fourth vow would be impossible without the virtues. We are called to give Christ’s witness to the culture. Both white martyrdom (spiritual) and red martyrdom (by blood) are great gifts to God. White martyrdom prepares us to be open and ready for the possibility of martyrdom by blood – the ultimate sacrifice which unites us to Christ on the cross. The virtues of generosity, self-giving, and courage are necessary, and one must die to self daily.

An offering of self

By Baptism we share the role of priest, prophet, and king. As priests, we are called to offer sacrifice for the salvation of the world. (Romans 12 … “I appeal to you brethren… offer yourselves to God”) All our daily activities and hardships — if borne patiently — can be offered as a spiritual sacrifice, united to the sacrifice of the Mass. We offer ourselves as Mary did — she is the perfect example of white martyrdom. She gives her total Yes at the Annunciation and never takes it back, even when told by Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart. We give our “yes” at Baptism, Confirmation, and each time we receive the Eucharist. Like Mary standing at the foot of the cross, we stand at the foot of the altar, and give our “amen” at every Mass.

As prophets, we are called to be teachers — spreading the Gospel by our lives and words. Confirmation gives us a special strength to witness to the Gospel, as well as holding us to a higher standard to do so.

By sharing in Christ’s kingship, we realize that to be a king is to serve. In married life it is for your family, as a priest, your flock, in religious life for your community. Christ is the perfect king who laid down his life for his subjects. When we perform works of mercy, we are serving others as Christ did.

By sharing daily in the role of priest, prophet, and king, we build up virtue to prepare for the possible crown of martyrdom. The Mercedarians’ fourth vow to offer one’s life if necessary, reminds us that our lives are important and should not be thrown away. The early Church actually had the problem where people would go out of their way to look for martyrdom!

Definition of Martyr

U. of Florida Newman Center

Our Lady’s Coat of Arms Stands With the Rescue of Captives

This article is about the Order of Mercy, by Barbara E. Stevens. It has been subtitled, “The swashbuckling history of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Ransom of Captives.” Despite some inaccuracies, it gives a fair account of the Order’s history.

Virgen Merced

The Mother of God graces America’s Hispanic Southwest in a multitude of glorious guises. While Our Lady of Guadalupe is certainly la favorita, countless other images color Marian devotions in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and their heritage stems from medieval Spain.

But among all the Old World Madonnas revered, only one counts among her accessories a royal coat of arms. La Merced, or “Our Lady of Mercy,” emerges from the storybook era of Marco Polo and Don Quixote, and her 13th century history rivals Hollywood for intrigue, romance and adventure.

In the 1200s, the Moors were very efficiently rampaging through Spain. As they advanced, the Spanish were simultaneously penetrating Arab territories, bent upon converting “infidels” to Christianity and defending Crusader strongholds in the Holy Land.

At home and abroad, then, from the early 13th century until near the close of the 18th century, the Spanish faced capture and imprisonment. If they refused to renounce their Christianity, they were almost certainly marked for torture and death.

While some Spanish religious orders of a military nature (peculiar to that time and place) were dedicated to nursing and giving comfort to the captives, a totally unique and dramatic approach to their relief was effected by the Virgin Mary.

In a vision to a young nobleman, Mary urged the formation of a military fraternity that would rescue prisoners by means of ransom.

Military orders

St. Peter Nolasco (c. 1189-1258) was born in France, educated in Spain and, through the fortunes of war, was eventually appointed tutor to King James of Aragon. From childhood, he had exhibited a unique spirituality and disregard for the luxurious environment to which he was born.

He habitually gave lavishly to the poor, and fashioned for himself a very austere and prayerful lifestyle. His vision of the Blessed Mother in 1218 not only catapulted him into the unlikely role of sword-bearing leader, but it would also touch the lives and times of future centuries of Spanish-speaking peoples—wherever they were destined to plant and preserve the faith.

After securing the required sanction of King James of Aragon, Nolasco initiated the military Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Ransom of Captives (O de M.) in 1218.

The order originally attracted young noblemen whose heritage equipped them to practically address the matter of ransom. They were known as “knights,” and it was only later that clergy were represented in the ranks.

Although he was the first commander general of the order, Nolasco was not himself a priest, nor did he ever become one. It was 100 years until a papal order required that at least the leader of the community must have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The founder required of himself and his followers a special vow in addition to the usual three—to devote their “whole substance and very liberty to the ransoming of slaves,” even to the point of acting as hostages in order to free others.

70,000 Rescues

According to records, the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Ransom of Captives accomplished approximately 70,000 rescues—some 2,700 during the founder’s lifetime.

The order elected a habit of white, signifying innocence. Some histories claim that Mary provided such guidance during her appearance to Nolasco. An enthusiastic King James authorized the members to wear—emblazoned on their breasts and long scapulars—his own distinguished arms -of Aragon.

Shield of Mercy

The Maltese Cross is its most striking component—a unique cruciform that commemorates Malta’s steadfast defense against the Turks.

Papally confirmed in 1235, the fraternity became popularly known as the Order of Our Lady of Mercy, or the Mercedarians. It rapidly spread throughout Western Europe, and some of its friars eventually sailed with Columbus to America.

Those who later accompanied the conquistadors’ relentless march through the New World and New Spain were extremely vigorous in the conversion of indigenous peoples.

Almost 300 monasteries and convents were rapidly established in Latin America, and all required appropriate decoration. La Merced therefore became a very popular subject of Spanish colonial paintings.

Our Lady of Mercy is frequently portrayed in a queenly stance, extending a generous mantle to either side. Huddled beneath its protection is a group of the faithful.

Begging for Mary’s Intercession

Virgen Merced, with captives begging Mary's intercession.
Virgen Merced, from the Museum of Bellas Artes, Valencia.

There is a less common La Merced. The Madonna format is embellished with a base of supplicants—captives begging Mary’s intercession. This glowing rendition, by Manuel de Samaniego (1767- 1824), can be admired today in a historic Mercedarian church in Quito, Ecuador.

The ethereal luminance of the background smacks of the influence of the Spanish painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-82), whose popular Marian prints were provided as models to Indian and mestizo artists.

The bold colors and lavish embellishment with gilt brocade are characteristic of the paintings accomplished in the great colonial art centers of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

However varied her portrayals may be, La Merced is immediately recognizable. Without exception, on her breast and often repeated on the scapular extended from her hand, is the distinctive royal signature of the Mercedarian order: the splendid arms of the King of Aragon.

What an incredible journey in time and place from medieval Spain and Africa to the missions of the New World and New Spain, and hence to the American Southwest, where Our Lady for the Ransom of Captives continues to respond to prayers murmured in “the language of the angels.”

Modernized mission

Mercedarians evangelizing the New World.

The Mercedarians remain an active order, principally in Spain and Latin America. Lacking a military mission, they have long since turned to education and social causes.

Only a bit of chain attached to the belt remains as a reminder of its ancient accommodation of swords, but the order persists in its original concern for captives: they are often prison chaplains.

Nolasco died in 1258, after a lifetime dedicated not only to the rescue of Spanish captives, but to the simultaneous and massive conversion of Moors to Christianity. Countless miracles are attributed to his relics, and he was canonized in 1628.

St. Peter Nolasco, who obviously relished a military ambiance, must be delighted with the reputation and honors that his Lady of Mercy has acquired—especially in Peru. In 1615, she was credited with saving Lima from an invasion by Dutch pirate ships.

Not surprisingly, she became patron of the country. General San Martin, Latin America’s great revolutionary leader and liberator of Peru, promoted her to Marshal of the Peruvian Army in 1823.

Among Lima’s magnificent Spanish colonial churches is La Merced, a Baroque extravagance fitted with exquisite silver altars, bejewelled gold appointments and wall and ceiling carvings of lacelike delicacy.

In 1921, its ancient Spanish statue of Our Lady of Mercy was formally crowned in an elaborate ceremony. On Sept. 24, the anniversary of that coronation, the president of Peru and top officials of all the armed forces stand tall before Our Lady for the Ransom of Captives.

The dignitaries wear full military regalia, which in Latin American nations are extraordinarily “spiffy.” It isn’t difficult to imagine the figure of St. Nolasco there among them—sword at his side, proudly displaying on his white habit the ancient arms of the king of Aragon, respectfully waiting for his Lady to address her commander general.

Stevens writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. This article was taken from the December 15, 1996 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe, write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

Our Sunday Visitor is published weekly.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN Online Services.

Provided courtesy of: Eternal Word Television Network PO Box 3610 Manassas, VA 22110 Voice: 703-791-2576 Fax: 703-791-4250 Web. Read original article.

Solemnity of St Peter Nolasco

Mercedarian’s throughout the world celebrated today, May 6th, as the Solemnity of our father and founder, St. Peter Nolasco.

St Peter Nolasco having a vision of Our Lady of Mercy

St Peter is recognized as the founder of the Order on August 10, 1218. It was St Peter who was first inspired to begin collecting alms to ransom Christian captives in Muslim occupied areas of Spain. On January 17th 1235, the Holy See recognized the action of the Holy Spirit in the founding of the Order.  The charism of redemption that came through St Peter Nolasco is the specific gift of grace given to the Church. This is what the Church approved.  It is what unites the Order and brings us together with one purpose to serve the Church.

In modern times, the some communities have left the original charism or spirit of their founder. The result is that they lose their identity and purpose. To leave the founders charism is to separate the institute from what was approved by the Church. The Holy See has asked communities repeatedly to return to the spirit of their founder. They are to adapt this spirit to the present circumstances of the world. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this issue saying that today many “communities have chosen to return to the origins and live in a way more in keeping with the spirit of the founder. In almost all recent general chapters of religious institutes the recurring theme has been precisely that of rediscovering the original charism, to then incarnate it and renew it in the present.”

It is for this reason that the Mercedarian have a very special veneration for St. Peter Nolasco.  We strive daily to imitate his redemptive love for Christians in danger of losing their faith. We have statues and images of St Peter in our chapels and throughout our friaries. We pray to him in common each day. On Saturdays, we sing an ancient hymn in St Peter’s honor; praying for his intercession and to imitate his profound love for the captives. The Order’s Constitution also asks each Mercedarian Friar to “study diligently his life and mission in the Church”.

On May the 6th, the Order celebrates solemnly the feast of our founder. Here in the United States this means that we place a special emphasis on praying the Office and celebrating Mass with great solemnity. The Office is often times chanted and the Blessed Sacrament may be exposed. Mass is offered at our parishes with the Gloria being sung and the Creed recited. The main celebrant will preach setting forth the virtues and example of our beloved founder. The celebration continues throughout the day as Mercedarian friars, sisters, and the third order get together for a meal and to socialize.

It is in this way the we keep the memory of our founder strong in our minds. We know that his is still present with all the Mercedarian Saints praying and interceding for the work of the Order. For our part, we strive to continue the charism of St Peter Nolasco on into the third millennium of Christianity.

St Peter Nolasco, pray for us that we may always be faithful to your spirit of redeeming love for Christians in danger of losing their faith!