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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Today is the "Feast of Our Lady of Ransom."

Our Lady of Ransom is a tradition originating in the 13th century, when Islamic forces were strong on the seas around Europe. These Barbary pirates, based in North Africa, made raids on the coasts of Spain and Italy -- and even, as recent research has shown, as far afield as Britain and Ireland -- and took off numbers of the local people as captives. Entire coastal villages would be burned to the ground, and terrified people dragged off to the ships, before help could be summoned.

The legend of being "captured by Saracens" became embedded in Christian folklore and tradition, and with good reason. Once taken away to a distant land, small boys who had been removed from their parents could be transformed into Muslim warriors, and girls into suitable subjects for a harem.

New religious orders were formed to meet the crisis. The Trinitarians were dedicated to helping imprisoned Christians in Islamic countries, and their preachers would travel from parish to parish -- much as visiting speakers from Catholic organizations or pro-life groups do today -- talking about the plight of those imprisoned and begging for funds to secure their release. This order had its own churches in England -- there is a magnificent one at Hickling, in Norfolk, and local legend says that the ghost of a Saracen warrior haunts the village at night. (Some versions of the story say that he was drowned in Hickling Broad, the stretch of water that is today a popular place for boating and fishing, and that he rises from the water on moonlit nights and walks to the church.)

The Trinitarians still flourish as a religious order today -- they run several parishes in the United States and have a range of work in different parts of Africa. Like other orders, they recognize their heritage and pay tribute to their founder (St. John de Matha), but they are busy with their current work, and their origins in the late 12th century, and great work in the 13th, are not widely known today.

And then there were the Mercedarians, another order that still flourishes today. It was established in 1218 and dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy -- or Our Lady of Ransom, as she was known in England. The founder, St. Peter Nolasco, devoted his life to ransoming Christian slaves -- no easy task, as Islamic society was increasingly economically dependent on slavery. Although Islam teaches that Allah desires that slaves should not be treated cruelly, this was not always observed, and many led lives of misery.

But it was possible to free such slaves by the payment of ransom money, and the original Mercedarians travelled as merchants through Saracen territory, freeing many Christian slaves. (The Mercedarian Web site has some fascinating historical detail, especially about the work done by the Order in Islamic Spain).

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