Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy.* Originally known as Our Lady of Ransom, the feast dates back to 1218, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to three different men on the same day, with the same request. The men were King James I of Aragon, St. Raymond of Pennafort (a relative of King James), and St. Peter Nolasco of Catalan. The request was for the three of them to establish an order especially committed to rescuing slaves from the Muslims.
During the 13th Century, the Muslims around the Mediterranean operated a massive slave trade. The Spanish, particularly, were subject to raids in which they would be captured and imprisoned, sold into slavery and often forced to renounce their Catholic faith or face severe discrimination, torture, and death. It is estimated that in a single year more white Europeans were taken captive than the number of all the slaves shipped to America during the entire time of the slave trade there.
The three men did as Our Lady requested. The order is officially known as the Royal, Celestial, and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of the Captives. Or, the Order of Our Lady of Ransom for short. It is believed they rescued many thousands of Christians from Muslim slavery.
The order is also known as the Mercedarians. It still exists in 17 countries. One of the distinguishing marks of the Order is that, since its foundation, its members are required to take a fourth vow in addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. That vow is “to visit and to free Christians who are in captivity and in power of the Saracens or of other enemies of our Law… By this work of mercy… all the brothers of this Order, as sons of true obedience, must always be gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us.“
- The name was changed after Vatican II.