In addition to loving and honoring Mary as our Mother and Foundress, we as Mercedarians have a special love and devotion for St. Peter Nolasco, who on August 10, 1218 began the work of visiting and redeeming Christians held in captivity. Like the Dominicans or the Franciscans, we love our Father Founder and seek to imitate his ideals, virtues, and most importantly, his charism of redemptive charity.
However, who was this man who started this great work 801 years ago? Contrary to an article posted on Aleteia a few years back, Nolasco was not a priest when he founded the work, nor was he ever ordained. He was the member of the emerging middle class, a cloth merchant by trade. During his expeditions to the lands occupied by the Saracens, he was able to witness first hand the deplorable condition of Christians that had been taken captive by the invaders. (Before going further, it should be noted that Christians took captives as well.)
Because of this first hand experience, we could say that he had a conversion experience. This experience of the suffering and misery of his fellow man, complemented by the denial of religious freedom and forced conversion/compliance brought him to the Catalonian monastery of Montserrat. There, Peter would undergo a spiritual retreat that would bring him to an encounter with the Mother of Christ the Redeemer. In a vision, he saw Our Lady. She spoke to him as being "a messenger sent by the Most Holy Trinity," and told him that the cries of the captive Christians, most in danger of losing her faith, had prompted this miraculous encounter. She then gave him the white scapular that would be worn by the followers of Nolasco in working on this new project.
A few days later, on August 10, the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Redemption of the Captives was founded in the Cathedral of St. Eulalia of Barcelona. While we could say the rest is history, we would be remiss not to mention some of the key characteristics of Brother Nolasco.
St. Peter Nolasco was a man of contemplative action. Drawing from the humble means of prayer, fasting, and contemplation and from the richness of benefactors and alms-giving, he did not stay in the chapel. He went out, completing several redemptive missions along with his brothers. He was a man imbued with devotion to the Passion of Christ. It is said that he would carry a wooden cross around the courtyard of the Convent in imitation of the Redeemer. Moreover, like a St. Simon of Cyrene, he helped those suffering to carry their cross with dignity and compassion. Most importantly, Nolasco was a humble man who attributed everything, even the Order he founded to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. This is why we are called Mercedarians and not Nolascans.
He is also a man who was given a charism that is still applicable to our modern times. While we, as an Order, are no raising money and going into foreign territory to buy men and women back from slavery, we are still bearing witness to the redemptive charity of Christ in rescuing our brothers and sisters who are oppressed by new forms of captivity. Like Nolasco, we still vow to give up our lives should it be necessary to save the faith of those in danger of losing their faith. The living out of this vow, takes on many forms depending on the ministry of the friar, but still does not exclude the possibility of martyrdom. Through the heroic witness of our Father and Founder, we still thrive and have relevance.
As we celebrate today, we wish to include all who may be reading this in our prayers. Echoing the words of our Master General, who wrote to us regarding the celebration of this particular feast, May God the Father, who in Saint Peter Nolasco has given us an admirable model of redemptive charity, instill in your hearts a burning love of neighbor. Amen.