It was 1253 in Barcelona. Two men—Teobaldo and Fernando—were about to embark on a mission deep into enemy territory.
Their mission: the rescue of 129 hostages. Their destination: Tunis, the capital of a burgeoning new Muslim kingdom across the Mediterranean Sea. Much would detain them in executing of their mission. One of them was the victim of rapacious locals who tried to trap him in marriage to a Moorish beauty. He endured trial, burning, and eventually death by stoning. His companion was lucky to escape with just a beating.
Teobaldo and Fernando were not knights, crusaders, or something like a medieval version of today’s covert operatives. In a way, they were all those things and much more. They were Mercedarians, one of the brand-new religious orders committed to carrying out the sixth corporal work of mercy: ransoming the captive (also known as visiting those in prison).
By the late 1100s and early 1200s, the Christian reconquest of Spain was nearing its end. On the defensive, their kingdoms shrinking, Christendom’s Muslim enemies resorted to piracy and kidnapping of Christians. It became such a common problem that two religious orders were established for the purpose of raising money to ransom the captives: the Mercedarians and the Trinitarians. These orders weren’t just fundraising organizations. They personally went on ransoming missions, sometimes called redemptions. The Mercedarians even took a fourth vow to substitute themselves for the person held in captivity, if necessary.
It’s not clear whether any Mercedarian ever had to make good on that vow. What is certain is that ransoming was no simple exchange of money: it often involved dangerous rescue missions far into enemy territory in which a Trinitarian or Mercedarian friar often risked becoming a captive himself.
Teobaldo and Fernando were hardly the only ones who risked their lives on such missions. Sixty-eight Mercedarians alone perished or were killed on these missions between 1218, when the order was founded, and 1490, two years before the Spanish Reconquest ended, according to one study (cited in Captives and Their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon by Jarbel Rodriguez).
Just a few years before, two Mercedarians had paid the ransom for 209 captives in Tunis, according to an official history of the order. The money they brought for their mission was not enough to save all the captives. So one of the Mercedarians, named Peter, stayed back with those left behind, to encourage them and strengthen them so they would not deny Christ. He was so effective that he was arrested, beaten, and beheaded, his body tossed into a fire.
Talk about heroic virtue.
The Trinitarians distinguished themselves as well. One of the founders of their order, St. John of Matha, faced piracy and shipwreck as he was returning from a redemptive mission in Tunis in 1210. Here’s how Butler’s Lives of the Saints describes it:
As he was returning with one hundred and twenty slaves he had ransomed, the barbarians took away the helm from his vessel and tore all its sails that they might perish in the sea. The saint, full of confidence in God, begged him to be their pilot, and hung up his companions’ cloaks for sails, and, with a crucifix in his hands kneeling on the deck, singing psalms, after a prosperous voyage, they all landed safe at Ostia, in Italy.
Both ransoming orders produced great saints like St. John of Matha. Among the Trinitarians there is St. Felix of Valois, who left a life as an isolated hermit at the age of 70 to help St. John of Matha establish the order. There is also the great Marian saint Simón de Rojas, who popularized the phrase totus tuus—totally yours—a century before St. Louis de Montfort incorporated it into his well-known Marian prayer. And there is the mystic St. Michael of the Saints, who is said to have experienced ecstasies before the Eucharist.
The Mercedarians had their great saints too. Their founder St. Peter Nolasco’s work was inspired by a vision of Mary (the formal name is the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy) and later, according to tradition, he offered himself in exchange for some captives. There’s also St. Raymond Nonnatus, whose incessant preaching after being imprisoned on one of his missions earned him the unusual punishment of having his lips shut with an iron padlock—a condition he enduring for eight months before his eventual departure from the prison.
Besides the works of mercy they perform, and the merits they win for the Church, these two orders ought to inspire us to find new ways to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The end of the entry for St. John of Matha in Butler’s Lives of the Saints puts it best:
When we consider the zeal and joy with which the saints sacrificed themselves for their neighbors, how must we blush at, and condemn out insensibility at the spiritual and the corporal calamities of others! Fine saints regarded affronts, labors, and pains, as nothing for the service of others in Christ: we cannot bear the least word or roughness of temper.
Specifically, the Mercedarians and Trinitarians call us to think about how we can perform a work of mercy that sometimes takes a backseat to the first five works of mercy, which involve ministry to the hungry, homeless, and ill. What new forms—corporal and spiritual—of captivity exist today? How can we minister to these captives?