In the eighth century the Moors conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula, and for the next 700 years the Spaniards fought back against the occupying Muslim forces. Many Christians were also captured by the Moors and sold as slaves. Not only were they deprived of their freedom but they were also in danger of losing their Christian faith. Young Pedro Nolasco, from Barcelona, decided that something must be done to help them. While still a youth he purchased the freedom of 300 such prisoners with money inherited from his father. In the year 1218 Our Lady appeared to him and asked him to establish an order to continue this work of freeing Christian slaves. So it was that the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy was founded, more commonly known as the Mercedarians (from the Latin Maria de mercede redemptionis captivorum and the Spanish "Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes") and in England also as the Order of Our Lady of Ransom. 

The members of the order purchased the freedom of innumerable Christian prisoners held by the Moors and not infrequently offered their own freedom and even their own lives in exchange for the unfortunate prisoners. They are unusual in that their religious rule has a fourth vow, in addition to the usual three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, namely to purchase the freedom of Christian slaves even at the cost of their own freedom and their own lives.

(Some of the seminarians in the seminary in Guatemala © Aid to the Church in Need)

The order is particularly strong in Latin America today. And it continues to care for prisoners, being active in the prison apostolate and providing practical and spiritual support to the impoverished families of prisoners. Its members also provide counselling and support for those who have fallen foul of the law - in some cases innocently. And they are likewise there to help former prisoners after their release, since many of them no longer have any families and find themselves having to make a completely new start, with nothing. The Mercedarians help them to find employment and gradually reintegrate into society.

Happily, the order is blessed with many new vocations. At present there are 15 young men preparing for the priesthood in their seminary in Guatemala. Thanks to the generosity of the benefactors of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) a grant of $6,000 was given to help with their formation.

The vital work of Catholic charities like Aid to the Church In Need provide a lifeline to the Church wherever she is poor, persecuted or threatened. Please help our work by donating online or send your donation to Aid to the Church in Need, PO Box 7246 Baulkham Hills NSW 2153. Ph: (02) 9679-1929 

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