The story of Our Lady of Ransom is, at its outset, that of Saint Peter Nolasco, born in Languedoc about 1189. He conceived the idea of establishing a religious order for the redemption of captives seized by the Moors on the seas and in Spain itself; they were being cruelly tormented in their African prisons to make them deny their faith. On August 1, 1218 the Blessed Virgin appeared to Saint Peter, to his confessor, Raymund of Pennafort, and to King James I, and through these three servants of God established a work of the most perfect charity, the redemption of captives. Its members would undertake to deliver Christian captives and offer themselves, if necessary, as payment.
Word of the apparition soon spread over the entire kingdom; and on August 10th the king went to the cathedral for a Mass celebrated by the bishop of Barcelona during which Saint Raymund narrated his vision with admirable eloquence and fervor. The king besought the blessing of the bishop for the heaven-sent plan, and the bishop bestowed the habit on Saint Peter, who emitted the solemn vow to give himself as a hostage if necessary.
The Order, thus solemnly established in Spain, was approved by Gregory IX under the name of Our Lady of Mercy, and spread rapidly. Eventually a feast day was instituted and observed on September 24th, first in the religious order, then in Spain and France and on February 22, 1696 Innocent XII extended it to the entire Church. To this day, the Mercedarians keep this day as a first class feast, with a vigil, privileged octave, and proper Office under the title: "Solemnitas Descensionis B. Mariae V. de Mercede."
Our Lady of Ransom is the principal patron of Barcelona; the proper Office was extended to Barcelona (1868) and to all Spain (second class, 1883). Sicily, which had suffered so much from the Saracens, took up the old date of the feast (Sunday nearest to August 1) by permission of the Congregation of Rites of August 31, 1805. In England, the devotion to Our Lady of Ransom was revived in modern times to obtain the rescue of England as Our Lady's Dowry.
The revival of the Catholic Faith in England in the 19th century saw the establishment of various feasts and traditions, in the conscious desire to restore and revive things that had been lost. One such feast day was that of Our Lady of Ransom. This ancient medieval title was restored to Mary, and a Guild of Our Lady of Ransom was established, with the idea of praying for the full conversion of England and Wales to the Catholic Faith.
Should we not -- while recognizing the delicacy of what we are discussing -- see in Our Lady of Ransom something tender, merciful, and important for today? We need her to ransom the West from its secular mindset; ransom us all from fear; ransom Christians under pressure from Islam (those suffering in Sudan today, for example). We need to invoke her aid in giving back to Christians, especially in Europe, a sense of the truth that is at the core of Christianity -- God who became man, who took human flesh and became one of us, dying for us on the Cross -- and a recognition that we need to live this faith fully and be prepared to pass it on.
Perhaps it is time, gently but with courage, to pray with renewed fervor the prayer I remember in the rather different England of my youth: Our Lady of Ransom, pray for us.