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. The Guild still exists today. Its principal object is to raise funds to enable poor rural parishes — in districts where few Catholics live — to survive.
There are some areas of England where Catholicism is very much a minority religion — Cornwall being one example. Some of these are holiday districts, where Mass attendance rises during the summer because of visitors coming to enjoy the seaside. But the regular work of the parish for most of the year is sustained by grants from the Guild.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember that this notion of Our Lady “ransoming” England and restoring our country to its true Catholic heritage was something that was mentioned by devout enthusiasts. It became a bit unfashionable in that chaotic period following the Second Vatican Council, but it never really died.
But it was only in the 1990s, when I began researching old feasts and traditions in some detail, that I discovered the origins of Our Lady of Ransom. And I found that the title was in fact of greater significance than I had thought — and has a curious resonance for the Britain of today, in ways unimaginable in my childhood.
Our Lady of Ransom is a tradition originating in the 13th century, when Islamic forces were strong on the seas around Europe. These Barbary pirates, based in North Africa, made raids on the coasts of Spain and Italy — and even, as recent research has shown, as far afield as Britain and Ireland — and took off numbers of the local people as captives. Entire coastal villages would be burned to the ground, and terrified people dragged off to the ships, before help could be summoned.
The legend of being “captured by Saracens” became embedded in Christian folklore and tradition, and with good reason. Once taken away to a distant land, small boys who had been removed from their parents could be transformed into Muslim warriors, and girls into suitable subjects for a harem.
New religious orders were formed to meet the crisis. The Trinitarians were dedicated to helping imprisoned Christians in Islamic countries, and their preachers would travel from parish to parish — much as visiting speakers from Catholic organizations or pro-life groups do today — talking about the plight of those imprisoned and begging for funds to secure their release. This order had its own churches in England — there is a magnificent one at Hickling, in Norfolk, and local legend says that the ghost of a Saracen warrior haunts the village at night. (Some versions of the story say that he was drowned in Hickling Broad, the stretch of water that is today a popular place for boating and fishing, and that he rises from the water on moonlit nights and walks to the church.)
The Trinitarians still flourish as a religious order today — they run several parishes in the United States and have a range of work in different parts of Africa. Like other orders, they recognize their heritage and pay tribute to their founder (St. John de Matha), but they are busy with their current work, and their origins in the late 12th century, and great work in the 13th, are not widely known today.
And then there were the Mercedarians, another order that still flourishes today. It was established in 1218 and dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy — or Our Lady of Ransom, as she was known in England. The founder, St. Peter Nolasco, devoted his life to ransoming Christian slaves — no easy task, as Islamic society was increasingly economically dependent on slavery. Although Islam teaches that Allah desires that slaves should not be treated cruelly, this was not always observed, and many led lives of misery.
But it was possible to free such slaves by the payment of ransom money, and the original Mercedarians travelled as merchants through Saracen territory, freeing many Christian slaves. (The Mercedarian Web site has some fascinating historical detail, especially about the work done by the Order in Islamic Spain).
I find myself wondering. Should we not — while recognising 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. And whether this is fashionable or not, we ought to understand that Christ died for everyone, including people born into Islam, and that Our Lady of Ransom might have something to say to us about that, too.
Millions of Muslims now live in Britain, and entire sections of our towns and cities are now culturally Islamic. Churches are closing and mosques are taking their places. Visit Bradford, or Preston, or Leeds, and see the minarets and walk among the veiled women in the shopping centers. Are we to assume that they are never to know the truth about Christ and what He won for them on the Cross? Evangelism is difficult, but prayer is not, and Our Lady of Ransom may achieve what seems impossible. We should invoke her aid, in our homes and in our parishes.
Perhaps we should not assume that all will be antagonistic. Mary is honored in Islam, and is a point of contact. Islamic women, raising families in modern Britain, have their own worries about the pressures on their young, and about their own hopes and fears for the future. A string of rosary beads, an image of Mary, a hymn invoking her aid in prayer, may not be as offensive as we think.
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.