The story of St. Raymond Nonnatus is ripped from the headlines
When I recently ran across a one-page biography of one of my patron saints, Raymond Nonnatus, I discovered quite a bit more than I bargained for.
I was born on St. Raymond’s feast day, which was also the date of his death. In writing about this later, my father said that St. Raymond was known for his work with the slaves. For many years, I equated his work with that of St. Martin des Porres, who ministered to African slaves as they were brought to the New World. While there may be some similarities, St. Raymond lived centuries earlier, and his work is more accurately described as ministering to Christian hostages of Muslim invaders. Sounds like a saint for our times.
Raymond was born around 1200 in Spain, a time the Iberian peninsula was occupied by Muslims. His mother died in childbirth, and he was birthed by what we would call Caesarian section (like Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb). As a result, Raymond was given the surname Nonnatus, or “not born.”
Raymond felt a call to religious life from a young age and eventually joined the Order of Mercy. The special charism of these Mercedarians was to ransom Christian hostages held by the Muslims.
Wow. I had never heard of this religious order or even knew that such a need existed Europe and Africa. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Mercedarians’ charism for our day.
They were driven primarily by Christ’s call to “proclaim liberty to captives.” A secondary, and arguably more urgent, reason was the condition of the hostages: they often faced the stark choice of forced conversion to Islam or death. The Mercedarians felt that this circumstance put the hostages’ souls at risk, so ransoming as many as possible was a priority.
Apparently, Raymond was skilled at securing the release of hostages as well as converting some of their captors. He was sent on three campaigns to ransom captives in Spain and North Africa. When his funds ran out, Raymond offered himself as a ransom for the hostages, in the spirit of his order and the example of Jesus.
Raymond’s exhortations to his fellow Christians while he was in confinement so moved his captors that several converted to Christianity. This enraged the Muslim authorities, who took an extreme approach to silencing Raymond: they pierced his lips and sealed them shut with a padlock. Talk about extreme piercing!
Eventually ransomed by his fellow Mercedarians, Raymond was later named a cardinal.
So what are we to make of a saint who lived 800 years ago but whose exploits are as current as this week’s headlines?
First, keep praying, keep discerning God’s will for your life, keep proclaiming the love of Christ, regardless of the circumstances. As St. Paul says, “Proclaim the word, whether it is convenient or inconvenient.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Second, acknowledge the presence of evil in the world, but respond to it on heavenly terms, not on human ones. Evil is not conquered by denial or anger or hatred. The best way to fight evil is with love and goodness. St. Raymond’s captors saw the holiness in him and found it difficult to resist.
Finally, reflect on the captives in your life. Pray for those around the world imprisoned unjustly or held hostage. Closer to home, do your demands and expectations hold captive your family members and close friends? Do you see a captive when you look in the mirror, held prisoner by guilt and doubt? Jesus Christ was the ultimate ransom, and he calls us to ransom captives, just as St. Raymond did.
Do we project the kind of holiness that St. Raymond did, the type of goodness that sets free the people we encounter rather than burdening them? If not, maybe that’s something to work on this Lent.