In the early 13th century, actually almost exactly 800 years ago from today, a young Spaniard by the name of Peter Nolasco inherited a large estate from his father at the age of fifteen, when his father died. Peter, though, was not a typical young lad. He was filled with a sense of distress and compassion for his fellow Christians who were enslaved by the occupying Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. So rather than spend his large inheritance on a carefree, fun-loving lifestyle, he used it to pay for the ransoming of his fellow enslaved Christians. Besides the physical pain and constraints to which the enslaved Christians were subject, he was even more concerned over the risk they faced to losing their faith and their virtue.
Four hundred years later he would become St. Peter Nolasco, renowned as the founder of the order of Our Lady of Ransom, commonly called the Mercedarians (from the Spanish word merced, meaning a payment made for ransom), whose members to this day make a fourth vow of ransoming slaves.
Many Kinds of Captivity
St. Peter’s vision gave birth to the devotion to Our Lady of Ransom, whose Votive Mass we celebrate today, and a devotion which continues to be very much needed in our own time. Certainly slavery has sadly been a scourge afflicting the world from ancient times, and one which Christians have consistently fought to eradicate. Even in our own country we still suffer residual effects of that dark chapter of our nation’s history. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that, while we may have thought in our own time to be so enlightened as to have made progress in ridding the world of it, the victims of the worldwide slave trade are now more numerous than ever before in human history.
There are, of course, many other ways of being held captive. In our first reading for Mass today, we hear the rejoicing of the people at their own ransoming from threatened extinction by their dreaded enemies the Assyrians thanks to the intervention of the heroine of the Jewish people, the holy woman Judith. As the story goes, the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith, described as a beautiful young widow, resolves to save her people by slaying Holofernes herself. After reciting a long prayer to God, she dons her finest clothes in order to subdue him.
Holofernes partied with his friends, and apparently got a bit carried away as he ended up drinking too much wine and passed out. At that point, Judith took advantage of the opportunity to slay Holofernes, thereby saving her people from being massacred. And so her people extolled her with the acclamation we just heard proclaimed, “You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; you are the splendid boast of our people. With your own hand you have done all this; you have done good to Israel, and God is pleased with what you have wrought. May you be blessed by the Lord Almighty forever and ever!”
This may be an ancient story, but tragically it hits close to home in our own time as we see threats to the extinction of entire populations all around the globe – Ukraine, Israel and Christians in Nigeria immediately coming to mind. But there is also the personal captivity to which people are subject, whether it is the result of their own bad choices or from forces beyond their control. Physical and mental illness are very real forms of affliction to which you all have responded to the call to alleviate.
All of these forms of distress and captivity eventually affect our spiritual life: in the end it is spiritual captivity that causes the greatest affliction. St. Peter understood this: his greatest concern was for the faith and virtue of his enslaved fellow Christians. And even when he went to Algiers to ransom Christians there and was put in prison, it did not dampen his spirit of charity; indeed, his example of heroic charity was so convincing that it brought many of the enslavers themselves to faith in Christ.
When it comes to caring for the sick in mind and body, St. Peter’s example points to the Catholic vision of authentic healthcare: it is holistic – body, mind and spirit. Spiritual care is always an integral part of healthcare in any Catholic healthcare institution.
This distinctive mark of the Catholic understanding of healthcare is the sacred calling to which you have all responded. Yes, a sacred calling, because it aims, ultimately, to alleviate the suffering of the soul. God has graced you with talent and intelligence to attend to the sick in their bodies, and with the grace of faith to use that as a means to healing the soul. Through the physical to the spiritual. It is the spiritual that is the deepest and most distressing suffering: depression and despair, anguish and loneliness. Even in the midst of great bodily suffering, where there is love and compassion, fellowship and solidarity, the one suffering can be sustained and renewed in hope. Love leads to communion which sustains hope and saves; indifference leads to loneliness which descends into despair and destroys.
Jesus on the Cross
The word “compassion”, of course, literally means “to suffer with.” This is what we behold in the scene of the gospel we just heard proclaimed at this Mass. Jesus’ few faithful followers are with him to the very end, in communion with his mother at the foot of the Cross. And in the midst of that deep and intense suffering, Jesus thinks of others: he wants to make sure his mother is taken care of and so entrusts her to his beloved disciple.
This is our Lord’s last will and testament: he entrusts his mother to his beloved disciple and his disciple to his mother. The beloved disciple at the foot of the Cross represents all disciples, and so our Lord entrusts all of us to the maternal care of his mother. He has made us his brothers and sisters, and so his mother is ours as well. She, of course, is the great protagonist in our ultimate ransom, the ransom from sin and death.
The courage and selfless love of Judith is a prelude to that of God’s most beloved daughter, Mary of Nazareth, through whom God entered our world in human flesh to bring about our eternal salvation on the Cross. She is the glory and splendor of not just one race of people, but of all of us, of the entire human race. She is the one preserved from sin to be perfectly, single-heartedly dedicated to God and so carry out His will to save us, His people, by bringing His Son into the world to be our Savior. And she, too, is always with us, accompanying us on the way to her Son, to bring us his mercy, peace and communion, ransoming us from the captivity of our isolation, anguish and despair, lifting us into the communion of his love.
You, my brothers and sisters, have this privileged and high calling to enter people’s lives at a very vulnerable time, but a time of great openness and possibility to the spiritual healing that they truly need. Thank you for answering this holy call as a Catholic health care worker, healing mind and body with the selfless love of the Mother of God, with the compassion revealed by her Son on the Cross. May He grace you with the wisdom, compassion and strength you need to bring healing of mind, body and spirit to His people who suffer, for His glory and for the salvation of your souls, and that of those who suffer illness of mind and body whom you seek to heal. Amen.
From the Archdiocese of San Francisco