As we celebrate the Feast of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross we recall with deep compassion Our Lord Jesus’ suffering on the Cross out of love for us, for our salvation and for our sins. In that light, we cannot help but call to mind the many Christians who are now being persecuted for the sake of their love of Christ and His Cross. This persecution has descended to new depths of depravity at the hands of the army calling itself the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), who are going so far as to torture Christians to death by hanging them on crosses.
Most Muslims today oppose this kind of violent persecution of Christians. Nevertheless, violence against non-Muslims is very much a part of Islamic teaching and history. After all, almost immediately after founding Islam in 610 AD Muhammad himself took up the sword and led armies to force his Arab neighbors to convert to Islam: “submit or die.” By the time of his death in 632 he had conquered, by violence or threat of violence, a good part of western Arabia, and by 711 the armies of his successors had conquered not only all of northern Africa but also almost all of the Iberian Peninsula—Spain and Portugal. Their march into Western Europe was finally stopped by the armies of Charles Martel (“The Hammer”) in 732. Attempted invasions of Eastern Europe and Italy continued over the centuries, including the defeat of the Byzantine Empire and the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Persecution of Christians in Muslim countries also continued throughout this period.
Violence against non-Muslims continued in lesser ways more or less continuously until the 20th century, especially through the practice of capturing ships from Christian countries and holding the captured Christians for ransom, forced conversion, and/or for the slave trade. [Quick aside: America’s first encounter with Muslim terrorists occurred in 1801, when the Pasha of Tripoli demanded that President Thomas Jefferson pay $225,000 to guarantee that his pirates would not attack American ships (European powers regularly paid this “protection” money). Jefferson instead sent the U.S. Navy and Marines to protect American ships in the Mediterranean. This soon led to the invasion of Tripoli (which the Marine’s Hymn memorializes, “to the shores of Tripoli”) after which American ships were no longer targeted by the terrorists.]
This was the state of things in the 13th century, when on the evening of August 1, 1218, the Blessed Mother appeared separately to three very different men in Barcelona, Spain: to St. Peter Nolasco, the son of a wealthy Spanish merchant and veteran of various battles against the “Moors” (Muslims) occupying much of southern Spain; to King James I of Aragon; and to our own beloved patron St. Raymond of Peñafort, who was Peter’s confessor. The Blessed Mother told each of them that St. Peter was to found a religious order that would dedicate itself to the ransom of Christian captives of Muslims. The members of this new order would take a vow to offer themselves personally/bodily, when necessary, as ransom or as security for the freedom their fellow Christians. St. Peter obeyed Our Lady, and with the political and financial support of the King and under the wise guidance of St. Raymond, the order, commonly called “the Mercedarians,” was founded and proceeded in its mission.
So extensive was St. Raymond’s support and guidance to St. Peter that he is considered co-founder of the Mercedarians. St. Raymond would later go on to dedicate great efforts toward the conversion of Muslims in Spain, by establishing schools for his fellow Dominicans (the order he joined in 1222) to study Arabic and the teachings of Islam, and by his active preaching and writing. He is also credited with convincing St. Thomas Aquinas to write his great Summa contra Gentiles to help in the conversion of Muslims. At his death, St. Raymond was considered directly responsible for the conversion of over 10,000 Muslims in Spain.
St. Raymond was a holy and brilliant man who led an amazing life. Unfortunately, most people only remember him for his efforts to organize the Canon Law of the Church, and maybe for his role as 3rd Master General of the Dominicans. But how can we, who are entrusted to his patronal care, forget these two very important and relevant aspects of his life: the apparition of Our Lady of Ransom/Mercy, and his role in dealing with the Muslims of his day.
With this in mind, I propose to you that from now on we dedicate our parish, and ourselves, to joining St. Raymond in the dual task of 1) assisting Christians who are persecuted or captured by radical Muslims, and 2) the conversion of Muslims. And in this effort I propose we place ourselves under the special protection of Our Lady of Ransom/Mercy, that she may guide us as she guided St. Raymond.
And how do we proceed in these efforts? Now, I recognize that it is extremely difficult to evangelize American Muslims in the current environment. Moreover, very few of us have the opportunity to assist prisoners held by Muslim terrorists (although some among us, e.g., members of our military, might find themselves in this position from time to time). But for most of us, let’s just concentrate on basics.
First, be sure to be charitable to the Muslims you meet or know—how can we convert those who do not see the love of Christ in us?
Second, enthusiastically support those who are directly working for these ends. For example, last week you donated over $12,000 to aid the Christians fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Iraq.
Third, and most importantly, we need to pray. In this regard I ask you all to commit to pray the following simple prayer (or some similar prayer) every day, or at least once a week:
“Our Lady of Ransom and Mercy, and St. Raymond of Peñafort, pray for us, for all persecuted Christians and for the conversion of Muslims. Amen.”
You can certainly pray more than this—perhaps you could pray the Rosary for these intentions, and this prayer could be its conclusion. But try to pray at least a little prayer like this every day.
My dear sons and daughters in Christ, let us unite in prayer for these holy causes. And in these prayers may we unite ourselves to Our Lady’s and St. Raymond’s faith and hope in our beloved and merciful Lord, Jesus Christ, who by His Most Holy Cross has redeemed the world.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles