The ransomer

The plight of refugees, fleeing the hell-holes of North Africa to reach Europe in whatever boats will take them, is sometimes in the news. The Pope has often drawn attention to their needs, and chastised the unnamed for not helping them. The shocking truth is that Europeans have shown a diminished enthusiasm for Muslim immigration.

Traffic across the Mediterranean was formerly different in kind. For at least seven centuries, constantly, and sporadically through four more, the life of southern Europe was disturbed by violent raids. There are stretches of coast in France and Italy that were not repopulated until the nineteenth century, because of these razzias. The Saracens, as we once called them, had an economy based on plunder. All Christian lands within reach were scoured, not only for portable wealth, but also to replenish their stock of slaves — both for domestic use, and trade. The Christians got into the act, too, taking captives for exchange when they could; but except some happier years during the Crusades, remained basically on the defensive. (I tired of apologizing for the Crusades about thirty years ago, which is why I stopped doing it.)

Students of American history may recall that the first foreign adventure of those United States was against the Barbary pirates. Indeed, one of the first acts of the new U.S. Congress in 1784 was the appropriation of money to pay tribute to the Barbary princes, to secure safety for American sailors and shipping. Thomas Jefferson, when U.S. minister to France, tried to negotiate a “coalition of the willing” — which at the time included Portugal, Naples, the two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark, and Sweden — to put an end to depredations all had suffered. Gentle Yankee reader may know the hymn of the United States Marine Corps, which begins, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” Yes, it was that Tripoli, in Ottoman Tripolitania, where they landed in 1805. They and their mercenary allies marched hundreds of miles through desert to Derna (recently back under Islamist control) in what we might take as the first dry run for the march to Baghdad. (Shout-out to my USMC buddies: Semper fidelis, and Deus vult!)

To those of broad mind towards pirates — for after all the Elizabethan English economy was based on piracy, too — at least some grudging admiration may be offered to the other side. In their mediaeval heyday, Muslim raiders struck as far north as Iceland; and in earlier modernity, as far west as Brazil. As Osama bin Laden used to say, people are attracted to the winning horse.

Home-grown terror is also nothing new. One thinks of Jack Ward, a.k.a. “Birdie,” a.k.a. Yusuf Reis (1553–1622), the Briton who assembled a sparkling little fleet, starting with the capture of a few French vessels — one reputed to be carrying the belongings of English Catholic refugees. He sailed to Tunis, converted to Islam, and did much lively business thereafter. He taught his new colleagues the latest navigational arts, which gave them a new lease on life. They’d been falling behind the European competition in this department, so that “asymmetrical warfare” — a traditional Muslim specialty — wasn’t working so well for them any more.

Where am I going with this? Ah yes, Saint Peter Nolasco (1189–1256), whose feast is today in your usus antiquior missals. (I look forward to celebrating Saint Thomas Aquinas on the anniversary of his memorably good death, March 7th; our Calendar in the High Doganate being state-of-the-art 1962.) It is a pity the former was trashed in the liturgical “reforms” of the hippie era, for he is so relevant today.

The founder and first commander-general of the Mercedarians — the Order of Our Lady of Ransom — was an old companion of Simon IV of Montfort against the Albigensian heretics. Tutor to the orphaned child James of Aragon, the king whose protection he later enjoyed, Peter proceeded to Barcelona, and lent his formidable organizing skills to the gathering Reconquista. The new order, fully patented in Rome by 1230, consisted of a heady mix of muscular lay monks or knights, with choir monks to prayerfully support them. In addition to the usual three vows they added a fourth: to lay down their lives with joy, or willingly become prisoners themselves, in exchange for the freedom of their brothers in Christ held by the Moors.

The order spread quickly through Europe, and later through the New World, to found convents and perform acts of mercy on behalf of the afflicted faithful. I am told it is still busy in seventeen countries. My thought is that with a little imagination, it could be put back to work on its original task: the ransom, or better still, straightforward liberation of Christian captives in the Middle East.

Saint Peter Nolasco, pray for us, and remind us in our lethargy of how things are done.