In the old (pre-Paul VI) Church calendar, today was the feast of Our Lady of Mercy (also called Our Lady of Ransom). In its origin, it commemorated the apparition – on August 1, 1218 – of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Peter Nolasco (1189-1256), to his confessor Saint Raymond of Penafort (1175-1275), and to King James I (King of Aragon and Count of Bercelona from 1213 to 1276). The vision encouraged them to establish an Order for the redemption of captives – Christians who had been captured by the Muslim Moors. The order, The Royal, Celestial and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of the Captives, commonly called the Mercedarians would undertake to ransom Christian captives and if necessary its members would offer themselves as a ransom pledge. Another such order is The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives or The Order of the Most Holy Trinity, commonly called the Trinitarians, founded shortly before by St. John of Matha (1169-1218).
It is impossible to over-estimate the human and social dimensions of the ongoing problem those orders were founded to address. Nor did it go away for several centuries. Oxford University Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch in his The Reformation: A History (Viking, 2004, p. 55) has noted how the Muslim threat to Europe persisted until the end of the 17th century. Modern historians “produce reliable estimates that Islamic raiders enslaved around a million western Christian Europeans between 1530 and 1640; this dwarfs the contemporary slave traffic in the other direction, and is about equivalent to the numbers of West Africans taken by Christian Europeans across the Atlantic at the same time.” MacCulloch notes that the Religious devoted to the ransoming of captives “over the centuries honed diplomatic expertise and varied local knowledge to maximize the effectiveness of this specialized work.”
MacCulloch also asserts that “the fear this this Islamic aggression engendered in Europe was an essential background to the Reformation, convincing many on both sides that God’s anger was poised to strike down the Christian world, and so making it all the more essential to please God by affirming the right form of Christian belief against other Christians. It is impossible to understand the mood of sixteenth-century Europe without bearing in mind the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire.”
The events of the last dozen or more years – including the tragic events in Kenya this week – are a stark and vivid reminder of how little seems to have changed in the world. Indeed, “the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire” only dissipated during its final centuries. What history suggests is that that relatively brief period beginning with Ottoman decline that lasted until the late 20th century seems to have been the exception to a significantly longer term pattern of civilizational conflict. What we have been experiencing since 2001 (or maybe since the 1979 Iranian Revolution) is an old story being replayed in modern dress.
Religious orders did not resolve that earlier experience of civilizational conflict. Western military and technological supremacy and corresponding Ottoman weakness and decline did that – if only temporarily. The Religious Orders did, however, make an important contribution to managing the human and social stress of that ongoing and constant conflict. Conflict management is just that – the management of unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) conflict. Now as then, “diplomatic expertise and varied local knowledge” are of limited utility compared with military power and technological expertise, but now as then they may have a useful role to play in particular places in reducing the temperature of immediate conflicts by relieving some of the severe human and social distress the conflict is causing in especially threatened communities. What such efforts at the prudent and effective diplomatic and humanitarian management of civilizational conflict can perhaps also do is likewise to lower somewhat the temperature of the intense apocalyptic emotion that this particular conflict between civilizations continues to generate on all sides.