The Mercedarians are celebrating 8 centuries in the footsteps of their founder, St. Peter Nolasco, and inspired by St. Serapion.
Four years ago a newly ordained Mercedarian priest was assigned to our parish. Father Scott Brentwood was 31 years old and showed up wearing the traditional habit of his order. The habit is all white and, as Father walked toward his new parish, watching him approach was like taking a peek into the Middle Ages. It was an awesome sight to behold!
Father Scott has since moved on, and we had another newly ordained Mercedarian replace him, Father Daniel Bowen. I will say this: if these two priests are representative of the future of our Church, that future is as brilliant as an ascending morning sun.
The Mercedarians were founded by St. Peter Nolasco in the year 1218. Moved by direct inspiration from the Blessed Virgin Mary, his purpose in founding the new order was to free or redeem Christian captives from Muslim captors. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Mercedarians take a fourth vow: they promise to give themselves up for someone in danger of losing their faith, up to and including sacrificing their own lives.
One of the courageous Mercedarian priests who lived this vow was St. Serapion of Algiers.
Serapion was born in 1179 in either England or Ireland. When he was a boy, his father took him along on the Crusades led by King Richard the Lion-Heart. When he was 12 years old, he participated in the Battle of Acre in 1191.Then he met Peter Nolasco, who preached the mercy of God and did so by freeing Christian slaves from their Moor captors. Serapion realized that his life was meant to save lives, not to take them.
In 1222, Serapion became a full member of the Mercedarian order. He made several missions of mercy in northern Africa before being sent to England to recruit new members. During the journey, his ship was attacked by pirates, and he was left for dead. However, he survived and eventually made it to England. He began preaching against the theft of church property and was ordered to leave the country.
In 1240, Serapion had gone to Algiers to secure the release of 87 Christian captives. The ransom he had brought with him was not enough. The captors demanded more than Serapion had. When some of the prisoners heard this, they began to consider rejecting their Christian faith to save themselves. Serapion would not allow this to happen. He offered himself to the Moors in exchange for the prisoners’ freedom. This was agreed upon, and Serapion watched as the prisoners were freed. He then knew it was time for him to begin preaching the love of God to his new captors.
Serapion had turned his very life over to his captors. Undaunted by his natural fear he preached the love of God and the gospel message to the Muslims. Many began to respond to his message. However, as his brother Mercedarians hurried throughout Europe in the hope of gathering the extra ransom demanded, Serapion was making some hard-hearted enemies. The Muslim leaders who realized this Catholic/Christian man was starting to convert his listeners turned against him.
Since the ransom had yet to arrive, Serapion was ordered put to death. The man who simply wanted to preach the message of the God of Love was crucified on an X-shaped cross. While still alive he was dismembered.
Serapion was beatified in 1625 by Pope Urban VIII and canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728.
We ask St. Serapion of Algiers and all his brother Mercedarian saints to pray for us all.
Today, the Mercedarians (also known as the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy) are a worldwide organization and they still are rescuing people from attacks on their faith. They are located in 17 countries, and they have a student house in Philadelphia. They can be found working in deprived neighborhoods, in hospitals among drug addicts, and with families through parish work.
St. Serapion of Algiers, please pray for us all.