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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 31

St. Peter Nolasco, Confessor

        From Chronica Sacri et Militaris Ordinis B. M. de Mercede, per Bern. de Vargas, ej. Ord. 2 vol. in fol. Panormi, 1622, and by John de Latomis, in 12mo. in 1621, and especially the Spanish history of the same by Alonso Roman, 2 vol. fol. at Madrid, in 1618, and the life of the saint compiled in Italian by F. Francis Olihano, in 4to. 1688. See also Baillet, and Hist. des Ordres Relig. par. Helyot, and Hist. de l’Ordre de Notre Dame de la Merci, par les RR Pères de la Merci, de la Congrégation de Paris, fol. printed at Amiens, in 1685.

A.D. 1258.

[Founder of the Order of Our Lady for the Redemption of Captives.]  PETER, of the noble family of Nolasco, in Languedoc, was born in the diocess of St. Papoul, about the year 1189. His parents were very rich, but far more illustrious for their virtue. Peter, whilst an infant, cried at the sight of a poor man, till something was given him to bestow on the object of his compassion. In his childhood he gave to the poor whatever he received for his own use. He was exceeding comely and beautiful; but innocence and virtue were his greatest ornaments. It was his pious custom to give a very large alms to the first poor man he met every morning, without being asked. He arose at midnight, and assisted at matins in the church, as then the more devout part of the laity used to do together with all the clergy. At the age of fifteen he lost his father, who left him heir to a great estate; and he remained at home under the government of his pious mother, who brought him up in extraordinary sentiments and practices of virtue. Being solicited to marry, he betook himself to the serious consideration of the vanity of all earthly things; and rising one night full of those thoughts, prostrated himself in fervent prayer, which he continued till morning, most ardently devoting himself to God in the state of celibacy, and dedicating his whole patrimony to the promoting of his divine honour. He followed Simon of Montfort, general of the holy war against the Albigenses, an heretical sect, which had filled Languedoc with great cruelties, and overspread it with universal desolation. The count vanquished them, and in the battle of Muret defeated and killed Peter, king of Arragon, and took his son James prisoner, a child of six years old. The conqueror having the most tender regard and compassion for the prince his prisoner, appointed Peter Nolasco, then twenty-five years old, his tutor, and sent them both together into Spain. Peter in the midst of the court of the king at Barcelona, 1 where the kings of Arragon resided, led the life of a recluse, practising the austerities of a cloister. He gave no part of his time to amusements, but spent all the moments which the instruction of his pupil left free, in holy prayer, meditation and pious reading. The Moors at that time were possessed of a considerable part of Spain, and great numbers of Christians groaned under their tyranny in a miserable slavery both there and in Africa. Compassion for the poor had always been the distinguishing virtue of Peter. The sight of so many moving objects in captivity, and the consideration of the spiritual dangers to which their faith and virtue stood exposed under their Mahometan masters, touched his heart to the quick, and he soon spent his whole estate in redeeming as many as he could. Whenever he saw any poor Christian slaves, he used to say: “Behold eternal treasures which never fail.” By his discourses he moved others to contribute large alms towards this charity, and at last formed a project for instituting a religious Order for a constant supply of men and means whereby to carry on so charitable an undertaking. This design met with great obstacles in the execution: but the Blessed Virgin, the true mother of mercy, appearing to St. Peter, the king, and saint Raymund of Pennofort, in distinct visions the same night, encouraged them to prosecute the holy scheme under the assurance of her patronage and protection. St. Raymund was the spiritual director both of St. Peter and of the king, and a zealous promoter of this charitable work.
  The king declared himself the protector of the Order, and assigned them a large quarter of his own palace for their abode. All things being settled for laying the foundation of it, on the feast of St. Laurence, in the year 1223, the king and Saint Raymund conducted St. Peter to the church and presented him to Berengarius, the bishop of Barcelona, who received his three solemn religious vows, to which the saint added a fourth to devote his whole substance and his very liberty, if necessary, to the ransoming of slaves; the like vow he required of all his followers. St. Raymund made an edifying discourse on the occasion, and declared from the pulpit, in the presence of this august assembly, that it had pleased Almighty God to reveal to the king, to Peter Nolasco, and to himself, his will for the institution of an Order for the redemption of the faithful, detained in bondage among the infidels. This was received by the people with the greatest acclamations of joy, happy presages of the future success of the holy institute. 2 After this discourse, St. Peter received the new habit (as Mariana and Pope Clement VIII. in his bull say) from St. Raymund, who established him first general of this new Order, and drew up for it certain rules and constitutions. Two other gentlemen were professed at the same time with St. Peter. When St. Raymund went to Rome, he obtained from Pope Gregory IX. in the year 1225, the confirmation of this Order, and of the rule and constitutions he had drawn up. He wrote an account of this from Rome to St. Peter, informing him how well pleased his Holiness was with the wisdom and piety of the institute. The religious chose a white habit, to put them continually in mind of innocence; they wear a scapular, which is likewise white: but the king would oblige them, for his sake, to bear the royal arms of Arragon, which are interwoven on their habit upon the breast. Their numbers increasing very fast, the saint petitioned the king for another house; who, on this occasion, built for them, in 1232, a magnificent convent at Barcelona. 3  2
  King James having conquered the kingdom of Valentia, founded in it several rich convents; one was in the city of Valentia, which was taken by the aid of the prayers of St. Peter, when the soldiers had despaired of success, tired out by the obstinacy of the beseiged and strength of the place. In thanksgiving for this victory, the king built the rich monastery in the royal palace of Uneza, near the same city, on a spot where an image of our Lady was dug up, which is still preserved in the church of this convent, and is famous for pilgrimages. It is called the monastery of our Lady of mercy del Puche. 4 That prince attributed to the prayers of St. Peter thirty great victories which he obtained over the infidels, and the entire conquest of the two kingdoms of Valencia and Murcia. St. Peter, after his religious profession, renounced all his business at court, and no entreaties of the king could ever after prevail with him to appear there but once and this was upon a motive of charity to reconcile two powerful noblemen, who by their dissension had divided the whole kingdom, and kindled a civil war. The saint ordained that two members of the Order should be sent together amongst the infidels to treat about the ransom of Christian slaves, and they are hence called Ransomers. One of the two first employed in this pious work was our saint; and the kingdom of Valencia was the first place that was blessed with his labours: the second was that of Granada. He not only comforted and ransomed a great number of captives, but by his charity and other rare virtues, was the happy instrument of inducing many of the Mahometans to embrace the faith of Christ. He made several other journeys to the coasts of Spain, besides a voyage to Algiers, where, among other sufferings, he underwent imprisonment for the faith. But the most terrifying dangers could never make him desist from his pious endeavours for the conversion of the infidels, burning with a holy desire of martyrdom. He begged earnestly of his Order to be released from the burden of his generalship: but by his tears could only obtain the grant of a vicar to assist him in the discharge of it. He employed himself in the meanest offices of his convent, and coveted above all things to have the distribution of the daily alms at the gate of the monastery: he at the same time instructed the poor in the knowledge of God and in virtue. St. Lewis IX. of France wrote frequently to him, and desired much to see him. The saint waited on him in Languedoc, in the year 1243, and the king, who tenderly embraced him, requested him to accompany him in his expedition to recover the holy Land. St. Peter earnestly desired it, but was hindered by sickness, with which he was continually afflicted during the last years of his life, the effect of his fatigues and austerities, and he bore it with incomparable patience. In 1249, he resigned the offices of Ransomer and General, which was six or seven years before his death. This happened on Christmas-day, in 1256. In his agony, he tenderly exhorted his religious to perseverance, and concluded with those words of the psalmist: Our Lord hath sent redemption to his people; he hath commanded his covenant for ever. 5 He then recommended his soul to God by that charity with which Christ came from heaven to redeem us from the captivity of the devil, and melting into tears of compunction and divine love, he expired, being in the sixty-seventh year of his age. His relics are honoured by many miracles. He was canonized by Pope Urban VIII. His festival was appointed by Clement VIII. to be kept on the 31st of January.  3
  Charity towards all mankind was a distinguishing feature in the character of the saints. This benevolent virtue so entirely possessed their hearts, that they were constantly disposed to sacrifice even their lives for the relief and assistance of others. Zealously employed in removing their temporal necessities, they laboured with redoubled vigour to succour their spiritual wants, by rooting out from their souls the dominion of sin, and substituting in its room the kingdom of God’s grace. Ingratitude and ill-treatment, which was the return they frequently met with for their charitable endeavours, were not able to allay their ardent zeal: they considered men on these occasions as patients under the pressure of diseases, more properly the object of compassion than of resentment. They recommended them to God in their private devotions, and earnestly besought his mercy in their favour. This conduct of the saints, extraordinary as it is, ceases to appear surprising when we recollect the powerful arguments our Blessed Saviour makes use of to excite us to the love of our neighbour. But how shall we justify our unfeeling hard-heartedness, that seeks every trifling pretence to exempt us from the duty of succouring the unfortunate? Have we forgotten that Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who alone hath bestowed on us whatever we possess, hath made charity towards our fellow-creatures, but especially towards the needy, an indispensable precept? Do we not know that he bids us consider the suffering poor as members of the same head, heirs of the same promises, as our brethren and his children who represent him on earth? He declares, that whatever we bestow upon them he will esteem as given to himself; and pledges his sacred word that he will reward our alms with an eternity of bliss. Such motives, says St Chrysostom, would be sufficient to touch a heart of stone: but there is something still more cogent, continues the same holy father, which is, that the same Jesus Christ, whom we refuse to nourish in the persons of the poor, feeds our souls with his precious body and blood. If such considerations move not our hearts to commiserate and assist the indigent, what share of mercy and relief can we hope for in the hour of need? O incomprehensible blindness! We perhaps, prepare for ourselves an eternal abyss, by those very means which, properly applied, would secure us the conquest of a kingdom which will never have an end. 6  4
Note 1. A century before, the counts of Barcelona were become kings of Arragon by a female title, and had joined Catalonia to Arragon, making Barcelona their chief residence and capital. [back]
Note 2. F. Touron, in the life of St. Raymund, p. 20. quotes an original letter of St. Raymund, which mentions this revelation. The authenticity of this letter cannot he called in question, being proved by F. Bremond, Bullar. Ord. Præd. T. 1. not in Constit. 36. Greg. X. The same revelation is inserted in the bull of the saint’s canonization, in the Histories of Zumel, Vargas, Penia, &c. Benedict XIV. also mentions it, Canoniz. SS. l. 1. c. 41. and proves that it cannot reasonably be contested. [back]
Note 3. This Order consisted at first of some knights, who were dressed like seculars, wearing only a scarf or scapular; and of friars who were in holy orders, and attended the choir. The knights were to guard the coasts against the Saracens, but were obliged to choir when not on duty. St. Peter himself was never ordained priest; and the first seven generals or commanders were chosen out of the knights, though the friars were always more numerous. Raymond Albert, in 1317, was the first priest who was raised to that dignity; and the popes Clement V. and John XXII. ordered that the general should be always a priest: after which, the knights were incorporated into other military orders, or were rarely renewed. It is styled, “The royal military religious Order of our Lady of Mercy for the redemption of Captives.” It is divided into commanderies, which in Spain are very rich. It has eight provinces in America, three in Spain, and one, the poorest, in the southern parts of France, called the province of Guienne. Whereas this order is not bound to many extraordinary domestic austerities, a reformation, obliging the members to go barefoot, was established amongst them in the sixteenth century, and approved by Pope Clement VIII. It observes the strictest poverty, recollection, solitude, and abstinence, and has two provinces in Spain, and one in Sicily, besides several nunneries. It was erected by F. John Baptist Gonzales, or of the holy sacrament, who died in the year 1618, and is said to have been honoured with miracles. [back]
Note 4. Podoniensis. [back]
Note 5. Ps. cx. 9. [back]
Note 6. S. Chrys. Hom. in illud: Vidua eligatur, &c. T. 3. p. 327. Ed. Ben. [back]