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Saints and Slavery, Ancient and Modern

When we see injustice committed around us—from an unkind word spoken to a coworker to acts of physical violence—it’s easy to ignore the situation out of fear. It’s also easy to be outraged and then do nothing about it except to say that we’re outraged. But holy Catholic men and women can show us a better way to deal with injustice. Take slavery, for example.

Slavery, of course, is hardly a modern invention. Ancient peoples often forced their enemies into slavery after they defeated them in battle. Slavery was also a common option in the ancient world for those who could not pay their debts; the indebted person simply sold himself and/or his family members into slavery. At other times and in other cultures since then, slavery has taken other forms, such as racial slavery in the US.

The Church’s response to the institution of slavery over the past two thousand years would be a long story, too long for this article. But we can learn a lot about how Christianity has reacted to slavery by examining how individual Christians have responded. More specifically, how have saints reacted to the sad plight of enslaved persons?

Saint Peter Nolasco was a priest living in Spain in the early thirteenth century. At the time, Muslims controlled most of the region. Catholics were not only persecuted, but Catholics who had been captured by Muslims in battle or by pirates were forced into slavery. Moved with compassion by the sight of his brothers and sisters in Christ in chains, Peter founded the Order of Our Lady of Mercy in 1218 with the support of King James I of Aragon and the Dominican priest Saint Raymond of Penyafort.

Peter spent the rest of his life leading and training the members of his order, begging for ransom money from Catholics, and traveling throughout Spain and North Africa to find and free Christian captives. The work of his order, more commonly known as the Mercedarian order, was not only exhausting and unending; it was dangerous. Peter was imprisoned and risked death more than once. When he died in 1245, it is estimated that more than 2,700 human beings had been ransomed from slavery by the order he founded. His feast day was celebrated on May 6.

But Raymond wasn’t the only person to notice the plight of enslaved persons. Saints John de Matha and Felix of Valois founded the Trinitarian order dedicated to ransoming Christian slaves, also in the thirteenth century. Many priests of several religious orders devoted their lives to this selfless work of negotiating with slaveholders to pay for the freedom of enslaved persons. Some of them are now considered saints or blesseds by the Church, 1 and some even died as martyrs in the attempt.

Not a few bishops recognized the injustice of slavery and, like good shepherds, spent large sums of money to ransom Catholics who were enslaved. 2 The famous Saint Vincent de Paul also redeemed hundreds of slaves in the seventeenth century, and so did the saintly Popes Zachary and Dionysius during their papal reigns.

Some saints chose a more personal approach to helping slaves: living among the slaves each day and teaching them about the Catholic faith. That’s what priest Saint Peter Claver did in seventeenth century Colombia.3 Blessed Maria Theresa Ledochowska personally founded an order of religious sisters in the twentieth century for the protection of oppressed and enslaved Africans.

All of these saints and blesseds suffered persecution for daring to speak out against the widespread and legal practice of slavery in their cultures and for demanding that enslaved persons receive better care and be treated with respect.

Some saints didn’t have to imagine what it was like to be a slave; they experienced it. Saint Frumentius was forced into slavery when he was shipwrecked in fourth century Ethiopia, but he was later released. Like Saint Patrick of Ireland, Frumentius returned to serve those same people as a missionary and bishop. Blessed Francisco de Paula Victor was born into slavery in nineteenth century Brazil. When he decided to become a priest, he was mistreated by other seminarians and initially shunned by some of the laity for being a former slave.

Obviously, many women have experienced slavery too. Saint Brigid was born into slavery in Ireland but was freed and became an abbess, dying in the sixth century. Saint Bathildis was an English slave who captured the heart of the French king and married him. Saint Josephine Bakhita was enslaved as a child in Sudan, though she was freed and later became a Canossian religious sister in twentieth century Italy.4

What does this (albeit incomplete) litany of saints teach us? Their personal examples show us that being outraged about injustice against other human beings is certainly human—but not enough. As people of faith, we should be willing to let the Holy Spirit direct our outrage at injustice into compassion, action, and generosity.

Perhaps the most obvious form of slavery in our culture today is sex trafficking, along with its ugly twin sister, pornography. Supporting local and national organizations that oppose pornography; joining email campaigns to lobby corporations to stop their support; finding ways to offer help in your church and community for those suffering from related addictions; being educated about the dangers—these are all activities within the ability of ordinary Catholics.

Outrage is not a moral virtue. But when the world around us tolerates injustice against human beings, speaking out (with charity) and taking action are the duties of a follower of Christ. May our Lady of Mercy and Saint Peter Nolasco help us find a way to free the captives today.


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