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How the Church Has Changed the World: Mother of Freedom


Three moments in the history of the Church's battle against the ancient shame, slavery.

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matha A young priest named John and a hermit are seated at a table, sharing the old man's spare meal of bread and cheese and greens. "I've come to you, Father Felix," says the priest, "because I believe that God has called me to a great and dangerous mission, but I know I'm not worthy of it."

"Tell me about it, my son," says the old man.

"It happened when I was saying my first Mass," says the priest. "I saw the Lord holding captives in either hand, one a Moor and the other a Christian. The Christian was holding a cross that was colored red, white, and blue."

"We've all been captives of sin," says the old man. "Have you come to me to pray for the spiritual liberation of souls?"

"Certainly, Father Felix. That is the only true freedom, because the Apostle says that he who sins is a slave to sin. But in my vision, the Lord was holding a pair of manacles. I could feel them chafing against my wrists."

The hermit narrows his eyes with a sudden sense that he is about to hear of something new in the world. "Go on," he says.

"I believe God is calling me to ransom Christian slaves from the Moors."

"To ransom them with gold?"

"Yes. And sometimes with ourselves. I see it in my heart, I don't know how. To set the slave free by entering into slavery, as Jesus did for us, taking the form of a slave and being obedient unto death, even death upon a cross."

The hermit Felix looked about him. Most people think that retirement from the bustling world is a sacrifice, but Felix had found it a haven of peace, a life beside the still waters of prayer. He sensed that his greatest sacrifice was yet to come. He must leave the freedom of his cell, to enter into the bondage of the world.

"This will require much prayer and discipline," he said.

"I expected no less," said John of Matha.

So the two men spent several years in prayer, until one day John had another vision, of Christ as a white stag, with a cross between his antlers, just like the cross that the Christian captive had carried in his first vision.

"Time for us to leave for Rome," said Felix. They left in the dead of a brutal winter, in 1197.

The Slave of Algiers

Miguel had tried to escape so many times and in so many impossible ways that his captors came to admire him, calling him the Courageous One. Five years he had spent in Algiers, a prisoner of war. It was fortunate that the Moors respected a man of valor, for Miguel had taken part in their most humiliating defeat on the high seas, at Lepanto, nine years before. Not that the Moors were ready to cede control of the Mediterranean. That was their lake and their piratical hunting grounds for harassing Christian ships and attacking port cities from Cadiz to Brindisi.

Miguel bore the marks of that battle. He could have stayed out of the fray, because he was burning with fever on that fateful morning, but he came above board anyway and fought for his king and his faith. Now his left arm hung useless at his side, shattered by a gunshot. Nor had he allowed that debility to keep him out of the king's service, as it was on a subsequent diplomatic voyage from Naples to Spain that he was taken captive.

Many years later, after he'd written a few notable works, a literary rival mocked him for that useless arm. Miguel replied, "What I cannot help taking amiss is that he charges me with being old and one handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see." It would always be his proudest boast, not that he had written this or that, but that he had fought in that battle for the liberty of Christendom.

A knock at the door. One of his captors entered, accompanied by a Trinitarian priest. The ransom had been paid; the priest had combed his homeland to gather it, and had appealed to his family, to the noblemen, and to the royal court .

For that is what the Trinitarians would do. The priests of their order, founded by Saint John of Matha and Saint Felix of Valois, would enter a town in brave procession, bringing before them the captives they had freed, and appealing to people to open their hearts and their purses to bring back Christians from the rapacious clutches of the Moors. And sometimes the priests would offer themselves in a trade, freely accepting the bonds of slavery so that their brothers could enjoy liberty again.

"Senor Cervantes," said the priest, "I have come to bring you home."

That was in the year 1580.

A Poet Looks Toward Rome

The terrible war that convulsed the nation was over. Hundreds of thousands of men had died in the fighting, thirty thousand alone at a place called Gettysburg. Southern cities had been laid waste, villages burnt to charcoal, farms devastated, livestock slaughtered, railroads ripped out, bridges smashed, and a way of life, for good and for evil, obliterated. Now millions of black men and women and children had been emancipated from chattel slavery — and where would they go now, what would they do?

The President had called for malice toward none, and charity toward all, but a third of the nation might agree with the assassin who put a bullet in his head, crying, Sic semper tyrannis! Thus always for tyrants! The ship of state was battered, its trim and tackle torn, its planks split and drawing water.

That was on the old poet's mind as he walked about his New England farm. He'd been fighting long and hard for an end to slavery in the South. "Am I not a man and a brother?" read the caption of the pamphlets he had published. He was not a Catholic, old John. He was not even, properly speaking, a Protestant He was that amiable vague creature somewhere between a lover of Jesus and a mere humanitarian. He was a Quaker. And now he wished to write to his countrymen of the hope they should still harbor, in their nation and in the good of freedom for all.

He did not turn to his allies among the abolitionists. The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier turned to the Catholic saint, John de Matha.

There was an old legend that when John was returning from Tunis with his first crowd of ransomed slaves, a tempest struck that ripped the ship's sails to shreds. Behind them lay slavery and Muslim cruelty; before them, shipwreck and drowning. The sailors cried in despair. Americans might well do so now. But Whittier gives as the courage of the slave-freeing saint:

Then up spoke John de Matha:
"God's errands never fail!
Take thou the mantle which I wear,
And make of it a sail."

They raised the cross-wrought mantle,
The blue, the white, the red;
And straight before the wind off-shore
The ship of Freedom sped.

"God help us!" cried the seamen,
For vain is mortal skill
The good ship on a stormy sea
Is drifting at its will."

Then up spoke John de Matha:
"My mariners, never fear!
The Lord whose breath has filled her sail
May well our vessel steer!"

The ship pulled into the harbor at Ostia, and the Romans cheered when they saw the banner of John de Matha's cross, the red, white, and blue.

"Take heart from John de Matha!" wrote that Quaker poet to his fellow Americans. So long as your banner is his banner, the prayers of freedmen will speed us on, and saints unseen will be pulling at the ropes.

That was in the year 1865.

She Wants Sons, not Slaves

I've often heard it cast in the Church's teeth that she was comfortable with slavery, as if enlightened mankind hadn't been making slaves of themselves and one another as long as the sons of Adam have inhabited the earth. The truth is instead as Pope Leo XIII declares in Libertas Praestanitssimun: "Slavery, that old reproach of the heathen nations, was mainly abolished by the beneficent efforts of the Church." It wasn't enough to abolish it by law, as Americans were to learn. We most really believe that the man beside us, whoever he is, whatever he's done, from wherever he comes, is our brother. So Jesus teaches, and "his Apostles re-echoed his voice when they declared that in future there was to be neither Jew, nor Gentile, nor Barbarian, nor Scythian, but all were brothers in Christ" The Church could not then and cannot now eliminate human evils with a wave of her scepter. But she uses men and women, frail and shortsighted as they are, to save their fellows; the evils she can banish, she does; the rest she limits, or mitigates, or transforms, leaching away the poison.

For the Church does not want slaves. She wants brave sons and daughters, like the soldier Cervantes. And more. She wants men of holier madness than even Cervantes' good knight Don Quixote fell into; the madness of Saint John de Matha, who sallied forth with faith and prayer, and that strange three-color flag.

And that is a freedom the world can never give.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Mother of Freedom." Magnificat (February, 2015): 199-204.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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