The story behind Our Lady of Perpetual Help-A A +A
By Luci Lizares
Saturday, June 16, 2012
THE month of June celebrates many important feasts. There is the feast of San Antonio de Padua—a special saint to me—last June 13, then this Friday was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and on the 27th is Our Lady of Perpetual Help, although this year the fiesta will be celebrated in Bacolod this weekend the 17th .
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, is a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pope Pius IX, associated with a celebrated Byzantize icon of the same name dating from the 15th century. The icon has been in Rome since 1499 and is currently in the Church of Sant’ Alfonso de Liguori all’ Esquilino.
The story of this icon is an unusual one and involves stories of the many Marian shrines. The painting originally came from the island of Crete where it had been venerated for a many years. A merchant in Crete who was returning to Rome took the picture just before sailing and hid it among his belongings. Some think he might have taken it to save it from possible profanations but the document says that he simply stole it.
While at sea, a life-threatening storm arose and everyone on board thought their end was near. The sailors, not knowing of the presence of the concealed icon on board, prayed loudly to Our Lady for help. Against all odds, the vessel safely reached Italy. It would appear, as subsequent events will show, that Our Lady definitely wanted this picture to be venerated in Rome.
Soon after he arrived in Rome, the Cretan merchant fell ill. As his condition steadily worsened, he sent for his best friend, another merchant, and told him about the picture. His dying wish was to have the picture enshrined and properly reverenced in a church. When he died, the second merchant told his wife about the icon.
But the wife, after seeing the beautiful icon, was unwilling to part with it and hung it in her home. In a dream, Our Lady admonished the merchant. She told him that the picture belonged to a church.
When he related this to his wife, she became angry and said: “You should not be so superstitious as to believe in some dream! I am a good Christian and many Christians have pictures of Our Lady in their homes. It does not have to be in a Church!”
Our Lady appeared again to the man and said that he would be punished for not carrying out her wishes. Soon thereafter, he got sick and died.
Our Lady then appeared to the merchant’s daughter asking that the icon be exposed for popular veneration in a church. She told the girl: “Tell your mother that St. Mary of Perpetual Help wants this.”
The mother, now quite frightened, confided the story to her neighbor who scoffed at the whole account. She offered to take the icon for a while, but she too became deathly ill. She needed nothing more to convince her of the Madonna’s wishes, and promised to see them fulfilled. Thereupon she was restored to health.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help was still not finished. She appeared again to the small daughter indicating the exact location where she wanted the image venerated—midway between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. The church which then stood halfway between these basilicas was St. Matthew’s.
The wife of the merchant went at once to the Augustinian friars who served that church and told her story. The friars came to see the picture and were so impressed with its beauty that they made plans at once for a solemn transfer to and exposition in their church.
And so it happened on March 27, 1499. St. Matthew’s soon became a popular pilgrimage place in Rome and the icon was venerated there for three hundred years.
In 1798 Marshal Berthier, under orders from Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Rome and forced Pope Pius VI into exile in France. General Massena, the governor, decided that Rome had too many churches. He had his eyes on the valuable property which they occupied. He ordered thirty churches to be closed and destroyed. St. Matthew’s was among them.
During the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, the Redemptorists were invited to set up a mother house in Rome. They chose a vacant lot on the Via Merulana, without realizing that it once had been the site of St. Matthew’s church and the shrine of the famous icon. They built a small church of St. Alphonsus.
One day at recreation, one of the fathers mentioned that he had read an account on old shrines of Our Lady in Rome and recounted how the icon of Perpetual Help had been enshrined in St. Matthew’s church that stood close to the place now occupied by St. Alphonsus’ church.
Fr. Michael Marchi likewise reminisced that, as a young boy, he often served Mass in the little oratory of Our Lady in Posterula and Augustine Orsetti often pointed to the picture and used to say, “Don’t ever forget it, Michael. This picture is the one that hung for three hundred years in St. Matthew’s church. Many, many miracles were worked for the crowds of people that always came to pray before it!” “So,” continued Father Marchi, “I feel sure that this is the very same picture!”
The fact that the original icon was not lost and that St. Alphonsus church was midway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, the Redemptorists put the pieces of the mystery together. They came to the conclusion that, even as Our Lady had chosen this location for the Perpetual Help image to be enshrined many years before, the Blessed Mother must have been instrumental in setting the stage for the icon to be returned to its original site.
The Father General of the Redemptorists, Most Rev. Nicholas Mauron, decided to bring the whole matter to the attention of Pope Pius IX. The Pope listened attentively and felt sure it was God’s will that the icon should be exposed to public veneration and the site was their church of St. Alphonsus.
The Holy Father at once took a piece of paper and wrote a short memorandum ordering the Augustinian Fathers of St. Mary in Posterula to surrender the picture to the Redemptorists. In compliance with the wishes of the Pope, the image was given by the Augustinians to the Redemptorist Church of St. Alphonsus.
Our Lady’s triumphal return to her chosen site took place on April 26, 1866. During this translation, two noteworthy cures took place: one was the healing of a boy who was seriously ill with meningitis; the other miracle involved a young girl who received the use of her paralyzed leg.
Never has a portrait of the Mother of God been given as much papal attention as this image received from Pope Pius IX. Later on, when the Arch Confraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was formed, he blessed the project and insisted that his name head the list of the worldwide membership. He also approved its translation.
A study of the portrait shows that, although its origin is uncertain, it is estimated that the portrait was painted sometime during the thirteenth or fourteenth century. All the letters are Greek. The initials beside the Mother’s crown identify her as “Mother of God”. Those beside the child, “ICXC,” are abbreviations meaning “Jesus Christ.”
The smaller letters identify the angel on the left as “St. Michael the Archangel.” He is depicted holding the lance and spear with the vessel of vinegar and gall of Christ’s Passion. The Angel on the right is identified as “St. Gabriel the Archangel.” He holds the cross and the nails. The angels holding the instruments of the Passion have their hands covered with a protecting veil as a sign of reverence in handling sacred objects.
The face of Our Lady appears full of sorrow, yet supremely dignified in her contemplation of the sufferings of her Son. Our Lady’s face is of unspeakable majesty and calm and yet her large eyes, partly closed, express ineffable sorrow and sympathy. Our Lady is not looking at Jesus, but rather to us, her adopted children, as if to express compassion for us in our fears and sorrows.
The Child Jesus is shown with an adult face and a high brow, indicating His divine Mind of infinite intelligence. As God, He knew that the angelic apparition was prophetic of His future passion.
Yet in His human nature as a small child, He is frightened and runs to His Mother for protection. Our Lady hastily picks Him up and clasps Him to her bosom. This action is indicated by the fact that the Lord’s right foot is nervously curled about the left ankle and in such haste that His right sandal has become loosened and hangs by a single strap. Further action is indicated by the way the Child Jesus clasps His Mother’s right hand with both of His, holding tightly to Our Lady’s thumb.
As to the colors of their clothes, Our Lady is painted in a dress of dark red which was long reserved in the Byzantine world for the Empress alone, indicating the Queenship of Mary. We know that reddish purple was considered the noblest color in the ancient world.
Recall that Our Lord said “Those who are clothed in purple and fine linen are in the houses of kings.” The bluish purple became the color of penance in the Western Church used during Lent and Advent because purple is a combination of blue and red. The blue reminds us of heaven, to which we wish to arrive by our penance, and the red recalls martyrdom, because all penance requires a dying to oneself, especially mortifying inordinate desire for food and pleasure. The archangels Gabriel and Michael wear tunics of purple since they carry the instruments of the passion and death of Christ.
The charms of the portrait are many. The artist wished to make certain the identity of each subject was known. The sandal that dangles from the foot of the Child; the expression of the Child Jesus is haunting as He grips the hand of His Mother while gazing sideward at the instruments of torture held by the Angels. Above all, the expression of the Madonna evokes a sadness. With her head gently touching that of her Son, and while surrounded with the instruments of her Son’s sufferings, she seems to gaze plaintively—as though seeking compassion from those who look upon her.
The miraculous portrait is still enthroned on an altar in the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome. The Redemptorist priests have been appointed as missionaries of this icon. The Redemptorist priests are the only religious order currently entrusted by the Holy See to protect and propagate a Marian religious art. Although the Redemptorist priests have left Negros, we are blessed because the veneration to Our Lady of Perpetual Help continues because of the number of its devotees. It was the Redemptorist fathers from Ireland who introduced the icon to the Philippines in the early 20th century.
Pope John Paul II, during his trip to the Philippines, held mass at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the Baclaran in Manila. The devotion to this icon is very popular and many Catholic churches hold a Rosary, Benediction, Novena and Eucharistic Mass honoring Mary every Wednesday using a replica of the icon.
The 5th Glorious Mystery declares Our Lady as Queen of Heaven of heaven and earth. Indeed, she is the Mother of Perpetual Help, having Queenship of this world that we live in and the world where we one day hope to be. With her prayers and intercession, everyone in strife and torment, distress and in need who truly believes will avail of her perpetual succor!
Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on June 16, 2012.