Today is the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians.
Pope Pius VII, after he returned to Rome in 1815 from several years of captivity imposed by the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, instituted this feast day in honor of the assistance which the Blessed Virgin had accorded the Church. The occasion of the Pope’s exile and captivity was the emperor’s resistance to the authority of the Vicar of Christ, superior before God to his own. (5)
By Dom Gueranger, 1880
Ever since our entrance upon the joys of the Paschal season, scarcely a day has passed without the Calendar’s offering us some grand Mystery or saint to honor; and all these have been radiant with the Easter sun. But of our Blessed Lady, there has not been a single Feast to gladden our hearts by telling us of some mystery or glory of this august Queen. The Feast of her Seven Dolors is sometimes kept in April,–that is, when Easter Sunday falls on or after the 10th of that month; but May and June pass without any special solemnity in honor of the Mother of God. It would seem as though Holy Church wished to honor, by a respectful silence, the forty days during which Mary enjoyed the company of her Jesus, after His Resurrection. We, therefore, should never separate the Mother and the Son, if we would have our Easter meditations be in strict accordance with truth,–and that, we surely must wish. During those forty days, Jesus frequently visited His disciples, weak men and sinners as they were: could He, then, keep away from His Mother, when He was so soon to ascend into heaven, and leave her for several long years here on earth? Our hearts forbid us to entertain the thought. We feel sure that He frequently visited her, and that, when not visibly present with her, she had Him in her soul, in a way more intimate and real and delicious than any other creature could have.
No Feast could have given expression to such a mystery; and yet the Holy Ghost, who guides the spirit of the Church, has gradually led the faithful to devote the entire month of May to the special honor of Mary, the whole of which comes, almost every year, under the glad season of Easter. No doubt the loveliness of the May month would, some time or other, suggest the idea of consecrating it to the Holy Mother of God; but if we reflect on the divine and mysterious influence which guides the Church in all she does, we shall recognize, in this present instance, a heavenly inspiration, which prompted the faithful to unite their own joy with that of Mary’s, and spend this beautiful month, which is radiant with their own Easter joy, in commemorating the maternal delight experienced, during that same period, by the Immaculate Mother when on earth.
Today, however, we have a Feast in honor of Mary. True, it is not one of those Feasts which are entered on the general Calendar of the Church; yet it is so widely spread, and this with the consent of the holy See, that our Liturgical Year would have been incomplete without it. Its object is to honor the Mother of God as the Help of Christians,–a title she has justly merited by the innumerable favors she has conferred upon Christendom. Dating from that day, whose anniversary we have so lately celebrated, on which the Holy Ghost descended upon Mary in the Cenacle, in order that she might begin to exercise over the Church Militant her power as Queen,–who could tell the number of times that she has aided, by her protection, the kingdom of her Son on earth?
Heresies have risen up, one after the other; they were violent; they were frequently supported by the great ones of this world; each of them was resolved on the destruction of the true Faith; and yet, one after the other, they have dwindled away, or fallen into impotency, or are gradually sinking by internal discord; and holy Church tells us that it is “Mary alone who destroys all heresies throughout the whole world.” If public scandals or persecutions, or the tyranny of secular interference, have, at times, threatened to stay the progress of the Church, Mary has stretched forth her arm, the obstacles were removed, and Jesus’ Spouse continued her onward march, leaving her foes and her fetters behind her. All this was vividily brought before the mind of the saintly Pontiff, Pius the Fifth, by the victory of Lepanto, gained, by Mary’s intercession, over the Turkish fleet, and he resolved to add one more title to the glorious ones given to Our Lady in the Litany: the title he added was, “Auxilium Christianorum,” Help of Christians.
Our present century, the 19th, has had the happiness of seeing another Pontiff, also named Pius, institute a Feast under this same title–a Feast which is intended to commemorate the help bestowed on Christendom, in all ages, by the Mother of God. Nothing could be happier than the choice of the day on which this Feast was to be kept. On the 24th of May, in the year 1814, there was witnessed in Rome the most magnificent triumph that has yet been recorded in the annals of the Church. That was a grand day, being the anniversary of the date whereon Constantine marked out the foundations for the Vatican Basilica, in honor of the Prince of the Apostles; Sylvester stood by and blessed the Emperor, who had just been converted to the true Faith: but important as was this event, it was but a sign of the last and decisive victory won by the Church in the then recent persecution of Dioclesian. That was a memorable day whereon Leo the Third, Vicar of the King of kings, crowned Charlemagne with the imperial diadem, and, by his apostolic power, gave continuance to the long interrupted line of emperors: but Leo the Third, by this, did but give an official and solemn expression to the power which the Church had already frequently exercised in the newly constituted nations, which received from her the idea of Christian government, the consecration of their rights, and the grace that was to enable them to fulfil their duties. That was a joyous day, whereon Gregory the Ninth took back to the City of Peter the Papal throne, which had been pent up at Avignon for seventy sad years; but Gregory the Ninth, in this, did but fulfil a duty, and his predecessors, had they willed it, might have effected this return to Rome, which the necessities of Christendom so imperatively called for.
Yes, these were all glorious days; but the 24th of May, of 1814, surpasses them all. Pius the Seventh re-entered Rome amidst the acclamations of the Holy City, whose entire population went forth to meet him holding palm branches in their hands, and greeting him with their hosannas of enthusiastic joy. He had been a captive for five years, during which the spiritual government of the Christian world had suffered a total suspension. It was not the Allied Powers, who had made common cause against his oppressor, that broke the Pontiffs fetters; the very tyrant who kept him from Rome, had given him permission to return at the close of the preceding year; but the Pontiff chose his own time, and did not leave Fontainebleau till the 25th of January. Rome, whither he was about to return, had been made a part of the French Empire five years previously, and by a Decree in which was cited the name of Charlemagne. The city of Peter had been reduced to a head-town of a department, with a Prefect for its administrator; and, with a view to making men forget that it was the City of the Vicars of Christ, its name was given as a title to the heir-presumptive of the Imperial crown of France. What a day that 24th of May, which witnessed the triumphant return of the Pontiff into the Holy City, whence he had been dragged, during the night, by the soldiers of an ambitious tyrant! He made the journey in short stages, meeting on his way the allied armies of Europe, which recognized his right as King. This right is superior, both in antiquity and dignity, to that of all other monarchs; and all, no matter whether they be heretics, schismatics, or Catholics, must admit it, were it only on the strength of its being an historical fact.
But what we have so far said is not sufficient to give an adequate idea of the greatness of the prodigy thus achieved by Our Lady, the Help of Christians. In order to have a just appreciation of it, we must remember that the miracle was not wrought in the age of Sylvester and Constantine, or of St. Leo the Third and Charlemagne, or of the great prophetess Catharine of Sienna, who made known the commands of God to the people of Italy and to the Popes of Avignon. The age that witnessed this wondrous event was the 19th, and that, too, when it was under the degrading influence of Voltairianism, and there were still living the authors and abettors of the crimes and impieties that resulted from the principles taught in the 18th century. Everything was adverse to such a glorious and unexpected triumph; Catholic feeling was far from being roused as it now is; the action of God’s providence had to show itself in a direct and visible manner; and to let the Christian world know that such was the case, Rome instituted the annual Feast of the 24th of May as an offering of acknowledgment to Mary, the Help of Christians.
Let us, then, give thanks to the Blessed Mother of God on this feast of the twenty-fourth day of May, which has been instituted in commemoration of the twofold blessing she thus brought upon the world–the preservation of the Church, and the preservation of society. Let us unite in the fervent acclamations of the then loyal citizens of Rome, and like them, sing with all the glad joy of our Easter Alleluia, our greetings of Hosanna to the Vicar of Christ–the Father of that dear Land, our common Country. The remembrance of St Peter’s deliverance from prison, and his restoration to liberty, must have been vividly in the minds of that immense concourse of people, whose love for their Pontiff was redoubled by the sufferings he had endured. As the triumphal chariot, in which he had been placed, came near the Flaminian Gate, the horses were unyoked, and the Pontiff was conveyed by the people to the Vatican Basilica, where a solemn thanksgiving was made over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
Let us now read the account as given in today’s Liturgy,
of the great event that prompted the institution of our Feast:
The Faithful have frequently seen it proved, by miraculous Intervention, that the Mother of God is ever ready with her help to repel the enemies of religion. It was on this account that, after the signal victory gained by the Christians over the Turks In the Gulf of Lepanto, through the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin, the holy Pope Pius the Fifth ordered that to the other titles given to the Queen of Heaven in the Litany of Loretto, there should be added this of Help of Christians. But one of the most memorable proofs of this her protection, and one which may be regarded as an incontestable miracle, is that which happened during the Pontificate of Pius the Seventh. By the Intrigues and armed violence of certain impious men, the Pontiff had been driven from the Apostolic See of Peter, and was kept in close confinement mainly at Savona, for upwards of five years. During this period, by a persecution unheard of in any previous age, every possible means was resorted to in order to prevent his governing the Church of God. When lo! suddenly and to the surprise of men, he was restored to the Pontifical Throne, to the great joy, it might be almost said, with the concurrence, of the whole world. The same thing happened also a second time, when a fresh disturbance arose and compelled him to leave Rome, and go, with the Sacred College of Cardinals, into Liguria. Here again, the storm that threatened great destruction was appeased by a most prompt interference of God’s providence and the Pontiff’s return to Rome filled Christendom with new Joy. Before returning, however, he would carry out an intention, which his captivity had hitherto prevented him from doing: with his own hand, he solemnly placed a golden crown on the celebrated statue of the Mother of God that was venerated at Savona under the title of Mother of Mercy. The same Sovereign Pontiff, Pius the VII, who was so thoroughly acquainted with every circumstance of these events, rightly attributed their happy issue to the intercession of the most holy Mother of God, whose powerful help he himself had earnestly besought besides urging all the faithful to obtain it by their prayers. He therefore instituted a solemn feast in honor of the same Virgin-Mother, under the title of Help of Christians. It was to be kept every year, on the twentyfourth of May, the anniversary of his own most happy return to Rome. He also sanctioned a proper Office for this feast in order that the remembrance of so great a favor might ever be vividly In the minds of the faithful, and secure the thanksgiving it deserved.
I have lifted up mine eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me: my help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps. cxx, 1, 2). Thus prayed the Israelites of old; thus also prays the Church–though, for her, the help is nearer and comes more speedily. The Psalmist’s petition has been granted:–the heavens have bowed down, and the Divine Help is now close by our side. This Help is Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. He is unceasingly fulfilling the promise made us by His Prophet: In the day of thy salvation, I have Helped thee (Is. xlix, 8). But this King of kings has given us a Queen, and this Queen is Mary, His Mother. Out of love for her, He has given her a throne, on His right hand, as Solomon did for his mother Bethsabee; and He would have her, also, to be the Help of Christians. It is the Church that teaches us this, by inserting this beautiful title in the litany; and Rome invites us, on this day, to unite with her in giving thanks and praise to our Blessed Lady of Help, for one of the most signal of her favors.
Our supplications to thee, O Help of Christians! are thus earnest, because our wants are great; but we are not, on that account, the less mindful of the special honor that we owe thee at this holy season of hope, when the Church contemplates the joy thou hadst in presence of thy Risen Jesus. She congratulates thee on the immense happiness that thus repaid thee for thine anguish on Calvary and at the Sepulchre. It is to the Mother, consoled by and exulting in her Son’s triumphant Resurrection, that we offer this sweet month, whose loveliness is so in keeping with thine own incomparable beauty, dear Mother! In return for this homage of our devotion, pray for us, that our souls may persevere in the beauty of grace given to them by this year’s union with our Jesus; and that we may be so well prepared for the Feast of Corpus Christi, as to merit to receive all the graces necessary to perfect the work of our Paschal Regeneration. (2)
Our Lady Help of Christians
By Fr. Francis Cuthbert Doyle, 1896
I. Pope Pius VII. established the feast which, under this glorious title, is celebrated in honour of our Blessed Lady. It is usually kept upon the twenty-fourth of May. Upon that day the much-enduring and saintly Pontiff, after an exile of several weary years, returned to his capital, whence the violence and tyrannical injustice of the first Napoleon had banished him. Almighty God, in a most unexpected and almost miraculous way, restored him to the arms of his exulting flock, and the holy Pope ever afterwards attributed that restoration to the intercession of Mary, the Help of Christians. In order to show his gratitude to her he ordained that this feast should be kept throughout the Church.
Already at several critical junctures in comparatively modern times, had she proved herself the buckler and defence of the Christian people. When, in the sixteenth century, the Turks were threatening to pour down their devastating hordes upon Europe, and sweep away the civilization bequeathed to us by many generations of patient toilers and men of genius, another Pius–the fifth of that glorious name–like a watchman upon the towers of Israel, roused up the nations to a sense of the peril which threatened them. They responded to his call; gathered together their forces, under the leadership of John of Austria; and invoking the aid of Mary, Help of Christians, began, in the Gulf of Corinth or Lepanto, that famous seafight which ended in the destruction of the fleet destined to bear the forces of Islam into Europe.
In the following century the same inveterate foes of Christianity had actually invested Vienna, and were, to all human appearances, sure of an easy victory. The Christian people once more invoked Mary’s aid, and another Christian hero led the insignificant army of Christ, to a glorious triumph over the forces of the false prophet. Thirty years later, the Emperor Charles VI. smote them once again at the Island of Corfu, and by the powerful intercession of Mary, snatched victory from the warlike sons of Mahomet.
It is with reason, therefore, that we look upon Mary as a tower of strength against the face of our enemies, and as the helper of the Christian people. Though she is bright as the sun, and beautiful as the moon, yet, to those who would trample upon the people whom her Son willed to save, and crush out the faith which He came on earth to establish, she is terrible as an army in battle-array.
II. As in the past, Mary has proved herself to be the powerful helper of Christians, so will she still prove herself to be their protectress, at the present day. The power of her intercession with Jesus is as great now as it was then. For, as He is always the Almighty, so is she always our powerful advocate, able to obtain from Him an opportune intervention of His mighty arm, to avert the danger which threatens to overwhelm us.
First, there is the Church of God, over which she stretches the shield of her all-helping hand. The powers of the world gather together, and take counsel against it. They look upon it as an antiquated institution, which is no longer of any use in the world. They imagine that it is an obstacle to the march of what they call ‘modern progress’; that it is a galling fetter upon the political and the intellectual well-being of man. Consequently, they unite together and say to one another: ‘Let us burst her bonds asunder, and cast her out from before our face. Let us thrust her aside as a worthless piece of machinery, which must make way for the modern improvements invented by a more enlightened wisdom to overawe and rule the souls of men.’ So they bring to bear upon her all the force and all the cunning that worldly wisdom can array upon its side. They stop at no calumny, they shrink from no injustice to compass their ends. They lash themselves into fury, and dash themselves madly against her; but in the very feverheat of their rage, we remain calm and fear not, for their efforts are vain. Like the billows of the sea, foaming, and chafing, and hurling themselves upon the rocks which bound our coast, they may seem, for a time, to overwhelm her, but when they retire she still stands there unmoved–victorious, and triumphant over every storm. For, in the midst of persecution, we cry to the Help of Christians, and her powerful intercession gives worth to our prayer, and wins God over to listen to us, and to look upon our trouble. Then does He arise in His strength; He laughs our enemies to scorn; and scatters them with the breath of His fierce anger, as chaff is scattered before the storm.
III. Mary is the helper not only of the great Christian commonwealth of the Church, but of the individual members who constitute that vast body of which Christ is the head. For what is true of the great body of Christians in general, is true also of each individual Christian man. If the great mass suffers persecution and bitter trial, the individual member is not left unmolested. There are enemies who combine against his individual soul, just as the powers of the world unite their strength, in order to divide and conquer the mighty army of which he is but a private soldier. Some of these attack him from without, and others from within. Against each of these he stands in need of help.
Examine your own life and you will see that all this is perfectly true. Is not your peace of mind often disturbed by the envy and the jealousy of companions; by the ignorance and the prejudice of those who misinterpret your actions, ascribe to you unworthy motives, and perhaps punish you for that of which you have never even dreamed? Have you not also much to suffer from yourself? Are there not cares, which though small in themselves, nevertheless harass and worry you? Have you no passions to keep under control; no evil habits which hold you in bondage, and make you feel what a bitter thing it is to be a slave?
Added to all this, do you not feel that there are powers of darkness surrounding you and laying snares to entrap your soul? Whither shall you turn for help? You feel that you are not worthy to approach to God, that your sins render you displeasing in His sight. Whither shall you go in your anguish but to the Mother of Jesus, that Mother who is so pleasing to Him, and so spotlessly pure? You know that she loves you, that she feels for you, and that she is ready to help you. You call upon her and she hears you. She unites her prayers with your’s, and Jesus listens. You become patient of suffering and of wrongs; you accept the ills of life, as penance for past sin; you courageously resist the devil; you acquire virtues; you become fixed in your resolve to love and serve God. In one word, you triumph over the enemies of your soul, through the powerful intercession of the ‘Help of Christians,’ who by praying unto God for you, makes Him more ready to hear your cry, and more willing to grant your petition. (2)
Image: Painting of Mary Help of Christians. Located in the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians, Turin, Italy. (8)