The Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help
Celebrations Worldwide Will Honor a Symbol That Once Was Lost
On the Feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, June 27, 2015, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists) will begin a yearlong celebration to commemorate the restoration of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help to public devotion. On December 11, 1865, the Holy Father, Blessed Pius IX, entrusted the icon to the Superior General of the Redemptorists, Fr. Nicholas Mauron, with the instruction: “Make her known throughout the world!”
After cleaning and repairs, on April 26, 1866, the icon was carried in solemn procession and placed above the altar in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori on the Via Merulana in Rome. From this moment on, the Redemptorist Missionaries began the task to fulfill the Holy Father’s request and “make her known throughout the world.”
The Story of the Icon
Although we are celebrating 150 years of devotion, the story of the icon goes back much further in time. Its origins cannot be determined with precision, but scientific analysis demonstrates that this icon was created sometime after 1300, probably on the island of Crete. The original artist is unknown. However, at some point in the 1400s, the icon was brought to Italy and venerated in a family home for some years before being placed in St. Matthew’s Church on the Via Merulana in Rome on March 27, 1499.
Tradition tells us that while the icon was in the possession of a Roman family, Mary herself appeared to the young daughter. Identifying herself as the Mother of Perpetual Help, Mary instructed the girl to tell her parents to place the icon for public veneration in the Church of St. Matthew. For 300 years, the icon was honored in St. Matthew’s Church. Veneration spread throughout the city of Rome.
In 1798, Rome fell to invading troops, and the church and monastery of St. Matthew’s were almost totally destroyed. The icon was taken by Augustinian monks and remained hidden and unknown in a private chapel for sixty-five years. In a remarkable chain of events, the Redemptorists purchased the land on which old St. Matthew’s had stood and constructed their international headquarters, along with the Church of St. Alphonsus, on the Via Merulana. Shortly after this, a Redemptorist novice who had served Mass in the private chapel of the Augustinians remembered the story of the icon told to him as a young altar boy at the monastery by Br. Augustine Orsetti, an older monk. Br. Augustine spoke of this miraculous icon in the chapel and called her “Perpetual Help.”
Years later, this boy became Redemptorist Fr. Michael Marchi. One day, he heard a Jesuit preaching about the “lost” icon of Perpetual Help that used to be venerated in St. Matthew’s Church. He realized that he knew where this icon could be found. After many years in obscurity, the icon of Perpetual Help was rediscovered and identified!
Fr. Mauron, the Redemptorist Superior General, asked Pope Pius IX to restore the icon to public devotion, and Our Mother of Perpetual Help returned to Via Merulana to the place where she had revealed herself to the young girl almost 400 years before.
Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help
For the last 150 years, the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help has accompanied the Redemptorist Missionaries wherever they have gone. Present in more than eighty countries, they have carried this devotion to every continent and corner of the world. Devotion to this icon is found in the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The icon, under the title of Perpetual Help, is venerated by members of some Protestant Churches as well as by people of other faiths. In fact, especially in Asia, some new Christians describe how through novena devotions to this icon they have come to faith and baptism.
The icon of Perpetual Help is one of the best known and most loved images of Mary. Today, novena devotions—in churches and chapels, homes and hospitals, on TV and radio, and on the internet—nourish the faith and prayer of millions of faithful people.
The Jubilee Program
To celebrate this jubilee of 150 years, the Redemptorists planned a three-year program.
The first year—June 2014 to June 2015—is being devoted to the preparation of the Congregation for the jubilee year, which will last from June 27, 2015, to June 27, 2016. During this preparation year, a special international central commission has been appointed in Rome, and Redemptorists throughout the world also have appointed commissions to draw up plans for international and local celebrations. We also are engaged in study and renewal of our personal relationship with Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help. We have begun to plan special projects like congresses, a video documentary, publications, and music. Planning has also begun for pilgrimages to the shrine of the original icon in Rome during the jubilee year. The objective of this preparation year is to raise awareness of the significance of the icon and devotion, and to plan for the Jubilee celebrations in 2016.
The second year—June 27, 2015 to June 27, 2016—will be devoted to the celebration of the icon and devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is the jubilee year, which begins and concludes on the feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Some groups and several parishes from different countries have begun to plan jubilee year pilgrimages to the shrine of the original icon at St. Alphonsus Church in Rome. You might consider contacting the shrine in Rome to plan a personal or group pilgrimage.
In addition, there will be local celebrations in Redemptorist churches around the world. A full schedule of events for the United States isn’t available, but I know many activities are planned, including retreats, preached missions, novena devotions, and other celebrations. Liguorian and other Redemptorist outlets will publicize these events.
The third year—June 27, 2016 to June 27, 2017—will be devoted to publicizing the icon and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help as part of the new evangelization called for by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.Icons created for the jubilee celebration are expected to make a pilgrimage to every Redemptorist church and community. In fact, this “year” may exceed twelve months. We are convinced of the message of the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium: “There is a Marian ‘style’ to the Church’s work of evangelization. Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness” (EG 288).
The Message of the Icon
The theme chosen for this Jubilee, “Icon of Love,” speaks to the attraction and power of Our Mother of Perpetual Help for people today. The icon is not simply a representation of Mary and Jesus (and the archangels Michael and Gabriel). It is living image with a message for us. In the icon, Mary invites us into the mystery of God’s love for all.
First of all, Mary is a mother, embracing her Child. The founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus Liguori, wrote in The Glories of Mary: “Those that love Mary call her Mother. It could be said that there is no other name to call her, since she brought us to life on Calvary, when she offered her Son for our redemption.” In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says that on Calvary, when Jesus left us his Mother to be our Mother, he gave her a mission: to accompany us on our journey as a mother, to teach us and to bring us strength. “Let not your heart be troubled… Am I not here, who am your Mother?” (EG 285, 286).
Second, in the icon Mary not only cradles her Son and clasps his hands, her right hand points to him. Jesus is the way! As Mary accompanies us, she constantly and gently guides us to Jesus. He is the living Gospel, the Word made flesh, our Redeemer and our brother. It is this encounter with Jesus that fills our hearts and our lives with joy. Her message is Jesus, and her message is love, tender love. With an infinite tenderness, her gesture says to us, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
From the icon, Mary gazes on the one who contemplates this image in prayerful attention. Her eyes are focused on us. Ponder her eyes. Enter into her gaze. She invites you to open yourself to the mystery of God’s presence with you here and now. Those eyes know joy and suffering, peace and trouble. Mary’s eyes speak to our heart. They invite us to take her into our homes, just as the Beloved Disciple took her into his home from Calvary. She is and will always be our perpetual help on our pilgrim way.
How Can You Participate in the Jubilee Year?
Continue to deepen and renew your personal spiritual life—this is fundamental for any authentic devotion. I encourage you to participate in events and activities as a community. Remember, when the first disciples gathered to pray in the upper room in Jerusalem, Mary was with them (Acts 1:14). Below are some suggestions that favor possibilities of community devotions and activities.
1. Visit the North American website dedicated to Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help: maryprayforus.org, and the North American Website for the Redemptorists: redemptorists.com. You’ll find articles, prayers, information, and contacts about the Jubilee Year, and material to support your daily spiritual growth.
2. Liguori Publications will be publishing many materials about the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Place a copy of the icon in your home. Use a prayer book with your children. In some Catholic seniors homes, residents participate every week in the devotions with volunteers from their local parish.
3. Take part in the regular novena devotions held in local Redemptorist parishes or in other churches’ weekly devotions. This is a wonderful way to deepen your personal devotion and bond as a faith community. Devotions are also available on television and radio in many localities.
4. Plan a pilgrimage. Many would like to visit the original icon in Rome. But it is also possible to plan a pilgrimage to shrines in Boston, Brooklyn, Annapolis, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Toronto, Yorkton, Vancouver, Ste-Anne de Beaupre, and other locales.
5. Speak to your pastor and plan a celebration in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. You could arrange for the icon to be solemnly welcomed to your parish by contacting the Redemptorists in your area. Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a part of our proclamation of the word, in the spirit of Evangelii Gaudium. The best way to honor Mary is to deepen and renew our faith in her Son, our Redeemer.
6. Promote Liguorian, which includes a regular column titled “The Redeemer, Mary, and You” to help readers grow in their devotion to Mary. Give a gift subscription to family or friends. This is a wonderful way not only to celebrate this jubilee year, but also to promote good Catholic reading and information.
Most important of all, I encourage you to pray to Mary, who is our Perpetual Help. Speak to her in your own words. Share with her your worries and needs, your joys and thanksgivings. She is always ready to take us by the hand, and to guide us to her Son.