Is there anyone who has never felt afflicted in times of difficulty or at the prospect of some tragedy? Is there anyone who has never needed help, be it spiritual, psychological, affective, or material?
Newsdesk (27/06/2021 11:40, Gaudium Press) Certainly not, because the human being, far from being self-sufficient, is contingent by nature: he cannot live without the support of his fellows, much less without the continuous support of God, the Creator of the universe.
An inevitable need, an infallible solution
For this state of inevitable need, God offers us an infallible solution: recourse to His Mother and our Mother. Hence the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is very appropriate, illustrating to us the certainty of the help that she gives when we have recourse to her.
‘Perpetual Help’ indicates a fountain of mercies that is never exhausted, never interrupted. ‘Never’ means at no time, no place, in no circumstance. However bad the situation, however grave and numerous our sins, the Virgin Mary wants to keep us continually under her unfathomable protection and heavenly shelter.
It is not surprising, then, that devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help has spread throughout the world. How did it come about?
Sacrilegious theft, incredible recalcitrance
Around 1496, a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary was venerated in a church on the Island of Crete. According to ancient tradition, it had been painted at the end of the 13th century by an unknown artist, inspired by a painting attributed to Saint Luke.
The story of the venerable picture begins in that year with a sacrilegious crime: hoping to sell it for a good price, a merchant stole it and took it to sea, hiding it among his goods. The following year he arrived in Rome, where he fell seriously ill and was lodged in the house of a friend, also a merchant. As he was about to die, he told his friend of the shameful theft and asked him to take the painting to a church where it could receive a dignified service. The Roman friend promised to do so.
The merchant died, and the Roman was ready to fulfill his promise, but his wife persuaded him to keep the painting in the house. The Virgin Mary then appeared to him and told him to take the image to a church. He did not obey. The Mother of God returned twice more and threatened him with death if he continued to disobey. His wife, however, objected again, and he showed himself more submissive to her than to the Queen of Angels. In a fourth apparition, Our Lady communicated to him:
“I warned you, I threatened you, and you would not obey. Now you will leave this house before I do, and then I will go out in search of a more honourable place.”
And in fact, the recalcitrant man did leave the house first: in a coffin, on the way to his grave. The Blessed Virgin then appeared to his six-year-old daughter, and said to her:
“Tell your mother and your uncle that Holy Mary of Perpetual Help wants you to take her out of this house, if you do not all wish to die immediately.”
The widow took this warning seriously, for she had had a vision exactly like her daughter’s experience. One of her neighbours, however, persuaded her to continue to keep the painting in her house. Soon afterwards, afflicted by a terrible illness, this neighbour repented of her wrongdoing, turned to the mercy of Our Lady, and was cured after touching the miraculous image. The Blessed Virgin appeared once again to the girl and told her that the image should be taken to the Church of Saint Matthew, located on the Via Merulana, between the basilicas of Saint Mary Major and Saint John Lateran.
One of the most visited churches in Rome
The widow, her daughter, and her neighbour hastened to inform the Augustinian Fathers, who were in charge of St. Matthew’s Church, of this prodigious event. The news spread like wildfire throughout the city. When the image was taken there on 27 March 1499, a great procession accompanied by many clerics and a large crowd of the faithful took place.
For three centuries the sacred image was venerated in St. Matthew’s Church. The faithful flocked there in such large numbers from all parts that it soon became one of the most visited churches in Rome, because of the fame of the miracles worked through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Abandoned in a chapel, forgotten by almost everyone
New difficulties, however, would come between the Mother of Mercy and her children. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops invaded Rome, exiled Pope Pius VI, and, under the pretext of strengthening the city’s defenses, destroyed 30 churches, including the Church of St Matthew. On that occasion, countless relics and a great number of sacred images were lost. However, the miraculous image was saved at the last minute by a priest who took it to the Church of St. Eusebius and then to the private chapel of the Augustinians in the convent of Santa Maria in Posterula.
In the turmoil of political events and wars that marked the first decades of the 19th century, the memory of the ineffable goodness with which the Mother of Perpetual Help welcomed all who came to her was almost completely erased. Thus, her sacred image was, for more than half a century, relegated to a secondary chapel in Rome, without any act of special devotion, without decoration, without even a lamp to indicate her august presence, forgotten by almost everyone.
“Make her known to the whole world”.
But not for Fr. Augustine Orsetti, who had been a friar in the Church of St. Matthew. In his heart his fervor had not diminished, in his mind, the memory of the countless miracles obtained through the intercession of this incomparable Mother of all those in need had not faded. Around 1850, when he was old and almost blind, he became friends with a young altar boy named Michael Marchi, who frequented the chapel of Santa Maria in Posterula. Many years later, as a Redemptorist priest, the former altar boy reported that “that good friar” used to refer with anxiety to the sad situation in which the beloved image found itself:
“Do not forget, my son, that the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is in our chapel. It was very miraculous. Never forget it, do you understand?”
Augustine died in 1853, without seeing his wish fulfilled that Our Lady of Perpetual Help would once again be exposed to public veneration. It appeared that the efforts and confident prayers of this zealous Augustinian had been fruitless.
But it only appeared so, for the young altar boy, later Fr. Miguel Marchi CSsR, did not forget!
In the middle of the 19th century, the Congregation of the Redemptorist Fathers was invited by Blessed Pius IX to establish its General House in Rome. For this purpose, and without being aware of the facts related above, they acquired a plot of land on the Via Merulana… precisely on the spot where the Church of St. Matthew had once stood. As will be seen, it was Our Lady of Perpetual Help herself who, through the voice of the Pope, attracted this Congregation to the Eternal City.
There the Redemptorist Fathers built a convent and the Church of St Alphonsus. One of them, studying the section of the city in which they were established, soon discovered that the Church of St. Alphonsus had been built on the very spot where once existed the Church of St. Matthew, in which the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help had been venerated for centuries. He reported this auspicious discovery to his brothers in the habit. Among the priests who listened to him was Father Miguel Marchi. The latter, in turn, told the old Augustinian friar of the convent of Santa Maria in Posterula everything he had heard about this image.
Here we can clearly see the hand of the Blessed Virgin guiding events. She inspired in the hearts of those missionary sons of hers the ardent desire to expose the miraculous image to public veneration. They urged the Superior General of the Congregation, Father Nicolas Mauron, to make a direct request to the Pope. Received in audience by Pius IX, the Superior General told him the story of the image and presented him with the request that it be entrusted to the care of his Congregation, so that it might once again receive the honors and supplications of the faithful in the same place chosen by Our Lady in 1499.
The Pope listened carefully to everything and wrote in his own handwriting this note, dated 11 December 1865:
“The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Santa Maria in Posterula and tell him that it is Our wish that the image of the Blessed Virgin, to which this petition refers, be again placed between [the basilicas of] St. John [Lateran] and St. Mary Major; the Redemptorists will replace it with another suitable picture.”
The Holy Father then gave the Redemptorists, in the person of their Superior General, the mission of spreading devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help: “Make her known throughout the world! ”
“O Mary, finish what you have begun! “
The Augustinian Fathers responded with filial respect to the wish of the Supreme Pontiff and handed over the miraculous image to its new guardians. In a solemn procession, some 20,000 faithful carried it through the streets adorned with flowers to the Church of Saint Alphonsus.
The Mother of Perpetual Help manifested her contentment on that very day through miracles. “Dear Mother, heal my son or take him to Heaven!”, implored an anguished mother from the window of her house, raising her dying little son in her arms as the picture passed by. The boy was soon cured.
A short time later, another mother asked for the healing of her daughter who had been struck by total paralysis. The girl immediately gained strength in her legs, but only just enough to start walking. Mother and daughter went the next day to the Church of Saint Alphonsus and begged: “O Mary, finish what you have begun!” The girl emerged from the church completely recovered.
Thus began a new phase in the luminous history of the miraculous painting of the Blessed Virgin. She continues today to maternally welcome her sons and daughters to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Thanks to the zeal of the Redemptorist Fathers, thousands of churches have been erected in her honour all over the world.
A picture rich in symbols
The miraculous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help measures 53 by 41.5 centimetres. It is a Byzantine-style painting, executed in wood on a golden background, a colour often used by artists in the ancient Roman Empire when depicting important personalities. The gold, in this case, is an expressive symbol of the glory of the Queen of Heaven.
More than just a portrait of Mary, the painting reproduces a scene.
The Virgin Mother holds the Child-God with care, affection, and adoration; her gaze, however, is not turned towards Him, but towards us, her adopted children. Jesus looks neither at his Mother nor at us, but seems to want to embrace with His divine gaze the two angels holding the instruments of the Passion: on the left, St Michael, in his green mantle, with the lance and the sponge of gall; on the right, St Gabriel in his purple mantle, with the cross, and the nails that pierced the feet and hands of the Redeemer.
A highly expressive detail is the sandal hanging from the right foot of the Child Jesus, held by a thread, almost falling off. It is the very symbol of the situation of the soul in a state of mortal sin: attached to Jesus by a thread, which is devotion to Our Lady.
Under the blue cloak, Mary wears a red tunic. In the early days of Christianity, virgins were distinguished by the colour blue, a symbol of purity, and mothers by the colour red, a sign of charity. This chromatic combination, therefore, defines Our Lady, both Virgin and Mother, in an excellent way. One can also see the green of the lining of her mantle. It is important to note that these three colours were used exclusively by royalty, thus the regal dignity of the Queen of Angels and Saints is well represented in her clothing.
At the top of the painting, half on each side is written, in Greek letters, the initials of the expression “Mother of God”; next to the head of the Baby Jesus, the initials of “Jesus Christ”; above the angel on the left, “Archangel Michael”; and above the angel on the right, “Archangel Gabriel”.
Text taken from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n.54, June 2006.
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