Christian icons and images are reminders of God’s message of love and mercy to the faithful. These artistic renditions also help us understand concepts and precepts of God’s love that are often beyond human senses or logic. The beauty of the image and the symbolisation that partake of cultural significance speak volumes where words fail to make an effect. Such is the story of the image of the Mother of Perpetual Help.
The story of the icon
The image of the Mother of Perpetual Help has been a source of hope and grace to many through the centuries. The icon is a reminder of an ever-present mother, who is always ready to help her children. On the cross, Jesus gave the gift of his mother to the church, personified by the apostle he loved, “Here is your mother” (John 19:27). This gift of motherhood is reminiscent in the picture of Mary with child Jesus, as a mother always ready to help her children in need.
The origin of the image is traced to Crete, a Greek island. The style is consistent with those found in Byzantine icons. The portrait is believed to be painted sometime in the 13th century. Mother Mary holds the child Jesus in her arms. Archangels Michael and Gabriel hold the instruments of Passion – the cross, nails, sponge and spear. A frightened child Jesus holds on to his mother. Greek abbreviations signifying Mother of God, Jesus Christ, Michael and Gabriel are imprinted on the image.
Journey to Rome
A merchant brought this image from Crete to Rome. Reports vary on how he gained access to the image – as to whether he stole it or obtained it while fleeing invaders. On his deathbed, this merchant entrusted his friend, in whose house he stayed, to return this image to the Church. The friend did not immediately put up the image in the church, but kept it in his house. Then it is believed that his daughter got a vision of Mother Mary. In this vision, Mary instructed that the image be placed in a Church, situated between the basilicas of St Mary Major and St John Lateran. The image was therefore placed in St Matthew’s church that was located between these basilicas. Mother Mary in the vision identified herself as the ‘Holy Mary of Perpetual Succour’. True to the title, the image was venerated at St Matthew’s for over 300 years. Thousands of people visited this church to ask for Our Lady’s intercession and numerous miracles were attributed to the image. In the early 19th century, after the French invasion of Rome, the Augustinian Friars carried the icon to safety, due to the impending destruction of St Matthew’s. So, the image was preserved even though the church was razed to the ground and continued to be venerated by Augustinians. However, the location of the image remained unknown to the rest of the world. Between 1863 and 1865, a series of providential occurrences led to the finding of the image and bringing it back for public veneration.
The comeback of the icon
The Redemptorists had bought the land where St Matthew’s once stood, to build their motherhouse in Rome. Here, they built a church that was named after St Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also called the Redemptorists. As the sons of St Alphonse made this place their home, discussions arose amongst the priests on the significance of St Matthew’s and the loss of the miraculous image. This drew the attention of one priest in particular, Fr Michael Marci. Fr Marci excitedly declared that the image was placed in the little oratory at Santa Maria Posterula. As a little boy he served mass at the oratory and heard of the miraculous image. Soon, the matter was taken to Pope Pius IX. The Pope hearing the story decided that as Mary in the vision expressed her wish that the icon be placed between St Mary Major and St John Lateran, it was fitting that the image be placed at St Alphonsus for public veneration. Was it coincidence or providence that this great saint Alphonse is a Doctor of the Church and is known for his love of Mother Mary? Many miracles were purported even as the image was carried in procession to its new dwelling place. Facsimiles of the image are now found across the world, and devotions to the Mother of Perpetual Help continue to bring spiritual and physical blessings to millions.
Mother, ever ready to help her children
Mary, herself, reiterates her role as a Mother ever ready to help her child in need. When she appeared to a worried Juan Diego in Mexico, Our Lady said, “Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” Such comforting words. What more do we need? The first place a child would run towards, during times of distress, is the arms of the mother. In Mary, however young or old we might be, we have this comfort of a mother. The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour reminds us that when we are in Mother Mary’s arms, we are in the arms that held the Saviour. We are that much closer to the True Way, Jesus. Louis de Montfort writes, “When we say, ‘Mary,’ she answers, ‘God.’ When, with St. Elizabeth, we call her ‘Blessed, ‘she glorifies God.”
In the image we observe that Mary’s compassionate gaze is always directed towards us, her children. As she intervened at the Wedding Feast of Canna, she continues to intervene for us. With Mary’s ability as a mother to see the inadequacy of her child, she today asks Jesus to make our failings and shortages whole. Her direction to us always remains- “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Mother Mary did not just say it, but led by example. Pope Benedict XVI writes that “we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word.” Mother Mary’s constant pondering of God’s words and her all surrendering ‘Yes’ to God’s will teaches us obedience. Mary’s gift of obedience is the child Jesus, who she holds in her arms. When we draw near to her, she teaches and helps us gain the gift of Jesus too. With this confidence, let us always remember that in times of joy and distress, we have a Mother; in times of sickness and health, we have a Mother; in times of temptations and failings, we still have a Mother. A Mother, who is always ready to help us. A Mother, who loves us. A Mother, who knows all our needs. A Mother, who knows what is best. A Mother, who would teach us to be obedient to the Word of God.
Let’s turn to this Mother and seek her intercession.