Australia’s mother: Our Lady, Help of Christians

Reading Time: 5 minutes
The Virgin in Prayer by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato 1640-50

An artist who was also a brilliant salesman …

Years ago I saw a very beautiful image of The Virgin at Prayer in the Dominican church of St Clement near the Colosseum in Rome. When I got back home, I discovered the same painting in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Was I seeing double? Had I stolen the painting and brought it back with me to Australia?

No, both were painted by Sassoferrato (Giovanni-Battista Salvi 1609-1685), a great baroque artist but also a copycat, even a cheat. He’d do almost identical images for different patrons and tell them all that theirs was the original! It turns out there’s a third version of the same work in Sta Maria della Salute in Venice. And another in the Auckland Art Gallery. Another ‘original’ is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery in London. You can also get it as coffee mug, T-shirt or, oddly, as a beach towel!

Mary – holy, yet human

In all these images, Mary is a young Italian beauty with a perfect complexion and hands together in prayer. Over her red tunic is a cloak of striking ultramarine, made from grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. She is holy yet human, and she’s unique – except that there are lots just like her…

…which captures, I think, something of the heart of Mary, Help of Christians. We know she never sinned, was full of grace, received Christ into her womb, was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, brought Jesus up. Such holiness might have made her seem aloof and distant.

Yet, she’s very much one of us, and so in the Sassoferrato paintings she wears ordinary clothes (for those days), prays like we do, and has no halo. Her story is that of a human mother, who in the words of our first reading “brings up her sons and cares for those who seek her” (Sir 4:11-18). Throughout history, right back to the Wedding Feast of Cana, people in difficulty have sought her intercession. Because she’s one of us, a mother to us, we turn to her in our need; but she’s the best of us, mother to Our Lord, she gets those prayers answered.

Help of Christians

So Mary is holy yet human, and attracts our devotion as ‘Help of Christians’. She is also unique. After Adam and Eve and Jesus, she’s the only human being made without original sin. As our first reading put it, she’s loved and honoured and held close by all who love God. She’s an original, yet there are potentially many like her: for every one of you is called to be a saint too. If one of us could remain sinless all her life it means we too can choose, each time we choose, what is good and true and beautiful, like she did. And when you fail, when your painting has cracks and flaky bits, you can return to her Son, the Master Painter, to be restored in Confession, to be made new. You can indeed all be originals – different in temperament and gifts – but beautiful souls, alike in your high ideals, virtuous character and good choices. There can be a whole art gallery of such works, the real St Mary’s College, the communion of saints!

Mary’s story is that of a human mother, who brings up her sons and cares for those who seek her

Our mother too

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is dying (Jn 19:25-27). Joseph is long dead and there are no other children. So Jesus asks John to take her in. Jonno may only have been 15 or so, so he’d outlive her. More importantly, when the older disciples abandoned Jesus, he stayed. No wonder he was Jesus’ favourite, ‘the disciple He loved’ (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20). But it’s not just about John. ‘The disciple Jesus loved’ is code for us, too. We are His favourites. We must take Mary to our hearts also. She will be a mother to us, especially in hard times, as our first reading says, “through winding paths, fear and faintness, through times of plague, sore discipline and ordeal”.

A happy accident of real estate

When Fr John Joseph Therry arrived in Australia, 200 years ago this month, he petitioned for a site for a Catholic chapel. The establishment responded by giving him the garbage dump near the convict barracks and the Hyde Park vegetable patch. No-one then imagined what a prime site St Mary’s would turn out to be!

Origin of a feast

When Therry was at school Napoleon and his secularist forces invaded Italy, determined to suppress the Catholic Church. They took Pope Pius VI prisoner and he died in captivity. The next Pope, Pius VII, was forced to attend Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, when he famously took the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself and his queen as well. Things only went downhill from that low point. Pius VII was a prisoner for the six years Therry was a seminarian. He called on all the Church to pray the Rosary. Soon after Therry was ordained the dictator was defeated and the Church free again. Pope Pius VII gave thanks by adding the Feast of Mary, Help of Christians, to the calendar.

Fr John Joseph Therry

When Fr Therry arrived in the colony, he dedicated the first Catholic church to her. After all, Catholics had had it hard in Australia: Mass was rarely permitted in the previous 32 years; many were convicts in chains and hard labour, poor or powerless. They needed help. They needed the best of helpers, Mary Help of Christians.

A tradition begins in a land Down Under

With the arrival of Bishop Polding in 1835 this mother church of Australia became its first cathedral. In 1844 at the First Provincial Synod of Bishops, and again in 1885 at the first Plenary Council of Australasia, the nation was dedicated to St Mary, Help of Christians. That was renewed by the Bishops of Australia in 1988, in 2001, and today in this time of pandemic.

Like those early Catholics, we know we need God’s help. And it can’t hurt to have God’s Mum in our corner! So today we pray together for Mary’s guidance and protection in difficult times. We pray she’ll make us more like her, beautiful and colourful artworks, worldly and other-worldly, different yet like her in our openness to God, our active service of others, our pondering of what’s good, our fidelity to the end.

Our Lady of Help of Christians, pray for us!

This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass of the Solemnity of Our Lady, Help of Christians, Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians, Sydney, 24 May 2019.

Related