When one visits a Catholic home in Australia there is probably one religious picture seen more often than any other (with the exception of a crucifix): Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. That this 13th century icon became an almost ubiquitous image in Australian Catholic domestic scenery is due overwhelmingly to one order: the Redemptorists, to whom the image was entrusted by no less than a pope a century and a half ago.
Since the arrival of the Redemptorist Order in Australia in 1882, its members have carved out a reputation for preaching fiery missions and promoting devotion to Mary, especially through this icon.
In 2016 the Redemptorists are celebrating the 150th anniversary of receiving the miraculous icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help from the hands of Blessed Pius IX, the longest reigning pope in contemporary Church history.
When he entrusted the icon to the order, Pius asked them to “make her known throughout the world”. Interestingly, the Redemptorists are the only religious order in the world to have a charism entrusted to them by a pope to propagate a Marian work of art.
The feast day on 27 June commemorates its canonical coronation in 1867.
Throughout the world, on Wednesday evening, there are devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
For instance, in Baclaran in the Philippines, the shrine built there under that title by the Redemptorist Order attracts over 10,000 people each week. Singapore is also a place with a thriving devotion to the Blessed Mother under this title.
Big celebrations are being planned all over the world, to commemorate the sesquicentenary.
Throughout this month of June, an estimated 300,000 are expected to attend four Redemptorist novenas in a number of churches in Ireland: at Mount St Alphonsus church in Limerick, at Esker monastery in Athenry, Co Galway, at St Michael’s Church in Ballinasloe, and at the Clonard monastery in Belfast, where the presence of the Redemptorists has long been felt.
In St Louis, Missouri, in the US, often nicknamed “the Rome of the West”, a special website has been set up to honour the occasion
Bishop Paul Bird CSSR, of the diocese of Ballarat in Victoria, is a Redemptorist.
“After the arrival of the Redemptorists in Australia, images of Our Lady of Perpetua Succour were quickly spread around here and New Zealand,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“A novena of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope developed in the US and was brought to Australia in 1949 and began in Newcastle NSW. This novena remains in use in many parishes, Redemptorist churches and many other churches around Australia to this day.
“The Redemptorist community at Kogarah Sydney holds the earliest copy of the Icon dating back to 1870.”
So what is so extraordinary about this sad image of the Virgin Mary which warrants all this special attention?
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour is painted on wood, with a background of gold. It is Byzantine in style and thought to have been painted in the 13th century. It represents the Mother of God holding the Divine Child while the Archangels Michael and Gabriel present before Him the instruments of His Passion.
Over the figures in the picture are Greek letters which form the abbreviated words Mother of God, Jesus Christ, Archangel Michael, and Archangel Gabriel respectively. It is known that the icon was taken to Rome towards the end of the 15th century by a pious merchant, who, dying there, ordered in his will that the picture should be exposed in a church for public veneration.
It was exposed in the church of San Matteo, Via Merulana, between St Mary Major and St John Lateran. Crowds flocked to the church, and for nearly 300 years many graces were obtained through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin.
The picture was then popularly called the Madonna di San Matteo. The church was served for a time by the Hermits of St Augustine. These Augustinians were still in charge when the French invaded Rome (1812) and destroyed the church.
The icon disappeared, remaining hidden and neglected for ore than 40 years. However, a series of providential circumstances between 1863 and 1865 led to its discovery in an oratory of the Augustinian Fathers at Santa Maria in Posterula.
The pope, Blessed Pius IX, who as a boy had prayed before the icon in San Matteo, became interested in the discovery and in a letter dated 11 December, 1865, written to Fr General Mauron, CSsR, ordered that Our Lady of Perpetual Succour should be again publicly venerated in Via Merulana, and this time at the new church of St Alphonsus.
The ruins of San Matteo were in the grounds of the Redemptorist convent. Pius approved of the solemn translation of the picture (26 April, 1866) and its coronation by the Vatican Chapter (23 June, 1867). He fixed the feast as duplex secundae classis (second-class feast), on the Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, and by a decree dated May 1876, approved of a special office and Mass for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. This favour was also granted to others later on.
Learning that the devotion to Our Lady under this title had spread far and wide, Pius IX raised a confraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and St Alphonsus, which had been formed in Rome, to the rank of an arch-confraternity and enriched it with many privileges and indulgences.
Canadian priest Fr Robert Paré, whose parish on the shores of Lake Huron is named Our Lady of Perpetual Help, has long studied the history and symbolism of the icon.
The miraculous icon, painted on wood and measuring about 54×41.5cm, depicts the Virgin Mary under the title Mother of God holding the Child Jesus, he writes.
The Archangels Michael and Gabriel, hovering in the upper corners, hold the instruments of the Passion. St Michael (in the left corner) holds the spear, the wine-soaked sponge and the crown of thorns. St Gabriel (in the right corner) holds the cross and the nails.
The intent of the artist was to portray the Child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future Passion. Frightened by the vision, he runs to his mother for consolation. The anguish He feels is shown by the loss of one of His sandals as he quickly flees into the arms of his Mother.
Despite a foreboding vision of suffering, the icon also conveys the triumph of Christ over sin and death, symbolised by the golden background as a sign of the glory of the resurrection. The royal crowns on the heads of Jesus and Mary also symbolise their triumph as the King of Kings with his Queen Mother.
In a very beautiful way, the Child Jesus grasps the hand of the Blessed Mother. He seeks comfort from His mother as He sees the instruments of His passion. The position of Mary’s hands – both holding the Child Jesus (who seems like a small adult) and at the same time presenting Him to us – convey the reality of our Lord’s incarnation, that He is true God who became also true man.”
But despite the suffering of her son, Mary looks straight at the viewer in a very solemn manner, as if to indicate she is aware of all our own suffering and pains throughout the course of our lives.
Another prominent Church leader with more than a passing association with the icon is Cardinal Vincent Nichols of London, whose titular church in Rome is none other than the Church of St Alphonsus on via Merulana where the icon is housed today.
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of its return to the church in May, Cardinal Nichols spoke about the significance of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in this Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis.
“‘Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,’” Cardinal Nichols said during Mass at St Alphonsus on 26 May.
“This Year of Mercy is ‘an opportunity to journey towards a deeper appreciation of the mercy of God’.
“Today we, too, have been on a journey, in honour of one whose face reflects more brightly than any other the mercy of Jesus Christ: Our Lady, Mother of Perpetual Help.”
Quoting the famous exhortation of Blessed Pius IX to ‘Make her known to the whole world’, Cardinal Nichols said: “It is my prayer today we may continue to take those words of Pope Pius IX to heart, and that devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in this church and elsewhere, may continue for the next 150 years, showing to many the limitless mercy of God for us all, His little ones, and made manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
As part of the celebrations for the jubilee year of the 150th anniversary of the Redemptorists receiving the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the Holy Father Pope Francis has granted a plenary indulgence.
This is available to all who make a pilgrimage between 27 June, 2015, and 27 June, 2016, to the Church of St Alphonsus in Rome or in any Redemptorist church anywhere in the world to venerate the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
In NSW the major Redemptorist church is at Galong, about an hour’s drive north-west of Canberra.
It would make an excellent destination for a pilgrimage to fulfil the conditions of Pope Francis’s indulgence.
The usual conditions for obtaining an indulgence apply, i.e. the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father. The visit should conclude with the recitation of the Our Father, the Creed and prayers to Our Blessed Mother.
Those who because of sickness, old age or some other grave reason are not able to make a pilgrimage may also obtain the plenary indulgence.
They do this by associating themselves spiritually with the jubilee celebrations and pilgrimages in a spirit of sorrow for their sins and with the intention of fulfilling the usual conditions. In doing this they should seek the mercy of God, offering their sufferings before a small icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
This anniversary will be an opportunity to renew the Marian devotion in the Church, which has been strongly supported by a succession of current and recent popes.