" Jesus, thank you for everything, for my very beginning and my very end. "
Blessed Maria Celeste Crostarosa OSsR
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To Commemorate the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help...

olpshand

The 150th anniversary of the restoration of the icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help for public veneration will stir up in people many theological, spiritual and personal thoughts. 

As a preacher of the Word of God, I often give conferences on the role of our Blessed Lady in our lives. As a Redemptorist, I recall the urging of our founder St. Alphonsus that we should not omit on any mission or retreat, a conference on Mary the mother of Jesus. And of course as a member of the Redemptorist family I have a personal devotion to Our Lady - especially under this title of Perpetual Help. As a member of the Church, I recall chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, on the role of Mary in the economy of salvation.

It is good to call to mind the debate that took place during the Second Vatican Council prior to the completion of this great document on the Church. Many Council Fathers wanted a separate document on the role of the Virgin Mary in the Church. This was just fourteen years after the solemn declaration of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven by Pope Pius XII on 15th August 1950, and just over ten years after the conclusion of the Marian Year of 1954 which was celebrated throughout the world. So one can see why many of the Council Fathers thought that a separate document was important.

However, the periti, that group of wise and I also believe pastoral men, who were the theologians preparing the documents, together with a sizeable group of bishops, argued differently. They did not wish to downplay the role of Mary. However, they wished to situate her exactly where she belongs: that is, at the heart of the Church. It is for this reason that the final chapter of this great and seminal document of the Council is named: The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.

Of course Mary is not given one specific title in this document. Every local Church, and many Religious Orders and Congregations honour Mary under a title that is meaningful and suitable for them. As we know, St. Alphonsus had his own personal devotion to Mary under the title of our Lady of Good Counsel. And of course his appreciation of her as the Immaculate Conception is at the heart of his Marian doctrine. We also know that at one stage he wanted all Redemptorists to take a vow to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. However, this was removed from the early outline rule by Rome.

Other articles in this volume will outline the history of the icon and the manner in which Pope Pius IX gave us the command to make her known throughout the world.

What we do know now, is that since that date, Mary as the Mother of Perpetual Help has been a source of strength, hope and inspiration to countless Redemptorists and to those to whom we have ministered. Indeed, thanks to a suggestion by the late theologian Father Bernard Haring, this title has almost surreptitiously found its way into our Constitutions: "Indeed she still serves (the Church) as the perpetual help of God's people in Christ". Const.32.

However it is not at the level of dogmatic constitutions of Ecumenical CounCils, nor of Redemptorist Constitutions, that Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help touches the hearts of millions of people throughout the world. It is that through aa spirituality, and even an ordered piety, that Mary's influence and her ability to lead to the heart of Jesus touches so many people.

Let me tell you my story. It may appear to be a pious story; but I believe it also has profound theological ramifications in my life and in the lives of others. 

When I was seven years old and not at all a church attendee, my non-Catholic grandmother took me for a Sunday walk up a very large hill in Perth, Scotland. When we reached the brow of the hill, I can remember her telling me to look at the huge building which she told me was a monastery - to which she added, "And some very strange people live there." (I later found this out to be true - and I became one of them!) She took me to visit the small public church which I subsequently discovered was the very first church in the world to be dedicated to our Lady of Perpetual Help. (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour to be more accurate.) Over the high altar is a very beautiful icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help. That was in November 1951, a visit I can recall to this day, because we then lit a candle and hurried out of the church after there was a great flash of lightning. I was seven years old at the time.

Fast forward ten or eleven years and I am in Rome. I had, as a bold teenager, flown into Milan, seen Leonardo's Last Supper and then headed by train to Rome. Someone had told me that there was a huge event in the Vatican. It turned out to be the Second Vatican Council, although that was lost on me. I was also told that there was an English priest in Rome who could get you a ticket to attend it! In fact I got the ticket, and it was a ticket of admission to attend the morning Council Mass, after which a loud cry of exuent omnes was made, and all but the Council Fathers were ushered out of the front door of Saint Peters.

I headed back to thank the priest in a street called Via Merulana. He was an English priest, Father Wilfred Hughes who at the time was Rector of the motherhouse of the Redemptorists. As we chatted in the parlour, an English Brother, Edmund, who was the sacristan came in to join us and Father Hughes said to me, "We are going to give you a great treat". I had no idea what this might be. He then said to Brother Edmund, "Go to the sacristy and bring the icon".

At this time our church was being redecorated through the patronage of Cardinal Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis, who had been assigned our Redemptorist church as his titular, and so the icon was kept in a safe in the sacristy.

I had absolutely no idea what an icon was, and less who our Mother of Perpetual Help was! However, the case was duly brought and unlocked, and the icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help was given to me to hold. I remember very clearly Father Hughes saying to me, "Perhaps she will give you a vocation". At the time I was hoping more for a cold drink!

However, four years later I found myself a novice in the Redemptorist monastery in Kinnoull, Scotland; and one year later I took my vows in the church dedicated to our Mother of Perpetual Help, and in front of her icon - the same church I had visited with my grandmother as a child.

Now this may seem a very pious story. Indeed it is. It is, however, also a true story and, I believe, a story of providence and grace. How grace and nature touch, I will leave to the theologians. However after fifty years as a Redemptorist, I can attest to the fact that God works in his Church in mysterious ways and through circumstances and people and of course through the communion of saints. How our Mother of Perpetual Help has impacted on my own life and my ministry would take too long to explain.

Over the years, with regard to Mary and this icon, I have observed the extraordinary influence that it has had on so many of the faithful. Underlying the piety of so many of our people, there is a deep realisation of Mary's role in our world and in their lives. There appears to be an innate understanding of a profound theological reality: that is, that God chose Mary to bring Christ into the world. There is the deep realisation that Mary continues to assist u,s in receiving the love and mercy of Jesus. There is an appreciation that in giving us Mary, God is giving us a manifestation of his love in the image of both woman and mother.

One of the reasons I love the perpetual novena in honour of our Mother of Perpetual Help is because of the amazing mixture of people who come to her shrine or attend special events such as the Nine Days Prayer. I have often observed the people who attend these novenas, whether it be smaller novenas in parish churches or the events in our large shrines such as Singapore or Manila. Here a whole cross-section of the human race is united under the care of our Mother. Here one sees all colours, and even all creeds. One sees the married, the single, the old and the young. One can observe the confused and the marginalised, as well as those searching for meaning in life. Above all, it is a huge joy to see so many families, and it is this great human diversity of races and people that is for me a sign that a mother always unites.

I know that many people in our world are searching. Often their mis-directed choices are simply a thwarted search for comfort, peace or above all compassion. When one gazes on the icon this is what we see:

Comfort - the child who is afraid, being comforted. In modern psychological parlance perhaps the inner child in all of us needs some comforting. Modern psychologists speak of the isolation and dehumanization of many people in our society, especially in our large cities where personal identity is truly threatened. I do not believe it is by chance that a large proportion of people who attend our Novenas in honour of Our Mother of Perpetual Help' are immigrants....men and women far away from all they have known and loved and feeling somewhat isolated. Many have experienced the xenophobia and unwelcoming attitude towards those forced to flee their homeland (as was the case with the Holy Family) or those seeking a better life for their children. I know they find comfort in the solidarity and shared love that those attending the Novena have for Jesus and Mary - and find that this love is reciprocated.

Peace - we see the child at peace in his mother's arms. We also see peace in the eyes of Mary. Although there is sadness, there is a great tranquillity when we look into the eyes of Mary in the icon. Peace is the ultimate quest of the human heart. Viktor Frankl in his book "Man's Search for Meaning", comes to that conclusion, and offers a method of therapy to obtain it. Gazing on the icon is a valid form of therapy. I am aware of the therapeutic effect - that of experiencing peace through reflection on this icon - from the lives and stories of many to whom I have ministered. And of course I have experienced it in my own life. Is indeed a peace that the world cannot give.

Above all, I believe the message of this icon is one of compassion.

Compassion - Over the years, what I have encountered most among those with whom I have worked, is a longing to be understood, a longing to be forgiven and a longing to be accepted. Often there is a great lack of fulfilment and a corresponding anxiety in the lives of our faithful. I firmly believe that in gazing on the icon and praying before the picture, countless thousands of people experience the compassion of Mary and ultimately the loving mercy of God. I can recall a group of Goan refugees who had been rendered stateless and expelled from Uganda in East Africa overnight. They arrived in London totally penniless but found great solace in our Perpetual Novena in Clapham. They expressed it to me in this way: "We arrived with nothing; but we found the same Mother of Perpetual Help that we had left in Uganda waiting for us, understanding our plight and assuring us that all would be well". And indeed it became so.

As we move more and more into the so-called nuclear age with all the ramifications in terms of relationships, I believe that the world needs the tenderness and the care of a woman and a mother. This is of huge significance in an age in which the bodies of women are trafficked throughout the world for money, and used for pornography. Mary assumed-into-heaven, as a real and living person, is a sign of hope and redemption in every sense of the word; and this, above all, for women in our age. 

In this sense, I also believe that the icon is a true manifestation of mercy. It is not only the mercy that the mother is showing to the frightened child which is the message of the icon; but rather it is that the mother is reaching out in mercy to all of us - to the whole world. It is a wonderful image indeed, and in truth, a greater reality; and it is the extraordinary privilege of Redemptorists to communicate this message. The Mother of Perpetual Help is a gift to us, to the Church and to our society as a reminder of the compassion of God. May she always intercede for us.

Ronald J. McAinsh, C.Ss.R.