Our Mother of Perpetual Help
Painted in tempera on hard nutwood, 21 inches by 17, the original picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of many copies of the famed Hodeguitria of St. Luke. (The Hodeguitria, reputedly painted by St. Luke, was venerated for centuries at Constantinople as a miraculous icon. It was destroyed by the Turks in the year 1453.) This particular image, however, is THE ONE COPY singled out – by Our Lady herself – for special heavenly favors. You may see it today enshrined above the high altar at the Redemptorist Church of San Alfonso, in Rome. How it got there is a long story.
Briefly, at the close of the 15th century, a merchant stole the picture from its shrine on the island of Crete, miraculously weathered a tumultuous sea voyage, and finally brought it to Rome. There, before he died, he gave it to a Roman friend, begging him to have it placed in a worthy church. This the friend neglected to do.
Next Our Lady appeared to the little daughter of the family. "Go to your mother and grandfather," She commanded, "and say where the picture should be placed: in the church between the basilica of St. Mary Major and that of St. John Lateran." In solemn procession, on March 27, 1499, it was carried to that church, the church of St. Matthew the Apostle. The same day a miracle occurred; a man's arm, crippled beyond use, was completely restored.
SO, FOR 300 YEARS, the picture hung over the main altar in the church of St. Matthew the Apostle, loved by all, renowned far and wide for miracles.
Then came June, 1798. The diabolical Napoleon and his army entered Rome. The church of St. Matthew was leveled to the ground. The picture disappeared. For sixty-four years it remained hidden, almost forgotten, until ... one day at recreation, in the Redemptorist house in Rome, one of the Fathers mentioned having read, in an old tome, that their present church, San Alfonso, was built on the ruins of St. Matthew's, where once was enshrined a miraculous picture: Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The name startled Father Michael Marchi. He recalled, as a boy, having served Mass in the oratory of the Irish Augustinians at Santa Maria in Posterula. There he had seen the picture. An old Brother had pointed it out to him.
SOME MONTHS LATER, in February, Father Francis Blosi, S.J., preaching in the Gesu on "the lost Madonna of Perpetual Help," told how it was Our Lady's wish that the picture be enshrined in the church "between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran." Word got back to the Redemptorists. The Superior General was informed. But he waited three more years. He wanted to be certain.
Finally, on December 11, 1865, the whole matter was presented to Pope Pius IX. On January 19, 1866, the miraculous picture was brought once more to the site of its former glory, the church between the two basilicas, now that of San Alfonso. Three months later, it was solemnly enshrined. And on June 23, 1867, it was crowned.
IMPRESSED by the picture's message, over 5,000,000 people throughout the world have enrolled themselves in the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Alphonsus. All that is required for membership is to put your name on the Society's Official Register, at any church where the Confraternity is established. Members are counseled to have recourse to Our Lady in all their spiritual and temporal needs, to imitate her virtues, especially her Purity and Humility, to have by them, at all times, her picture or medal and to say each morning and evening three "Hail Marys" and a "Glory be to the Father."
Look at this copy of the picture. Frightened by the vision of two Angels showing Him the instruments of the Passion, the Christ Child has run to His Mother, almost losing, in His haste, one of the tiny sandals. Mary holds Him in her arms reassuringly, lovingly. But notice her eyes. They look not at Jesus, but at us. Is this not a touch of genius? How better to express Our Lady's plea to us to avoid sin and love Her Son? Christ's little hands, too, are pressed into Mary's as a reminder to us that, just as on earth He placed Himself entirely in her hands for protection, so now in Heaven He has given into her hands all graces, to distribute to those who ask her. This is the principal message of the picture. A Byzantine icon, however, it is replete with many other symbols. Here are some of them:
The Devotion to the Immaculate Lily of the Most Holy Trinity
One of the greatest means of salvation, and one of the surest signs of predestination, is, unquestionably, devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. All the holy Doctors of the Church are unanimous in saying with St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori: "A devout servant of Mary shall never perish." The chief thing is to persevere faithfully till death in this devotion.
Would you like to see the Blessed Mother before you die? Here is a simple devotion which the Blessed Virgin Mary herself taught to St. Mechtilde about the year 1270. It is known as the "Three Hail Mary Devotion," and consists of saying three times each day the Hail Mary with the invocation "O my Mother, preserve me this day (or night) from mortal sin." The prayer is said three times to honor the Most Blessed Trinity, Who is the source of all of Our Lady's greatness. It is intended to honor the Power of God the Father, the Wisdom of God the Son, and the Goodness of God the Holy Ghost, as communicated with such generosity to Our Blessed Lady. Can there be an easier or a more adaptable practice for all, than the recitation each day of three Hail Marys, in honor of the privileges conferred by the Adorable Trinity on the Blessed Virgin Mary?
This devotion was revealed by our Blessed Mother Herself to the Benedictine mystic, St. Mechtilde. In the Book of Revelations of St. Mechtilde we read:
The secretary who wrote down the revelations of St. Mechtilde at her dictation was St. Gertrude the Great. She was present when St. Mechtilde died and saw Our Lord appearing to her. Later, many revelations regarding the Three Hail Mary Devotion were revealed to her also.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, 1299, when the Ave Maria was being sung in chapel during Matins, St. Gertrude saw a vision of three bright flames emanating from each of the Three Divine Persons, which penetrated the Heart of the Holy Virgin, like three rays. She was given to understand that the three brilliant streams were symbols that: "After the Power of the Father, the Wisdom of the Son, and the merciful Tenderness of the Holy Ghost, nothing approaches the Power, the Wisdom, and the merciful Tenderness of Mary."
She then saw other streams return to their first source, and was inspired to know that these were graces which Our Lady sent to those who prayed her Ave Maria with devotion.
On another day, during prayer she saw our Blessed Mother in the form of a white lily with three branches before the Most Blessed Trinity. This revelation confirmed the title of "the Immaculate Lily of the Most Holy Trinity", which saints had given to Her. The saint learned on that occasion that the blinding whiteness of the lily signified the immaculate purity of the Holy Mother of God which was never stained with even the slightest venial sin. The three branches signified Our Lady's participation in the omnipotence of the Father, the wisdom of the Son, and the charity of the Holy Ghost. Then Our Blessed Mother spoke to St. Gertrude and said:
One of the first to say the three Hail Marys and to recommend them to others was the illustrious St. Anthony of Padua. His special aim in this practice was to honor the spotless Virginity of Mary and to preserve a perfect purity of mind, heart, and body in the midst of the dangers of the world. Many, like him, have felt its salutary effects. St. Leonard of Port Maurice, the celebrated missionary (1675-1751), advised all his hearers to practice this devotion. It was given as a penance in confession, to obtain the grace of avoiding all mortal sins during the day or night, especially for those who were struggling with sins of impurity; moreover, he promised in a special manner, eternal salvation to all those who proved constantly faithful to this practice. He would always impose the Three Hail Marys to be said morning and evening.
After the example of those two great Franciscan Saints, St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori adopted this pious practice and gave it his most ardent and powerful support. He counseled its use, and even imposed it as a penance on those who had not adopted this good habit. He speaks of it in his beautiful, classic book The Glories of Mary:
The holy Doctor exhorts, in particular, parents and confessors to watch carefully that children be faithful in reciting each day their three Hail Marys, morning and evening. Or rather, like St. Leonard of Port-Maurice, he earnestly recommends it to all, "to the devout and to sinners, to the young and old."
Most famous of all propagators of this devotion was the Capuchin, Father John Baptist of Blois. It was because of his work that Pope Leo XIII indulgenced this devotional practice. At Blois he founded the Confraternity entitled "Pia Opera for the Propagation of the Three Hail Mary's." Approved by many Bishops, in a short time it became widespread in many countries. Later, on July 30, 1921, Benedict XV, in an Apostolic letter, raised its status to that of an Archconfraternity, and accorded to it precious indulgences.
The same Father John Baptist of Blois founded the monthly periodical Le Propagateur des Trois Ave Maria in which are published some of the innumerable spiritual and temporal favors granted by Our Lady through this devotion.
There is also an official Archconfraternity status and picture of Our Lady. Its characteristic: from the visible Immaculate Heart of Mary come forth three rays of light, one for each of the Three Divine Persons of God. On the ray which symbolizes God the Father is engraved the word Omnipotence, on that of God the Son the word Wisdom, on that of God the Holy Ghost the word Mercy.
Why is this short, simple, and easy devotion to Our Lady so powerful? The answer lies in the power of the Hail Mary. So many Catholics throughout the ages of history have lived and died without ever truly appreciating the priceless value of the Hail Mary. Too many people underestimate the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary before God, even today. St. Theresa of Avila wrote: "The glory due to one devout Hail Mary is worth a long life of suffering."
The saints appreciated the Hail Mary more than most people, and even their appreciation was inadequate. St. Louis de Montfort said:
This devotion is also an act of adoration of the Most Blessed Trinity. By the triple invocation we adore God the Father, of Whose omnipotence she participates; God the Son, Who has communicated all His wisdom to her; God the Holy Ghost, Whose mercy and goodness are conveyed to mankind alone through her. Is there then any reason to wonder why this devotion is so powerful?
Skeptics of all ages are constantly pointing out the disproportion between the Three Hail Mary's and eternal salvation. Father John Baptist of Blois had this answer for them:
Practice: Recite, morning and evening, three Hail Marys in honor of the three great privileges, with this invocation at the end: for the morning: "O my Mother, preserve me from mortal sin during this day," for the evening: "O my Mother, preserve me from mortal sin during this night."
(Indulgence of 200 days granted by Leo XIII; 300 days for the members of the Archconfraternity of the Three Hail Marys by Benedict XV, and Apostolic Benediction by Pius X.)
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