The Holy Ghost, Who guides our Holy Mother the Church, has gradually led the faithful to devote in an especial manner to the honor of Mary the entire month of May, the whole, or at least a major part, of which comes under the glad Season of Easter. No doubt, the loveliness of the month would, some time or other, suggest the idea of consecrating it to the holy Mother of God; but if we reflect on the divine and mysterious influence which guides the Church in all that She does, we shall recognize, in this present instance, a heavenly inspiration, which prompted the faithful to unite their own happiness to that of Mary, and spend this beautiful month, which is radiant with their Easter joy, in commemorating the maternal delight experienced, during that same period, by our Immaculate Mother when on earth.
Today's feast is not on the universal Calendar of the Church; yet it is so widely spread, with the consent of the Holy See, that our Liturgical Year would have been incomplete without it. Its object is to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Help of Christians – a title the Mother of God has justly merited by the innumerable favors She has conferred upon Christendom. Since the day when the Holy Ghost descended upon Mary in the Cenacle, in order that She might begin to exercise over the Church Militant Her power as Queen – who could tell the number of times that She has aided, by Her protection, the Kingdom of Her Son on earth?
Holy Church tells us that it is Mary who "alone destroys all heresies throughout the whole world." If public scandals or persecutions, or the tyranny of secular interference, have at times threatened to stay the progress of the Church, Mary has stretched forth Her arm, the obstacles were removed, and the Spouse of Jesus continued Her onward march, leaving Her foes and Her fetters behind Her. All this was vividly brought before the mind of the Holy Pontiff, St. Pius V, by the victory of Lepanto, gained by the Blessed Virgin Mary's intercession, over the Turkish fleet, and he resolved to add one more title to the glorious list given to Our Lady in Her Litany: it was Auxilium Christianorum, Help of Christians.
The 19th century had the happiness of seeing another Pontiff, also named Pius, institute a Feast under this same title – a Feast which is intended to commemorate the help bestowed on Christendom in all ages by the Mother of God. Nothing could be happier than the choice of the day on which this Feast was to be kept. On May 24, in the year 1814, there was witnessed in Rome the most magnificent triumph that has yet been recorded in the annals of the Church. That was a grand day, whereon Constantine marked out the foundations for the Vatican Basilica in honor of the Prince of the Apostles; Pope St. Sylvester stood by, and blessed the Emperor, who had just been converted to the True Faith: but important as was this event, it was but a sign of the last and decisive victory won by the Church in the then recent persecution of Diocletian. That was a grand day whereon Pope Leo III, Vicar of the King of kings, crowned St. Karl the Great with the imperial diadem, and by his apostolic power gave continuance to the long interrupted line of Emperors: but Leo III, by this, did but give an official and solemn expression to the power which the Church had already frequently exercised in the newly constituted nations, which received from Her the idea of Christian government, to enable them to fulfil their duties. That was a grand day whereon Pope Gregory IX restored to the city of Peter the Papal Throne, which had been transferred to Avignon for 70 years; but Gregory IX, in this, did but fulfil a duty, and his predecessors, had they willed it, might have effected this return to Rome for which the necessities of Christendom so imperatively called.
Yes, all these were glorious days; but May 24 of 1814 surpasses them all. Pope Pius VII re-entered Rome amidst the acclamations of the Holy City, whose entire population went forth to meet him, holding palm branches in their hands, and greeting him with their hosannas of enthusiastic joy. He had been a captive of Napoleon for five years, during which the spiritual government of the Christian world had suffered a total suspension. It was not the Powers allied against his oppressor who broke the Pontiff's fetters; the very tyrant who kept him from Rome had given him permission to return at the close of the preceding year; but the Pontiff chose his own time, and did not leave Fontainebleau till January 25th. Rome, whither he was about to return, had been made a part of the French Empire five years previously, by a decree in which was spuriously cited the name of Charlemagne! The city of Peter had been made the head town of a Department, with a prefect for its administrator; and, with a view to making men forget that it was the city of the Vicars of Christ, the tyrant gave its name as a title to the heir-presumptive of the imperial crown of France.
What a day was that 24th of May, which witnessed the triumphant return of the Pontiff into the Holy City, whence he had been dragged during the night by the soldiers of an ambitious tyrant! He made the journey in short stages, meeting, on his way, the allied armies of Europe, who recognized his right as King. This right is superior, both in antiquity and dignity, to that of all other monarchs; and all, no matter whether they be heretics, schismatics or Catholics, must admit it, were it only on the strength of its being a historical fact. The first blessing, therefore, for which we are indebted to Mary on this day, is that She brought back the pastor to his flock, and restored the supreme government of Holy Church to its normal state. The second is her having reinstated the Pope in possession of his temporal power, the surest guarantee of his being independent in the exercise of his spiritual power. We have but to consult history, and we shall learn what miseries and dangers have followed from the Popes being subjects of any earthly monarch.
But what we have said so far is not sufficient to give an adequate idea of the greatness of the prodigy thus achieved by Our Lady, Help of Christians. In order to have a just appreciation of it, we must remember that the miracle was not wrought in the age of St. Sylvester and Constantine, or of St. Leo III and St. Karl the Great, or of the great prophetess St. Catharine of Siena, who made known the commands of God to the people of Italy and the Popes of Avignon. The century that witnessed this wondrous event was the 19th. Europe was under the degrading influence of Voltairism, and there were still living the authors and abettors of the crimes and impieties that resulted from the false principles taught in the 18th century. Everything was adverse to such a glorious and unexpected triumph; Catholic feeling was far from being roused; the action of God's Providence had to show itself in a direct and visible manner; and to let the Christian world know that such was the case, Rome instituted the annual Feast of May 24, as an offering of acknowledgement to Mary, Help of Christians.
Let us then give thanks to the Blessed Mother of God on this Feast; let us unite in the fervent acclamations of the then loyal citizens of Rome, and like them sing with all the glad joy of our Easter Alleluia, our greetings of Hosanna to the Vicar of Christ. The remembrance of St. Peter's deliverance from prison, and his restoration to liberty must have been vividly on the minds of that immense concourse of people, whose love for their Pontiff was redoubled by the sufferings he had gone through. As the triumphal chariot on which he had been placed came near the Flaminian Gate, the horses were unyoked, and the Pontiff was conveyed by the people to the Vatican Basilica, where a solemn thanksgiving was made, over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
But let us not close the day without admiring the merciful intervention of Mary, Help of Christians. If the protection She gives to the faithful sometimes necessitates Her showing severity to tyrants, Her maternal Heart is full of compassion for the vanquished, and She extends her Help even to them. Thus it was with the haughty Emperor, over whom She triumphed on May 24. A messenger from the island of Saint Helena was one day ushered into the presence of Pope Pius VII. The exiled Napoleon, whom he had all but crowned Emperor in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and whose conduct in later years brought him under the ban of excommunication, now besought the Pope, the true and only King of Rome, to allow him to be readmitted to those spiritual blessings of which he had been justly deprived.
Pope Pius VII, whose name the fallen Emperor could never pronounce without emotion, and whom he called "a lamb" – Pius VII, who had so courageously braved public opinion by giving hospitality at Rome to the members of Napoleon's unfortunate family – readily complied with the request thus made to him; and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was shortly afterwards offered up in the presence of the exile of Saint Helena.
But before granting pardon, the justice of God had required a full and public expiation. He who had been the instrument of salvation to millions of souls by restoring religion to France, had likewise been the instrument of spiritual harm to millions of souls by desecrating, persecuting and despoiling the Church throughout most of Europe. He had impiously imprisoned the sovereign Pontiff in the castle of Fontainebleau; and it was in that very castle that he had afterwards to sign the deed of his own abdication. For five years he had held captive the Vicar of Christ; for five years he himself had to endure the sufferings and humiliation of captivity. Outwardly reconciled with the Church, and permitted to receive the holy Sacraments which prepare the Christian for eternity, Napoleon yielded up his soul into the hands of his Maker, on May 5, the Feast of St. Pius V; on which same Feast Pius VII was receiving the congratulations of his faithful Romans. Whether Napoleon saved his soul, we do not know; but we may be certain that, in any case, Mary Help of Christians had triumphed.
Let us now read the account, as given in today's Office, of the great event that prompted the institution of this Feast:
The faithful have frequently witnessed miraculous interventions which prove that the Mother of God is ever ready with Her help to repel the enemies of religion. It was on this account that, after the signal victory gained by the Christians over the Turks in the Gulf of Lepanto, through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy Pope Pius V ordered that to the other titles given to the Queen of Heaven in the Litany of Loreto, there should be added that of Help of Christians. But one of the most memorable proofs of Her protection, and one which is an incontestable miracle, is that which happened during the Pontificate of Pius VII. By the intrigues and armed violence of certain impious men, the Pontiff had been driven from the Apostolic See of St. Peter, and was kept in close confinement, mainly at Savona, for upwards of five years. During this period, by a persecution unheard of in any previous age, every possible means was resorted to in order to prevent his governing the Church of God. When lo! suddenly and to the surprise of men, he was restored to the Pontifical Throne, to the great joy, and it might be almost said with the concurrence of the whole world. The same thing happened also a second time, when a fresh disturbance arose and compelled him to leave Rome, and go, with the Sacred College of Cardinals, into Liguria. Here again, the storm that threatened great destruction was appeased by a most prompt interference of God's providence, and the Pontiff's return to Rome filled Christendom with new joy. Before returning, however, he would carry out an intention which his captivity had hitherto prevented him from doing: with his own hand he solemnly placed a golden crown on the celebrated statue of the Mother of God that was venerated at Savona under the title of Mother of Mercy. The same Sovereign Pontiff, Pius VII, who was so thoroughly acquainted with every circumstance of these events, rightly attributed their happy issue to the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God, Whose powerful help he himself had earnestly besought, besides urging all the faithful to obtain it by their prayers. He therefore instituted a solemn feast in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Help of Christians. It was to be kept every year on the 24th of May, the anniversary of his own most happy return to Rome. He also sanctioned a proper Office for this Feast, in order that the remembrance of so great a favor might ever be on the minds of the faithful, and secure the thanksgiving it deserved.
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