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Help of Christians

Help of Christians

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

Henry Bordeaux, in welcoming Henri Bremond, the author of a famous history of French spirituality, to the French Academy, noted pointedly in his welcoming address: "Your great mystical fresco is a series of pieces placed side by side. An exacting critic would desire a more clearly defined play and better established proportions, though to offset this he might add that when a great procession passes by you do not spend your time counting the buttons on the coats."

To count the buttons on the coat of this Marianist feast day would mean to speak about Pius VII's brief on plenary indulgence to the Children of the Blessed Virgin Mary in five points, about the first favorable commendation from the Holy See in 1819, about the formation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, the comments of Fathers Chaminade and Hiss on the relationship between the two orders, and not least about the privilege accorded since 1921 to mark the anniversary of these events by a liturgical celebration honoring Mary under the title of Help of Christians.

Instead of counting buttons, let us turn our eyes to the procession, the central object and reason of this festive celebration -- that is, to Mary, Help of Christians.

In the Paschal Season, the first reading is from the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse; the rest of the year it is from the 3rd chapter of Genesis. Both texts prophesy the victory of "the Woman" over the Serpent or the Dragon. One occurs at the beginning of the Bible, the other at the end. This Woman, whose offspring or son is the instrument of victory, is understood to be the image of the New Sion, the Church, the holy people of messianic times. Yet at the same time she can be considered the image of Mary, daughter of Sion, type of the Church and mother of the redeemed people. In these readings, Mary is the New Eve; she is the Mother of the Living. In both cases she faces conflict and this conflict continues for "the rest of her children" who are also menaced. However, the Woman is always there to assist them.

The assistance of the Woman is especially helpful to those engaged in "new wars" and who keep the commandments of God."

Saint Pius V gave Mary the title: "Help of Christians," after the victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, and he added this invocation to her litany. When Pius VII returned to Rome on May 24, 1814, after spending five years of exile and captivity, he established the Feast of Our Lady, Helper of the Papal States.

The invocation of Mary as Help of Christians is part of the oldest prayer addressed directly to Mary, the "Sub tuum praesidium," which was found on a papyrus dating, at the latest, from the end of the third century. This prayer was composed at a time of great danger for Christians and for the Church. "Praesidium" is translated as "an assistance given in time of war by fresh troops in a strong manner."

Yet, Mary help of all Christians is not only helpful to those engaged in new wars, as the Gospel shows quite clearly. She is the bearer of joy, readying all Christians of good will to receive God's grace and the many gifts of life. Yes, ultimately, it is the caring woman of Cana who makes victory over dragon and serpent possible -- in letting Christ act on his own terms and at his own hour. Anthony de Mello writes in conclusion to the introduction of his last book:

"I dedicate this book to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has always been for me a model of contemplation. She has been more: I am convinced that it is her intercession that has obtained for me, and for many of the people I have guided, graces in prayer that we should never have acquired otherwise. There, then, is my first piece of advice to you if you would make progress in the art of contemplation: Seek her patronage and ask for her intercession before you start out on this way. She has been given the charisma of drawing down the Holy Spirit on the Church, as she did at the Annunciation and at Pentecost, when she prayed with the Apostles. If you get her to pray with you and for you, you will be very fortunate indeed."

This, then, is Mary, the help of all Christians because the contemplative active. And as such, she is the star that prepares the coming of the rising sun, Christ. Christians can do without Californian socialite-astrologers. The Venerable Bede, whose memory we celebrate today, already knew this when he opened his treatise, "De natura rerum", with these words: "I, Bede, servant of God, have summarized in brief notices the various natures of things and the broad periods of the passing age. You who read the stars, I beseech you, look with fixed mind above to the everlasting day." Amen.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


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