Our Lady of Perpetual Help

By Tonia Long at America Needs Fatima:

FEAST JUNE 27

Why is His Sandal Dangling? And other questions answered about devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

“Perpetual” is not a word we use every day. So let’s familiarize ourselves with its meaning to better understand the power of this particular title of Our Lady.

Perpetual: adjective meaning [1] never-ending or changing; [2] occurring repeatedly; so frequent as to seem endless and uninterrupted.

Can you think of anything positive in this post-modern world that fits this description? When it is apparent that everything is changing to the point that most have forgotten what the new normal is even as it is replaced almost daily with something else, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is here to renew our sanity and a sense of stability.


Early Beginnings of This Devotion

According to popular tradition, a merchant acquired the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help from the island of Crete and had it shipped to Rome towards the end of the fifteenth century. During the voyage, a terrible storm arose, threatening the lives of all on the ship. The passengers and crew prayed to our Blessed Mother, and were saved.

Once in Rome, the merchant, dying, ordered that the image should be displayed for public veneration. His friend, who retained the image, received further instructions in a dream to his little daughter. The Blessed Mother appeared to her as she slept and expressed the desire for the image to be venerated in a Church between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome. The image, consequently, was housed at the Church of St. Matthew, and became known as “The Madonna of Saint Matthew.” Pilgrims flocked to the church for the next three hundred years, and great graces were bestowed upon the faithful.

St Major Mary & St John Lateran Basilica's
The Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome, between which Our Lady expressed the desire for her image to be venerated.


After Napoleon’s troops destroyed the Church of St. Matthew in 1812, the image was transferred to the Church of St. Mary in Posterula, and remained there for nearly forty years. There, the image was neglected and forgotten.

By divine providence, the forgotten image was rediscovered. The story of this rediscovery is impressive in its simplicity. Over the course of several years, an Augustinian monk took pains to point the icon out to a young altar boy named Michael. The monk impressed on the young lad the importance and beauty of the image, even though he himself did not know of its origins. Michael never forgot the words of his mentor. When he later became a Redemptorist Father, he told his fellow priests about Our Lady of Perpetual Help. One thing led to another and in 1865 the Superior General of the Redemptorist order wrote to the Holy Father, asking permission to “adopt” the image. 

Blessed Pope Pius IX sent a letter dated 11 December 1865 to Father General Mauron, C.Ss.R., ordered that the image be once again publicly venerated in Via Merulana, the new church of Saint Alphonsus. The same Pontiff directed the Augustinian friars to surrender the icon to the Redemptorist priests, on the condition that the Redemptorists must supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or a good copy of the icon in exchange as a gesture of goodwill. Pope Pius IX instructions to the Redemptorists were: 

The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Sancta Maria in Posterula and will tell him that it is Our desire that the image of Most Holy Mary, referred to in this petition, be again placed between Saint John and Saint Mary Major; the Redemptorists shall replace it with another adequate picture. 

Upon its official transfer, Pope Pius IX finally gave his Apostolic Blessing and titled the icon Mater de Perpetuo Succursu (Mother of Perpetual Help). When the image was being carried in a solemn procession through the streets, a young child was cured, the first of many recorded miracles attributed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. 

Interior of the Church of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Rome, Italy
Interior of the Church of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Rome, Italy, where the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is kept suspended above the main altar.

Icon Details and the Meaning of Its Symbols

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the most widely known icon in the world.

It is a Byzantine icon that is painted on wood and measures about 20″ tall. It depicts the Blessed Mother, under the title of “Mother of God,” holding the child Jesus. The image belongs to a class of icons known as kardiotissa, from the Greek word kardia, meaning “heart.” This type of icon portrays mercy, compassion, and tenderness because the Blessed Mother holds the child Jesus close to her heart.

Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a 15th Century Marian Byzantine Icon.


Icons are not meant to be merely physical representations of the subject matter but instead artistic portrayals of eternal truths. In this case, the artist has the child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future passion, and in His anguish, He runs to His mother to be consoled. Notice that His left sandal is dangling from His foot because that indicates the haste with which He ran to His mother.

The central image is, of course, the Virgin Mary. The Greek letters MP and ƟY at the top of the image are abbreviations for Meter Theou, which means “Mother of God.” Mary is wearing the colors of virgins (red) and motherhood (blue), but they are also the colors of royalty. Her face is serene and dignified, yet she is sorrowful. Her eyes are directed not at her Son but at us, the viewer as if to remind us that sin is what caused her Son’s suffering. At the same time, just as she comforts her Son, she also comforts us in our times of affliction because she is our spiritual mother. We can always turn to her in times of need to receive her help. Her main goal is to lead us to her Son. Hence, her eyes are also filled with compassion and love.

The eight-pointed star on Mary’s veil reminds us that she is the dawn announcing the coming of Christ, the Star of the Sea who leads us to her Son.

Mary’s mouth is small to indicate her spirit of silence and prayer. Her eyes are large, for they see all of our troubles and needs, and are always turned toward us.

The child is Jesus, who is portrayed as a miniature adult rather than a child. This could indicate Jesus’ infinite, divine knowledge as God. The letters next to Him, IC XC, are an abbreviation for Iesous Christos, the Greek form of “Jesus Christ.” Though God in the flesh, in His humanity He still feels anguish over His impending passion, and consequently, He flees to His mother for comfort and grasps her hand.

Christ’s hands, turned palms down into His Mother’s, indicate that He has placed the graces of the Redemption in her keeping. Our Lady’s hand does not clasp those of her Son, but remains open, inviting us to put our hands in hers along with those of Jesus.

There are two angels in the image who bear the instruments of Christ’s passion. The abbreviations next to them identify who they are. Saint Michael is on the left, bearing a spear, the wine-soaked sponge, and the crown of thorns. Saint Gabriel is on the right, bearing the cross and nails. Their hands are covered with a cloth, much like the cloth (humeral veil) used by a priest during Benediction when he blesses the congregation with the Blessed Sacrament contained in a monstrance (a metallic stand that usually has a star-burst design).

The color gold is a symbol of the resurrection and of Heaven, where both Jesus and Mary now reign in glory. Hence, it is used as the background color and the color of Jesus’ tunic. Also golden are the crowns or halos around Jesus and Mary, indicating their triumph as the King of Kings with His Queen Mother. So even though the icon depicts a foreboding vision of Christ’s suffering, it also conveys His victory over sin and death. 


Conclusion

By her God-given nature, a mother will always try to help her children, if there is any way that she possibly can. When we truly think of the Mother of God as our mother, we turn to her for help very often. It’s enormously hopeful and deeply comforting to know that her help for us is unending. The precious icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a physical reminder of that eternal truth.

For this reason alone, this image belongs in every Christian home. Knowing the symbolism embedded in the image will bring comfort and strength to those who take the time to turn to this unfailing Mother in their struggles. In the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, baby Jesus is frightened and flees into her arms. Seeing God himself seek comfort from His Holy Mother reminds us to do the same. This image inspires us to run to Mary for help, just as Christ did, in all the trials we face.

Looking at this image, we can hear Our Lady saying, “Yes, the life of a Christian will be very hard. But I will stay with you. You won’t have to do it alone.” And indeed she remains by our side, offering steady support and consolation, perpetually.

Prayers to Our Lady of Perpetual Help

O Lord Jesus Christ, who gave us your Mother Mary, whose renowned image we venerate, to be a Mother ever ready to help us; grant we beseech You, that we who constantly implore her motherly aid, may merit to enjoy perpetually the fruits of Your redemption, Who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.Mary’s powerful intercession on our behalf is expressed so beautifully by this great prayer, the Memorare, of St Bernard (who was so deeply loved by St Alphonsus!):

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you do I come; before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen!

Novena Prayers to Our Mother of Perpetual Help

First Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Behold at thy feet, 0 Mother of Perpetual Help, a wretched sinner who has recourse to thee and confides in thee. 0 Mother of mercy, have pity on me. I hear thee called by all the refuge and the hope of sinners: be then, my refuge and my hope. Assist me, for the love of Jesus Christ; stretch forth thy hand to a miserable fallen creature who recommends himself to thee, and who devotes himself to thy service for ever. I bless and thank Almighty God, who in His mercy has given me this confidence in thee, which I hold to be a pledge of my eternal salvation. It is true that in the past I have miserably fallen into sin, because I had not recourse to thee. I know that, with thy help, I shall conquer. I know. too, that thou wilt assist me, if I recommend myself to thee; but I fear that, in time of danger, I may neglect to call on thee, and thus lose my soul. The grace, then, I ask of thee, and this I beg, with all the fervor of my soul, that in all the attacks of hell I may ever have recourse to thee. O Mary, help me. 0 Mother of Perpetual Help, never suffer me to lose my God. Say 3 Hail Marys.

Second Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help

O Mother of Perpetual Help, grant that I may ever invoke thy most powerful name, which is the safeguard of the living and the salvation of the dying. O purest Mary, O sweetest Mary, let thy name henceforth be ever on my lips. Delay not, O Blessed Lady, to help me, whenever I call on thee; for, in all my temptations, in all my needs, I shall never cease to call on thee, ever repeating thy sacred name, Mary, Mary.

O what consolation, what sweetness, what confidence, what emotion, fill my soul when I utter thy sacred name, or even only think of thee. I thank the Lord for having given thee, for my good so sweet, so powerful, so lovely a name. But I will not be content with merely uttering thy name. Let my love for thee prompt me ever to hail thee, Mother of Perpetual Help. Say 3 Hail Marys.

Third Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help

O Mother of Perpetual Help, thou art the dispenser of all the gifts which God grants to us miserable sinners; and for this end He has made thee so powerful, so rich, and so bountiful, in order that thou mayest help us in our misery. Thou art the advocate of the most wretched and abandoned sinners who have recourse to thee: come to my aid, for I recommend myself to thee.

In thy hands I place my eternal salvation, and to thee I entrust my soul. Count me among thy most devoted servants; take me under thy protection, and it is enough for me. For, if thou protect me, I fear nothing; not from my sins, because thou wilt obtain for me the pardon of them; nor from the devils, because thou art more powerful than all hell together; nor even from Jesus, my judge, because by one prayer from thee He will be appeased.

But one thing I fear: that in the hour of temptation I may through negligence fail to have recourse to thee and thus perish miserably. Obtain for me, therefore, the pardon of my sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace ever to have recourse to thee, O Mother of Perpetual Help. Say 3 Hail Marys.

The Chaplet of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

This devotion is prayed on the Marian Rosary of 59 beads.

On the Crucifix, say the prayer: “Hail Holy Queen.”

On the large beads, say:
“Mary can help us,
Mary will help us,
Mary wants to help us,
Mary must help us.”

On the small beads, say:
“Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.”

Complete this Chaplet by praying the Memorare.

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