The Redemptorists' devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
On August 1, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Alphonsus Liguori who was the founder of the religious order of priests known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer more popularly referred to as the Redemptorist fathers. Among other ministries, the Redemptorists are most attached to devotion to the image of the Virgin Mary under the title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This is an image that has been very popular among Filipinos of all generations.
St. Alphonsus Liguori founded his religious order based on the call to imitate the example of Jesus the Redeemer. As such, his order is missionary in nature although the members are not confined to ministry only in developing nations. Nonetheless, St. Alphonsus formed his priests to share with the entire world the gift of redemption in Christ Jesus.
One of the ways the Redemptorists have done this is through devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help (feast day is June 27th). Filipino Catholics may know perhaps the most famous of their parishes in the Philippines located in Baclaran, Parañaque City. The Redemptorists have been entrusted with the care of the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help since 1865 when Pope Pius IX requested that they become the official caretakers of the beloved image of Mary. Since then, the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has been kept in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Rome. Since the icon contains within it several symbols referring to Jesus' role as the Redeemer, devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help has been a valued way the Redemptorist fathers have been able to continue their mission in the world.
The original icon is believed to have been written (N.B.—in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings, icons are considered to be written rather than painted) by a person of Greek origin because of the style of face that was given to Mary and the other figures in the image. Specifically, the icon is believed to have come from the island of Crete which had produced many of the popular icons that had spread throughout ancient Europe. The icon was written on a hard nut wood with a gold leaf background.
Originally, sacred images were not depicted with a halo or anything of that nature. The halos in the image along with the crowns on the heads of the Virgin Mary and Jesus were added later. In this particular icon, the Virgin Mary is dressed in dark red which has been a symbol of Christ's Passion. She is covered in a blue mantle representing the Virgin Mary's perpetual virginity. She has a star on her forehead pointing to her role as the Star of the Sea. The stylized cross to the left of this star is said to be an indication of the particular school of iconography that wrote the icon.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help carries Jesus in her arms with her fingers virtually pointing to him. Looking at the image closely, the Virgin Mary actually seems disproportionately larger than Jesus who is depicted to be more a young boy of perhaps ten or twelve years old rather than an infant. It is said that this was intentional because the iconographer wished peoples' attention to be drawn to what the Virgin Mary seemingly desired to convey through her image. In fact, as one looks at the icon immediately the eyes are drawn to the face of the Virgin who seems to make a plea to the faithful looking at her.
Perhaps what Our Mother of Perpetual Help teaches is to look at Jesus as the Redeemer of the world. According to the legend of the icon, the young Jesus ran to his mother after being frightened by a visit by the Archangels Sts. Michael and Gabriel, both depicted in the icon. On the left is St. Michael who carries with him the lance and sponge associated with Jesus' crucifixion. On the opposite side is St. Gabriel who presents to Jesus the cross and nails that would become the instrument of his death. In his haste to find the comfort of his mother, Jesus almost loses a sandal. Popular religiosity has proposed the loose sandal to be an image of the lost soul struggling to cling to Jesus as the Savior.
As stated, the Redemptorists were not the original custodians of this image. The original was said to have been discovered by a merchant in the 15th century who tried to keep it for his own self. It was stolen and recovered a couple of times. Then, during the French occupation of Rome in the 18th century, the Augustinian friars rescued the icon from being destroyed. Later, the Redemptorist fathers eventually purchased land that had been a site of an ancient church and was given the responsibility of guarding the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help along with the devotion attached to the icon.
In a unique way, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has allowed the Redemptorists to continue their mission. Mary holds Jesus the Redeemer. The instruments of Jesus' redeeming death may seem to be frightening and many faithful may also have become overcome by similar fears in life. However, the eyes of Our Mother of Perpetual Help seem to say it all. They seem to remind the faithful that even though the Christian life can be scary she points to Jesus as if to tell his disciples "trust in him because he alone is your Redeemer."