Feast of Mary Help of Christians

Mary Help of Christians is one of the numerous names by which we have come to know and love Mary. It refers specifically to the aid that Mary gives as intercession, meaning one who prays with and for us to God.

Pope Pius VII was imprisoned by Napoleon in 1808 and was held captive for nearly six years. Following his release he instituted May 24th as the feast day of Mary Help of Christians, in gratitude for her intercession on his behalf.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, St. John Bosco had a particular reverence for this title and made Mary Help of Christians the patroness of his religious order, the Salesians. He also helped raise funds and build a basilica in her honour.

Celebrations of Mary Help of Christians in Maynooth

The homily by Fr John E. Butler

A tourist in Turin asking a local for directions to the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians might well get an indifferent shrug in reply. However if the same tourist were to ask the same local for directions to Don Bosco’s Madonna, the reply is likely to be emphatic si, si, si and a readiness to take the tourist to the Basilica. In the minds of the local people, Help of Christians and Don Bosco are synonymous.

Bosco’s family were poor country people but their faith was clear and strong. The mother of God was the one the children were taught to greet three times a day. Did they hear the church bells or was it a basic instinct respond to a pressing need?

In that area the pious devotion of the people saw the Virgin Mary as the Mother of Jesus, as the Mother of God and as the Mother of the Church. There was also devotion to Our Lady of Consolation. In fact the title of Mary Help of Christians came in some unknown way from Munich in the seventeenth century. There was a strong sodality movement in that part of Italy at that time.

Bosco lived through most of the nineteenth century and during that time the rise of nationalism and the machinations of Austria and France all presented a great threat not only to the Papal States but even to the Papacy itself. It would be natural for Bosco and like minded people to be in defensive mode for the Papacy and so the Church. The memory of the Battle of Lepanto was historical but an encouraging awareness for pious people.

The three Synoptic Gospels were written during the first century of the Christian Era. The Gospel of St John came much later in the second century. He had lots of time to reflect on the events of Christ’s life. In his story there was much emphasis on the meaning of events. It is significant then, that St John would place the account of the public ministry of Jesus in between two events showing Mary in a key role, even coming to the help of the nascent church. The first was the marriage feast at Cana. She prompted Jesus to reveal his true personhood. The second Marian event was at the foot of the Cross. The grieving Mother was linked to the event that brought salvation to the nascent Church. Yes, she was grieving but she was also sharing in the Atonement for the believers.

The emerging Church battled with the challenge to express the reality underpinning the faith of believers. The Council of Ephasus and the Council of Chalcedon both grappled with the need to establish the nature of Christ. In doing this there was no hesitation in addressing Mary as Theodokos, the God Bearer, the Mother of God and also with the title Mother of the Church.

In our times, with the abandoning of faith being widespread the Help of Christians in supporting the trust of the faithful is paramount. We are called to express our faith in faith action and so the Help of Christians.