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Mother of Perpetual Help

by John O'Connell

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    John O'Connell provides a brief history of the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help from the late 15th century to present day.
  • Larger Work:
    The Catholic Faith
  • Pages: 47
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May / June 2002

God's ways are mysterious; Providence uses many different means to accomplish the Divine will. This truth of faith can be readily seen in the history of the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help.

In 1497 a merchant purloined an icon of the Madonna and Child from the island of Crete and brought it to Rome. Soon after the merchant arrived in Rome, he fell gravely ill and died. Before he died he confided to a friend about the icon and requested that it be properly enshrined in a church. After some delay, on March 27, 1499, the Augustinians solemnly transferred the icon to their church of St. Matthew's located midway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. There the people of Rome venerated the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help and many miracles occurred because of the intercession of the Madonna. St. Matthew's became a popular site for pilgrimages.

Then in 1798 French troops occupied Rome. The French general who then governed Rome decided to destroy 30 Roman churches. St. Matthew's was one of the churches razed by the impious French. Although the Augustinians had taken the icon with them, it was generally believed to have been destroyed.

When Pope Blessed Pius IX invited the Redemptorists in the middle of the 19th century to build a church in Rome, they selected a vacant lot located midway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran not knowing that it was the site where St. Matthew's once stood. Eventually the story about the miraculous icon and its whereabouts surfaced. Pope Pius IX then ordered that the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help be brought to the new Redemptorist church in Rome, St. Alphonsus.

On April 26, 1866, the Redemptorists and the faithful of Rome processed in the Esquiline district of Rome with the holy icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help and solemnly enshrined it above the high altar in St. Alphonsus. During the procession two ill children were miraculously cured. These miracles did much to further devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Pope Blessed Pius IX instructed the Redemptorists to make the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help known, and they complied admirably by spreading copies of the image and devotion to our Mother of Perpetual Help around the world. Today the icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the most widely known and beloved images of Our Lady in the world.

The icon is a traditional Byzantine iconic representation of the Holy Virgin and her Child Jesus, although this icon reflects a Western artistic influence: a softening of the figures features and conveying a sense of action and emotion. The features of the Mother and Child are softer, more natural than in typical Byzantine icon. And the loose sandal on the foot of the Child indicates that the Blessed Mother has quickly picked up the Child Jesus to embrace Him.

The Child has an adult's face to symbolize the Divine Intelligence that Our Lord Jesus Christ always possessed. Two angels hold the instruments of the Passion as a prophecy of Christ's Passion and Death. Our Lady has a sorrowful countenance, yet she is gazing not at her Son but at the viewer of the icon. The Christ Child is clutching His Mother's hand. This icon masterfully evokes a compassionate response from the attentive viewer. Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.

© 2002 Ignatius Press

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