Of the countless portraits depicting the Madonna and Child there is none more widely venerated than that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Facsimiles of this ancient icon can be found in almost every country throughout the entire world. Wherever Her devout clients are, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is sure to comfort and assist them with many graces and often great miracles.
The origin of the picture is not certain. One opinion is that it was painted by a Greek artist in the thirteenth century. Yet some famous Marian portraits, including the Madonna of Saint Luke, enshrined at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland, are traditionally believed to have been painted by Saint Luke. The portrait of Perpetual Help stands in this category, for added to a longstanding tradition are significant historical facts supporting the contention that it was rendered by the artist-Evangelist.
We know that Saint Luke, after recording the journeys of Saint Paul, became the Apostle’s close companion and disciple. Their travels at one point brought them to Crete, where their unfinished labors were entrusted to a faithful convert, Saint Titus, whom they made the first Bishop of that island. Since the only document concerning the history of our famous icon refers exclusively to Crete, it is reasonable to conclude that Saint Luke could have left this miraculous picture with Saint Titus.
This Vatican document, dating back to the fifteenth century, narrates a story of a wealthy and pious merchant from this Mediterranean isle who sheltered the picture in his house. Apparently his intention was to protect the sacred image from desecration by the Mohammedan Turks, then swiftly descending upon southern Europe. As the conquering infidels moved closer to Greece, many Cretans became apprehensive. This ever-increasing threat prompted great numbers to flee from the island to safer mainland countries.
The pious merchant was among those who, on one occasion, boarded a vessel sailing for Italy, bringing with him, of course, the painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. When the ship reached deep waters there suddenly arose a most terrible storm. As waves began to completely cover the helpless vessel even the experienced sailors feared all would be lost. Amidst the confusion and despair the Cretan merchant quickly retrieved the holy portrait from his cabin and, returning to the deck, he held it up to the sky, repeatedly beseeching the Mother of Succor for aid. The other passengers, following his example, intoned the same prayer. Within a few minutes the skies were cleared and the ocean calmed, thus enabling the ship to continue safely to port. This event, besides marking the first recorded miracle attributed to the picture, is the earliest known invocation of Mary’s patronage under Her consoling title, “Our Perpetual Help.”
Our Lady makes known Her will
Upon arriving in Italy the merchant went to Rome, taking up residence in a friend’s house. He was filled with deep gratitude for the special favor granted him by the Mother of God, and was confident that Divine Providence had brought him and the picture safely to the Eternal City. Indeed, he felt it might very well be God’s design for the picture one day to act as a channel of great grace for the Universal Church. When, therefore, this pious exile began to suffer from a sudden critical illness, he confided to his Roman friend the history of the treasured picture. Upon hearing this miraculous story, the Roman promised that, in the event that his houseguest should die, he would turn the picture over to a church. The Cretan’s sickness proved fatal, and the events that followed are quoted here from the Vatican document.
“After the merchant’s death the picture was found among his goods; but the Roman’s wife prevailed upon him, with many entreaties, to keep it in the house. And having placed it in her bedroom, she kept it there for nine months. The glorious Virgin admonished the Roman in a vision not to keep the picture, but to put it in some more honorable place. He paid no heed. After some time had elapsed, the Virgin again returned, admonishing him not to keep the picture in his house. He disregarded this second vision, and so the Virgin admonished him once more, adding that if he did not restore it to some church, he would die an untimely death.
“Whereupon the Roman began to fear, and in the morning recounted everything to his wife, beseeching her to donate the picture to some church. She expressed astonishment that he should say such things. She insisted that she was a Christian, not a pagan; that they were not the only ones who kept such a picture in their homes; nay, that there never was a Christian so utterly degraded as not to have in his home some picture of the Virgin or of Christ crucified or a similar image.
“Accordingly, the Roman yielded to his wife. Again the Virgin returned, telling him in a vision: ‘Behold, many times I have admonished you, and urged you even with threats to take me forth from your home, and you did not want to believe. It is necessary now that you first be taken forth, so that, afterwards, I may find a more honorable place.’ Shortly afterwards the Roman took sick, and died.
“Then the Virgin came in a vision to the Roman’s daughter and said: ‘Go to your mother and grandfather and say to them: “Holy Mary of Perpetual Help tells you to take Her from your house; otherwise all of you will die soon.”‘ The girl related the vision to her mother. Then the mother began to fear, because she, too, had had a similar vision, and, realizing that she had been the cause of her husband’s death, she began to weep, and straightway decided once and for all to remove the picture from her house.
“A neighbor noticing her weeping, implored her to tell why she was so sad. The mother recounted everything to her concerning her husband’s vision, how she had disbelieved, and how, because of her protests and objections, he had died; that she grieved because she was the cause of her husband’s death. The neighbor made answer: ‘You deceive yourself; in fact, it is absurd to believe these things. The Virgin Mary is in heaven and is not concerned with what is done to Her painted pictures here below. If you were to put it in the fire, the flames would consume it just like any other piece of wood! But if you are so timid,’ she concluded, ‘give it to me.’ And she added many other words of abuse.
“That evening when the neighbor went home with the picture, she was stricken with a strange disease. By praying, and making a promise before the picture, she was cured.”
Again Our Lady appeared to the widow’s daughter. Having already witnessed the death of her husband and the cure of her neighbor, as well as her own apparition from the Virgin Mother, the woman was most anxious to learn of the child’s second vision. The little girl told her mother that Mary wanted Her image venerated between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. Of the hundreds of churches in Rome at this time, only one satisfied Our Lady’s specification-the Augustinian Fathers’ Church of St. Matthew the Apostle.
The widow, wishing to comply immediately with Our Lady’s latest request, surrendered the picture to the care of the Augustinians. The Prior at St. Matthew’s gratefully accepted the sacred image and began to make arrangements for its solemn enshrinement. On March 27, 1499, a procession through the streets of Rome, blessed by an abundance of spectacular miracles, became the first public veneration of the holy picture in the Eternal City. Immediately there followed a ceremony for its enthronement above the main altar of St. Matthew’s, where for three hundred years it remained a source of great consolation to sin-laden man.
A brief victory for Satan
Little did anyone realize, in 1499, that the glories of this ancient icon would one day be temporarily all but forgotten. But, in 1798, with the invasion of Rome by the French Masonic forces under Napoleon, St. Matthew’s and thirty other Catholic churches were reduced to ruins. The Augustinian Fathers evacuated their beloved church in advance of the hateful deed, retiring to St. Mary’s Church in Posterula. They took with them the miraculous portrait, and privately venerated it for some sixty-eight years, protecting it from iconoclastic ingrates.
The avowed enemies of the Holy Catholic Church, led by Satan, had won a major battle in uprooting public devotion to Our Lady through Her favored painting. But the same Woman whom the Book of Ecclesiasticus prophetically described as “the mother of holy hope” did not forsake Her suffering children of the Church. The forces of darkness enjoyed only a temporary triumph as the Blessed Virgin, in Her patience, prepared the means of restoring and tremendously increasing the former glories of Her famous portrait. And destined to be highly instrumental in this, Her victory, was the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
The Redemptorists were founded by the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, who died in 1787. His disciples moved from their original house in Nocera de Pagani to Rome in 1855 by request of Blessed Pope Pius IX. For their new monastery the Congregation purchased an old Roman palace on the Via Merulana. The palace itself they converted into a residence and, next to it, they constructed a beautiful church in honor of Saint Alphonsus. Now in choosing this site on the Via Merulana, the only road between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, they had unknowingly built their church almost on the exact spot where St. Matthew’s Church once stood.
Close to sixty years had elapsed since the destruction of that Augustinian church and the transfer of the picture to Posterula, when, in 1863, the first step toward restoring the painting’s previous fame was taken. A Redemptorist priest discovered the interesting facts about the old church that once stood on the present site of St. Alphonsus Church, and about the miraculous portrait that it once sheltered. In mentioning this to his fellow religious during recreation one evening, this seemingly trivial information stirred more than trivial interest. Another priest, Michael Marchi, then remembered having seen this picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the Augustinian Monastery in Posterula. Often having served Mass there as a young boy, he had befriended one of the old brothers who showed young Michael the beautiful icon and told him of the once-famous Church of St. Matthew. All were impressed by the story, but no one, including Father Marchi, knew of the Blessed Mother’s command that the relic be venerated on that location.
One month later, however, the Redemptorist Fathers came to discover this heavenly directive. At a church in Rome a Jesuit priest preached on the “lost Madonna of Perpetual Help,” telling in his discourse of Our Lady’s repeated request that Her image be enshrined between the two famous basilicas. News of the sermon stirred excitement in the Redemptorist house, where for several weeks the story told by Father Marchi had been a topic of great interest. The facts at hand seemed to indicate Our Lady’s will that the picture be entrusted to the Redemptorists and honored at their Church of St. Alphonsus. The Superior General of the Order, Most Reverend Nicholas Mauron, cautiously waited two years before taking decisive action in the matter, while the Redemptorist Community at large committed themselves to ardent prayer, petitioning Mary to choose them as the guardians of Her sacred image.
Our Lady’s triumph
Finally, on December 11, 1865, Father Mauron presented all the facts concerning the picture to Pope Pius IX. The Holy Father, upon hearing the story, expressed much interest and proceeded that very day to make the necessary arrangements for the transfer of the holy icon back to the site chosen by Our Lady.
Five weeks later, the Redemptorists received the miraculous portrait, and in April of 1866 it was solemnly enshrined at the Church of St. Alphonsus. The picture was carried through the streets of Rome, as it had been 367 years before, when a procession led to St. Matthew’s. The Blessed Mother made known Her pleasure by showering the faithful who lined the streets with tremendous favors. The Pope himself visited the new shrine during the Triduum of Thanksgiving that commenced the following day. Thousands of pilgrims followed his example, as great crowds filled the church weeks after the festivities were over.
On June 23, 1867, the Vatican took the final measures in officially recognizing the painting as truly miraculous. Two gold crowns were placed on the heads of Jesus and Mary, an honor bestowed by the Dean of the Vatican Chapter, approving public veneration of the image, its miracles, and its history. As a result, devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help grew tremendously throughout the world. Within nine years Pope Pius IX had organized an archconfraternity to promote the new devotion, and had established the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help as the Sunday immediately preceding the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.
Catholic faithful the world over are indebted to the sons of Saint Alphonsus for the timely restoration of this most favored devotion to the Mother of Perpetual Help, to counter the evils of the blasphemous age of Masonic “Enlightenment.” Likewise it was most fitting that the Mother of God chose to so honor with Her miraculous portrait the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer just shortly after the death of its most recent saint, John Nepomucene Neumann, the holy American bishop and fervent apostle of the Immaculate Conception.