23 May 2024

Feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians

From Dom Prosper Guéranger's The Liturgical Year

Ever since our entrance upon the joys of the Paschal Season, scarcely a day has passed without the Calendar’s offering us some grand Mystery or Saint to honor; and all these have been radiant with the Easter sun. But of our Blessed Lady, there has not been a single Feast to gladden our hearts by telling us of some mystery or glory of this august Queen. The Feast of her Seven Dolours is sometimes kept in April—that is, when Easter Sunday falls on or after the 10th of that month; but May and June pass without any special solemnity in honor of the Mother of God. It would seem as though Holy Church wished to honor, by a respectful silence, the forty days during which Mary enjoyed the company of her Jesus, after his Resurrection. We, therefore, should never separate the Mother and the Son, if we would have our Easter meditations be in strict accordance with truth—and that, we surely must wish. During these forty days, Jesus frequently visits his Disciples, weak men and sinners as they are: can he, then, keep away from his Mother, now that he is so soon to ascend into heaven, and leave her for several long years here on earth? Our hearts forbid us to entertain the thought. We feel sure that he frequently visits her, and that, when not visibly present with her, she has him in her soul, in a way more intimate and real and delicious than any other creature could have.

No Feast could have given expression to such a mystery; and yet the Holy Ghost, who guides the spirit of the Church, has gradually led the Faithful to devote to the honoring Mary, in an especial manner, the entire Month of May, the whole of which comes, almost every year, under the glad season of Easter. No doubt, the loveliness of the May Month would, sometime or other, suggest the idea of consecrating it to the Holy Mother of God; but if we reflect on the divine and mysterious influence which guides the Church in all she does, we shall recognize, in this present instance, a heavenly inspiration which prompted the Faithful to unite their own joy with that of Mary’s, and spend this beautiful Month, which is radiant with their own Easter joy, in commemorating the maternal delight experienced, during that same period, by the Immaculate Mother when on earth.

Today, however, we have a Feast in honor of Mary. True—it is not one of those Feasts which are entered on the general Calendar of the Church; yet is it so widely spread, and this with the consent of the Holy See, that our Liturgical Year would have been incomplete without it. Its object is to honor the Mother of God as the Help of Christians—a title she has justly merited by the innumerable favors she has conferred upon Christendom. Dating from that day, whose anniversary we are soon to be celebrating, and on which the Holy Ghost descended upon Mary in the Cenacle, in order that she might begin to exercise over the Church Militant her power as Queen—who could tell the number of times that she has aided, by her protection, the Kingdom of her Son on earth?

Heresies have risen up, one after the other; they were violent; they were frequently supported by the great ones of this world; each of them was resolved on the destruction of the True Faith—and yet, one after the other, they have dwindled away or fall into impotency; or are gradually sinking by internal discord; and Holy Church tells us that it is Mary who “alone destroys all heresies throughout the whole world.” (Gaude, Maria Virgo! cunctas hæreses sola interemisti in universo mundo.—Office of the Blessed Virgin; Matins, vii. Antiphon) If public scandals or persecutions, or the tyranny of secular interference have, at times, threatened to stay the progress of the Church—Mary has stretched forth her arm, the obstacles were removed, and Jesus’ Spouse continued her onward march, leaving her foes and her fetters behind her. All this was vividly brought before the mind of the saintly Pontiff, Pius V, by the victory of Lepanto, gained, by Mary’s intercession, over the Turkish Fleet, and he resolved to add one more title to the glorious ones given to our Lady in the Litany: the title he added was, Auxilium Christianorum, Help of Christians.

Our present century, the 19th, has had the happiness of seeing another Pontiff, also named Pius, institute a Feast under this same title—a Feast which is intended to commemorate the Help bestowed on Christendom, and in all ages, by the Mother of God. nothing could be happier than the choice of the day on which this Feast was to be kept. On the 24th of May, in the year 1814, there was witnessed in Rome the most magnificent triumph that has yet been recorded in the annals of the Church. That was a grand day, whereon Constantine marked out the foundations for the Vatican Basilica in honor of the Prince of the Apostles; Sylvester stood by and blessed the Emperor, who had just been converted to the true Faith: but important as was this event, it was but a sign of the last and decisive victory won by the Church, in the then-recent persecution of Dioclesian. That was a grand day, whereon Leo III, Vicar of the King of kings, crowned Charlemagne with the imperial diadem and, by his apostolic power, gave continuance to the long interrupted line of Emperors: but Leo the Third, by this, did but give an official and solemn expression to the power which the Church had already frequently exercised in the newly constituted nations, which received from her the idea of Christian government, the consecration of their rights, and the grace that was to enable them to fulfill their duties. That was a grand day, whereon Gregory IX took back to the City of Peter the Papal Throne, which had been pent up at Avignon for seventy sad years: but Gregory IX, in this, did but fulfill a duty, and his predecessors, had they willed it, might have effected this return to Rome, which the necessities of Christendom so imperatively called for.

Yes, all these were glorious days; but the 24th of May, of 1814, surpasses them all. Pius VII re-entered Rome amidst the acclamations of the Holy City, whose entire population went forth to meet him, holding palm branches in their hands, and greeting him with their hosannas of enthusiastic joy. He had been a captive for five years, during which the spiritual government of the Christian world had suffered a total suspension. It was not the Allied Powers, who had made common cause against his oppressor, that broke the Pontiff’s fetters; the very tyrant who kept him from Rome, had given him permission to return at the close of the preceding year; but the Pontiff chose his own time, and did not leave Fontainebleau till the 25th of January. Rome, whither he was about to return, had been made a part of the French Empire five years previously, and by a Decree in which was cited the name of Charlemagne! The City of Peter had been reduced to a head-town of a Department, with a Prefect for its administrator; and, with a view to making men forget that it was the City of the Vicars of Christ, its name was given as a title to the heir-presumptive of the Imperial crown of France.

What a day that 24th of May, which witnessed the triumphant return of the Pontiff into the Holy City, whence he had been dragged, during the night, by the soldiers of an ambitious tyrant! He made the journey in short stages, meeting, on his way, the Allied Armies of Europe, which recognized his right as King. This right is superior, both in antiquity and dignity, to that of all other monarchs; and all, no matter whether they be heretics, schismatics, or Catholics, must admit it, were it only on the strength of its being a historical fact.

But what we have so far said is not sufficient to give an adequate idea of the greatness of the prodigy thus achieved by our Lady, the Help of Christians. In order to have a just appreciation of it, we must remember that the miracle was not wrought in the age of Sylvester and Constantine, or of St. Leo the Third and Charlemagne, or of the great prophetess Catherine of Siena, who made known the commands of God to the people of Italy and to the Popes of Avignon. The age that witnessed this wondrous event was the 19th, and that, too, when it was under the degrading influence of Voltairianism, and there were still living the authors and abettors of the crimes and impieties that resulted from the principles taught in the 18th century. Everything was adverse to such a glorious and unexpected triumph; Catholic feeling was far from being roused as it now is; the action of God’s providence had to show itself in a direct and visible manner: and to let the Christian world know that such was the case, Rome instituted the annual Feast of the 24th of May as an offering of acknowledgment to Mary, the Help of Christians.

Let us now weigh the importance of the twofold Restoration which was wrought on this day by the intercession of the Holy Mother of God. Pius the Seventh had been forcibly taken from Rome and dethroned; on this 24th of May, he was reinstated in Rome, both as Pope and as Temporal Sovereign. On the respective Feasts of St. Peter’s Chair at Rome and Antioch, we gave our readers the doctrine of the Church, which teaches us that the succession to the rights conferred by Christ upon St. Peter belongs to the Bishop of Rome. From this it follows that the residence in the city of Rome is both the right and obligation of the successor of St. Peter, save in the case of his deeming a temporary absence to be demanded by circumstances. Whosoever, therefore, by means of physical force, keeps the Sovereign Pontiff out of Rome, or prevents him from residing there—is acting in opposition to the Divine Will; for the Pastor ought to be in the midst of his flock; and Rome having been made, by Christ, the head of all Churches, these have a right to find in Rome him who is both the Infallible Doctor of faith, and the source of all spiritual jurisdiction. The first blessing, therefore, for which we are indebted to Mary, on this day, is that she brought back the Pastor to his flock, and restored the supreme government of holy Church to its normal state.

The second is her having reinstated the Pontiff in possession of his Temporal Power, which is the surest guarantee of his being independent in the exercise of his Spiritual Power. We have but to consult history, and we shall learn what miseries and dangers have followed from the Popes being the subject of any earthly monarch. The experience of the past shows us that the city of Rome, if under any other government than that of the Papacy, excites the mistrust of Christendom as to the liberty necessary for the due election of the Supreme Pontiff. God, in his all-seeing wisdom, provided against what would have been a perpetual source of anarchy in the Church. From the earliest commencement of the Christian Era, he prepared the foundation of the temporal dominion of the Papacy over Rome and its territory, even before the sword of the Franks was drawn for the defense, the establishing, and increasing this precious Domain, which is the property of Christendom. Whosoever dares to invade it, attacks the liberty of the entire Church; and we know, as St. Anselm says, that “there is nothing in this world more loved by God than the liberty of his Church:” hence the severe punishments that have ever followed such as offered violence to it.

The Pontifical Sovereignty over Rome and the states belonging to the Church, has arisen from necessity—but that necessity belongs to the supernatural order of things. It follows that this Sovereignty surpasses all others in dignity, and that, in consequence of its being consecrated to God’s service on earth, it is to be considered as a sacred thing. He that dares to invade it is guilty not only of a spoliation, but of sacrilege; and the anathemas of the Church lie heavily upon him. Here again, we have history telling us how terrible has been the lot of all those who, despising the anathema, refused to make restitution to the Church, and dared to defy the justice of Him who conferred on Peter the power of binding and loosing.

Finally, Authority being the basis of every society, and its maintenance being of the utmost importance to the preservation of order and justice—it should be mainly respected and upheld in the Roman Pontiff, for he is the highest representative of Authority on earth, his temporal Power is by far the oldest in existence, and his Kingly character is enhanced by the union of supreme Spiritual power. He, therefore, that attacks or overthrows the temporal sovereignty of the Pope is an enemy to every government; for there is no other that can bear comparison with this in merit and rightful possession; and if it be not spared, no other is safe.

Let us, then, give thanks to the Blessed Mother of God, on this feast of the twenty-fourth day of May, which has been instituted in commemoration of the twofold blessing she thus brought upon the world—the preservation of the Church, and the preservation of Society. Let us unite in the fervent acclamations of the then-loyal citizens of Rome and, like them, sing, with all the glad joy of our Easter Alleluia, our greetings of Hosanna to the Vicar of Christ—the Father of that dear Land, our common Country. The remembrance of St. Peter’s deliverance from prison, and his restoration to liberty, must have been vividly on the minds of that immense concourse of people, whose love for their Pontiff was redoubled by the sufferings he had gone through. As the triumphal chariot, on which he had been placed, came near the Flaminian Gate, the horses were unyoked, and the Pontiff was conveyed by the people to the Vatican Basilica, where a solemn thanksgiving was made, over the Tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.

But let us not close the day without admiring the merciful intervention of our Lady, the Help of Christians. If the protection she gives to the faithful sometimes necessitates her showing severity to them that were the tyrants—her maternal heart is full of compassion for the vanquished, and she extends her Help even to them. Thus it was with the haughty Emperor, over whom she triumphed on the twenty-fourth of May;—she would then bring him back to humble repentance and to the practice of his religious duties. A messenger from the Island of Saint Helena was one day ushered into the presence of Pius the Seventh. The exiled Napoleon, whom he had consecrated Emperor in the Church of Notre Dame, and whose after conduct brought him under the ban of excommunication, now besought the Pontiff, the true and only King of Rome, to allow him to be re-admitted to those spiritual blessings of which he had been justly deprived. Our Lady was preparing a second victory.

Pius VII, whose name the fallen Emperor could never pronounce without emotion, and whom he called “a lamb,”—Pius VII, who had so courageously braved public opinion by giving hospitality, at Rome, to the members of the unfortunate Napoleon family—readily complied with the request thus made to him; and the holy Sacrifice of the Mass was, shortly afterwards, offered up in the presence of the illustrious exile of Saint Helena. Our Lady of Help was advancing her conquest.

But before granting pardon, the Justice of God had required a full and public expiation. He who had been the instrument of salvation to millions of souls, by restoring Religion to France, was not to be lost; but he had impiously imprisoned the Sovereign Pontiff in the castle of Fontainebleau; and it was in that very castle that he had afterwards to sign the deed of his own abdication. For five years he had held captive the Vicar of Christ; for five years, he himself had to endure the sufferings and humiliation of captivity. Heaven accepted the retribution, and left Mary to complete her victory. Reconciled with the Church, and fortified by the holy Sacraments which prepare the Christian for eternity, Napoleon yielded up his soul into the hands of his Maker on the 5th of May—the Month that is sacred to Mary, and gives us the Feast we are keeping today. The day chosen by God, from all eternity, for Napoleon’s death, was the Feast of St. Pius V; on which same Feast, Pius VII was receiving the congratulations of his faithful Romans. The name Pius signifies compassion and mercy; it is the glorious name which our lips have been repeating for the last five and twenty years, the name of Pius the Ninth. It is one of the names given to God, in the Sacred Scripture: Pius et misericors est Deus: God is compassionate and merciful. Mary, too, is compassionate; it is the title we give her in one of our prayers: O clemens, O Pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria! She is ever ready with her aid, be the danger one that affects the Church at large, or a single individual soul: she is the Help of Christians, and, as such, we honor her on this Feast. God has willed her to be so; and we are but complying with his wishes, when we have an unreserved confidence in the protection of this powerful Queen, this loving Mother.

Let us now read the account, as given in today’s Liturgy, of the great event that prompted the institution of our feast:

The Faithful have frequently seen it proved, by miraculous intervention, that the Mother of God is ever ready, with her Help, to repel the enemies of Religion. It was on this account, that, after the signal victory gained by the Christians, over the Turks, in the Gulf of Lepanto, through the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin, the holy Pope Pius V ordered, that to the other titles given to the Queen of Heaven, in the Litany of Loretto, there should be added this of Help of Christians. But, one of the most memorable proofs of this her protection, and one which may be regarded as an incontestable miracle, is that which happened during the Pontificate of Pius VII. By the intrigues and armed violence of certain impious men, the Pontiff had been driven from the Apostolic See of Peter, and was kept in close confinement, mainly at Savona, for upwards of five years. During this period, by a persecution unheard of in any previous age, every possible means was resorted to in order to prevent his governing the Church of God. When lo! suddenly and to the surprise of men, he was restored to the Pontifical Throne, to the great joy, it might be almost said, with the concurrence, of the whole world. The same thing happened also a second time, when a fresh disturbance arose and compelled him to leave Rome, and go, with the Sacred College of Cardinals, into Liguria. Here again, the storm that threatened great destruction was appeased by a most prompt interference of God’s providence, and the Pontiff’s return to Rome filled Christendom with new joy. Before returning, however, he would carry out an intention, which his captivity had hitherto prevented him from doing: with his own hand, he solemnly placed a golden crown on the celebrated statue of the Mother of God that was venerated at Savona, under the title of Mother of Mercy. The same Sovereign Pontiff, Pius the Seventh, who was so thoroughly acquainted with every circumstance of these events, rightly attributed their happy issue to the intercession of the most holy Mother of God, whose powerful help he himself had earnestly besought, besides urging all the Faithful to obtain it by their prayers. He therefore instituted a solemn Feast in honor of the same Virgin-Mother, under the title of Help of Christians. It was to be kept, every year, on the twenty-fourth of May, the anniversary of his own most happy return to Rome. He also sanctioned a proper Office for this Feast, in order that the remembrance of so great a favor might ever be vividly on the minds of the Faithful, and secure the thanksgiving it deserved.

The two beautiful Hymns which follow are from the Office of this Feast. They admirably express the gratitude we should feel towards the Blessed Mother, whose intercession has so often wrought the Church’s deliverance.


Ofttimes, when the Faithful of Christ have been threatened by the blood-stained sword of a ruthless foe, the compassionate Virgin came down from bright heaven, and was their Help.

We know it from the venerable documents of our fathers; it is attested by the sacred edifices which are enriched with the trophies taken from our enemies, and by the yearly recurrence of our solemn Feasts.

Lo! a new favor demands of us today a new canticle of grateful and glad thanks to Mary:—it is the favor that made both Rome and the world resound with joy.

O happy and ever memorable day! whereon the See of Peter was blessed with the return of the teacher of Faith, after a sad exile of five years.

Let chaste maidens, and innocent youths, and the glad clergy, and the people, vie with each other in celebrating, with grateful hearts, the favors granted by heaven’s Queen.

O thou Virgin of virgins! Blessed Mother of Jesus! add favors still to these:—pray, we beseech thee, that the good Pastor may lead the flock to the pastures of salvation.

O holy Trinity, to whom all praise is due! grant that we may praise thee through eternal years. May our souls by their faith, and our lips by their hymns, laud thy holy name. Amen.


O beautiful Virgin! we acknowledge thee to be the Mother of our Savior and God; but thou art, too, the solace and Help of Christians, in their adversities.

The gates of hell may rage; the old enemy may, in his wrath, stir up anger which may threaten to destroy the people of God.

But this wild passion can do no hurt to those pure souls, whose prayers have won protection and heavenly strength from the Virgin ever Blessed.

If she be our Patroness and help us, the din of wicked war must cease, and our enemies must fall by thousands, or be put to flight.

As on the holy mount of Sion there was a tower and citadel with its well-built wall, and the City of David was safe with its shields and valiant men:

So the Virgin, made strong by the mighty hand of God, and laden with heaven’s gifts, wards off from her devoted clients the blows of Satan.

O holy Trinity, to whom all praise is due! grant that we may praise thee through eternal years. May our souls by their faith, and our lips by their hymns, laud thy holy name. Amen.

I have lifted up mine eyes to the mountains, from whence Help shall come to me: my help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 120:1-2) Thus prayed the Israelites of old—thus also prays the Church—though, for her, the help is nigher and comes more speedily. The Psalmist’s petition has been granted: the heavens have bowed down, and the divine Help is now close by our side. This Help is Jesus, Son of God, and Son of Mary. He is unceasingly fulfilling the promise made us by his Prophet: In the day of thy salvation, I have helped thee. (Isaiah 49:8) But this King of kings has given us a Queen, and this Queen is Mary, his Mother. Out of love for her, he has given her a throne, on his right hand, as Solomon did for his mother Bethsabee; (3 Kings 2:19) and he would have her, also, be the Help of Christians. It is the Church that teaches us this, by inserting this beautiful title in the Litany; and Rome invites us, on this day, to unite with her in giving thanks and praise to our Blessed Lady of Help, for one of the most signal of her favors.

O Queen of Heaven! our Paschal joy is increased on this the anniversary of thy giving back to Rome her Pastor and her King. Yes, it was thy intercession that achieved the grand victory, and we offer thee the homage of our grateful rejoicings. This Month is thine in an especial manner; but its twenty-fourth day makes us redouble our devotion. It encourages us to entreat thee, with all the earnestness of our souls, that thou wouldst protect Rome and its Pontiff, for new dangers have arisen. The Rock, set by thy Jesus, has again become a sign of contradiction, and the billows of impiety and violence are beating against it. We know the great promise:—the Rock can never be swept away, and on it safely stands the Church; but we know, too, that this Church is one day to be taken up to heaven, and then the Judgment! Meanwhile, thou, Mary, art our Help: Oh! stretch forth that arm of thine, which nothing can resist. Be mindful of Rome, where thou art so devoutly honored, and where thy glory is proclaimed by so many sumptuous sanctuaries. The end of the world is not yet come; the holiest of causes requires thine aid. Never permit the Holy City to be desecrated, by her falling into the power of impious men; suffer her not to be deprived of the presence of her Pontiff; and uphold the Independence which the Vicar of Christ must possess, if the Church is to be rightly governed.

But Rome is not the only spot on earth that needs thy powerful Help, O Mary! The Vineyard of thy Son is everywhere being laid waste by the wild beast. (Psalm 79:14) Vice and error and seduction are everywhere. There is not a country where the Church is not persecuted, and her Liberty trampled upon. Society has lost its Christian traditions; it is at the mercy of revolutions, against which it has no power. O thou that art the Help of Christians, aid the world in these its perils! Thou hast the power to save it from danger! Wilt thou permit the people to be lost, who were redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, and whom he, from his Cross, entrusted to thy care?

Thou, O Mary, art the Help of each Christian soul, as well as of the entire world. That same enemy, who is bent on the destruction of the whole human race, is seeking to drag each one of us into perdition. He hates the image of thy Son, which he sees reflected in our human nature. Oh! come to our assistance; save us from this roaring lion of hell. He knows thy power, and that thou canst procure our deliverance, so long as we are left in this present life. Thou hast gained the most stupendous victories for the salvation of thy clients; tire not, we beseech thee, in aiding poor sinners to return to their God. When Jesus spoke of them that were invited to the Marriage-Feast, and told us how the King said to his servants: Compel them to come in: (Luke 14:23) it was thee that he had mainly in view. Lead us then to our King!

Our supplications to thee, O Help of Christians, are thus earnest, because our wants are great; but we are not, on that account, the less mindful of the special honor that we owe thee at this holy Season of Easter, when the Church contemplates the joy thou hadst in thy Risen Jesus’ presence. She congratulates thee on the immense happiness that thus repaid thee for thine anguish on Calvary and at the Sepulcher. It is to the Mother consoled by and exulting in her Son’s triumphant Resurrection that we offer this sweet Month, whose loveliness is so in keeping with thine own incomparable beauty, dear Mother! In return for this homage of our devotion, pray for us, that our souls may persevere in the beauty of grace given to them by this year’s union with our Jesus; and that we may be so well prepared for the Feast of Pentecost as to merit to receive the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, who comes that he may perfect the work of our Paschal Regeneration.

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