Our Mother of Perpetual Help
An image which has had a profound effect on the piety of Catholics is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It belongs to a classification of religious art known as the icon. An icon is a religious image originating among Eastern Christians and painted, generally on a wooden panel, according to definite rules to open our eyes to spiritual realities or to teach a lesson. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help shows Mary holding the child Jesus in her left hand. Mary and Jesus wear fine robes and are royally crowned. Above Mary's left shoulder the angel Gabriel is portrayed holding the cross and nails of the crucifixion. Above her right shoulder is the angel Michael with a lance, spear, and vessel of vinegar and gall. Jesus is depicted as a child, in size about two or three years old, but with the facial characteristics of an older youth. He has placed both his hands in Mary's right hand, and he is looking over his left shoulder with some apprehension. In a quaint touch, Jesus' left sandal has fallen from his foot and dangles by its strap. It is as if Jesus has been looking into the future. Seeing his passion, he has rushed for comfort into Mary's arms so quickly that he has lost his sandal. Mary's face is solemn, with a touch of sadness. She gazes out at those who view the picture, as if to say, "This is my son who gives his life for you."
The original icon was painted by an unknown artist in Crete, probably in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Near the end of the fifteenth century, a traveler stole the icon from a church in Crete and brought it to Rome. There he became mortally ill. Wishing to make restitution for his theft before he died, he asked an acquaintance to present it to a church in Rome. However, this was not done until, according to tradition, Mary herself appeared to the man's daughter, commanding that the icon be placed in the Roman church of Saint Matthew. In doing so, Mary revealed herself as Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In 1499, the icon was enshrined in the church of Saint Matthew, where it became an object of popular veneration and an occasion of many miracles attributed to Mary's intercession.
Late in the eighteenth century, leaders of the French Revolution began a violent persecution of the Church. After sacking churches and murdering many priests and religious in France, they sent an army against Rome. Pope Pius VI was captured and taken to France, where he died. The French army destroyed thirty churches in Rome, including the church of Saint Matthew. The icon of Our Lady was secretly removed from the church before it was leveled and was kept hidden for many years. Eventually, it was assigned by Pope Pius IX to the Redemptorist Religious Community, which had built a church dedicated to Saint Alphonsus Liguori where the old church of Saint Matthew had been located.
The Redemptorists enshrined the icon above the high altar of the church in 1866. They promoted devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, conducting services in her honor throughout the world. These services, often in the form of weekly novena devotions, became extremely popular in the 1940's and 1950's.
The word novena comes from the Latin word for "nine." It refers to the custom of saying the same prayers on nine consecutive days or on the same day for nine consecutive weeks. This practice has a scriptural basis in the fact that the apostles and other believers, including Mary, waited and prayed together for nine days for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1-2). Novena devotions are not as popular as they were before the Second Vatican Council, but many parishes and shrines still schedule novenas.
In Bombay novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help are popular. Fr. Edward Placidus Fernandes returning from a trip to Europe in 1948 brought with him a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help touched to the original picture at Rome. On the 8th of September, 1948, the Birthday of Our Lady - which happened to be a Wednesday that year - after a triduum of preparation by a Redemptorist Father the First Novena services were held in the Church of St. Michael's Mahim, of which the Fr. Fernandes was the vicar.
The favors credited to Our Mother of Perpetual Help have been countless. Believers, gathered together as members of Christ's Body, turn to their Mother for assistance, and their lives are profoundly changed by Mary's love and God's grace.