The Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour: A Divine Masterpiece
Celebrated on June 27 by the universal Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, holds a special place in the hearts of the faithful. This devotion centers around a Byzantine-style icon, dating back to the thirteenth century, painted on wood with a background of gold. The exquisite masterpiece depicts the Mother of God cradling the Divine Child while Archangels Michael and Gabriel present Him with the instruments of His Passion. Greek letters forming abbreviated words symbolize the Mother of God, Jesus Christ, Archangel Michael, and Archangel Gabriel.
Rediscovery and Divine Intervention
The icon's fascinating journey began when a pious merchant brought it to Rome in the late fifteenth century. His will stipulated that the picture be exposed for public veneration in a church upon his passing. Thus, it found its home in the church of San Matteo on Via Merulana, a renowned Roman street connecting the basilicas of Saint Mary Major and Saint John Lateran. Over the next three centuries, countless devotees flocked to this church, where numerous graces and blessings were received through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. It was affectionately known as the Madonna di San Matteo, and the Hermits of Saint Augustine served the church during this time.
Tragedy struck when the French invaded Rome in 1812, leading to the destruction of the church. The precious icon vanished, remaining hidden and neglected for over forty years. However, a series of providential circumstances between 1863 and 1865 ultimately led to its rediscovery in an oratory of the Augustinian Fathers at Santa Maria in Posterula.
The Pope's Order and the Icon's New Home
The rediscovery of the icon captured the attention of Pope Pius IX, who, as a young boy, had prayed before it in San Matteo. Recognizing the hand of God in this event, the Pope decided that the icon should be exposed for public veneration once again, and the most fitting location was the church of St. Alphonsus, belonging to the Redemptorists. Situated between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, this church provided the ideal setting. Pope Pius IX wasted no time and promptly drafted a memorandum instructing the Augustinian Fathers of St. Mary in Posterula to surrender the picture to the Redemptorists. In return, the Redemptorists were to supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady or a faithful copy of the Perpetual Help icon.
Though the Augustinians cherished the icon, they had no choice but to obey when two Redemptorists arrived armed with the Pope's signed memorandum. On January 19, 1866, Fathers Marchi and Bresciani solemnly carried the miraculous picture to its new abode in St. Alphonsus' church. Preparations were made to inaugurate the public veneration of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, culminating in a grand procession through the Esquiline region of Rome on April 26th. Finally, the icon was enshrined over the high altar, adorning a resplendent shrine-niche specially constructed for this sacred purpose.
A Miraculous Inauguration and Growing Devotion
Word quickly spread throughout Rome about the marvelous healings associated with the venerated icon. People from all walks of life flocked to the shrine, leaving behind abandoned crutches and canes as testimonies to the miracles they had experienced. Glass-covered cabinets overflowed with gold and silver Thanksgiving offerings shaped as miniature hearts, arms, legs, and other symbols of gratitude. Merely two weeks after the icon's solemn exposition, Pope Pius IX himself visited the shrine, standing before it in awe and exclaiming, "How beautiful she is!"
The subsequent pontiffs continued to hold the icon in high esteem. Pope Leo XIII kept a copy of the picture on his desk, constantly reminding him of its presence during work. St. Pius X sent a copy to the Empress of Ethiopia and granted a 100-day indulgence to those who invoked the phrase, "Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us." Pope Benedict XV displayed the picture directly above his state chair in the throne room, signifying Our Lady's rightful place as the true Queen.
Papal Recognition and the Worldwide Spread
During his encounter with the Redemptorists, Pope Pius IX entrusted them with the treasure of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, urging them to make her known. The Redemptorists wholeheartedly embraced this mission and established the first Our Lady of Perpetual Help church in the Roxbury section of Boston, in the United States. Recognizing its significance, Pope Pius XII later elevated this church to a "Papal Basilica."
The symbolism of the Icon: A Window into Divine Mercy
The Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon belongs to a class of Eastern icons called Cardiotissa, which means "having a heart." These icons express sympathy, mercy, and compassion, with Our Lady's sorrowful yet dignified face contemplating the sufferings of her Son. Angels, representing the instruments of Christ's Passion, hold their hands covered with a veil as a mark of reverence.
The depiction of the Child Jesus with an adult face and a high brow symbolizes His divine Mind of infinite intelligence. Despite His knowledge of the future prophetic of His passion, in His human nature as a small child, He seeks solace and protection in His Mother's arms. Our Lady, adorned in a dark red dress reserved for the Empress in the Byzantine tradition, represents her glorious Queenship.
Our Lady's Compassionate Gaze: A Source of Comfort and Strength
While Our Lady gazes not at Jesus but at us, her eyes, partly closed, radiate indescribable majesty, tranquility, and profound compassion. Her compassionate gaze offers solace and understanding to all who face fear and sorrow. In times of distress, we can find comfort and strength in turning to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who intercedes for us before her divine Son.
The devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help touches the hearts of believers worldwide, inspiring countless individuals to seek her powerful intercession in times of need. May her unwavering love and compassion be a beacon of hope in our lives, guiding us toward the eternal embrace of God's mercy.