Alphonsus wrote the classic book on Mariology, ‘The Glories of Mary;’ and had his Redemptorists defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception years before it became dogma. He always had a painting of the Madonna of Our Lady of Good Counsel on his desk. Alphonsus even painted depictions of Mary himself such as his La Divina Pastora, the Divine Shepherdess: a woman dressed in humble attire, not as a distant queen of heaven, with the child Jesus on her lap reaching to play with the sheep. The painting represents Alphonsus' Marian theology: "Jesus and Mary are not distant supernatural figures but ever close to the poor, in their midst, and involved in the struggles of their lives."
Alphonsus may have known of the icon of Perpetual Help because it hung, at the time, in St Matthew’s in Rome between the basilicas of St Mary Major and St John Lateran. Twelve years after St Alphonsus’ death it went into hiding and was lost for some sixty years until it was reinstated in the church that had been rebuilt after Napoleon’s army destroyed St Matthew’s and named it in honor of a new saint, Alphonsus, where his brother Redemptorists functioned then and continue to do so today.
In 1865 Pope Pius IX commissioned the Redemptorists to use the miraculous image of Perpetual Help to ‘Make Her Known’ throughout the world. They have done so with weekly prayers and novenas held across the earth in her honor.
I doubt Ven. Mother Maria Celeste ever saw or even heard of Our Mother of Perpetual Help but she also had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin. She writes in her ‘Exercise of love for every day:’ “O my Lady and Mother, well can you say that all generations in heaven and on earth will call you blessed. You are our only Hope, all nations will call you blessed; the angels and all the heavenly spirits look on you as their Queen, since you are the Mother of the great King; the just have recourse to you as to a Rock of strength and the Teacher of Virtues, safe Guide in this vale of tears, Gate of salvation; under your patronage sinners hurry to you to obtain pardon and protection… and all generations recognize you as Mediatrix and instrument of our Redemption.” Florilegium 10.
Both Alphonsus and Celeste turned to Mary in their times of need, as we turn to Mary in ours. We have as our model, Jesus, who ran into his mother’s arms for help and comfort. We see in the icon of Mother of Perpetual Help Jesus looking over his shoulder at the vision of his crucifixion while holding on to his Mother’s strong, steady hands. Mary’s gaze invites us to take hold of her hands in our times of distress and to be of hope.
Our community has been standing at the foot of the cross with Mary these last few months as we planned a move, canceled the move, sought temporary accommodations here at Mother Cabrini’s, actually moved and settled in only to have Sr. Lydia break her leg and Sr. Mary Anne come down with shingles.
All the while I picture us, and all those who have mailed us their intentions which are in the bowl under the icon standing in a circle holding on to Mary’s hands and one another. Her calm, sympathetic, steady gaze assures us of God’s tender care.
I really am not attracted to the icon style as art. In Perpetual Help Mary looks stern to me. But once, when I was young in religious life and looking at our large icon I thought I saw her smile. How reassuring, encouraging to be aware of her presence to me personally. But what really draw me are her hands: they are at the center of the icon and large enough for us all to place our hands in hers.
So today, aware that we can turn to our Mother of Perpetual Help in any need we thank her for her past favors and continue with confidence and hope to place all our cares in her strong hands to bring whatever lies heavy on our hearts to her Son, our Most Holy Redeemer.