Become What Mary Is: Help, Pointer of the Way, Safe Harbour


Mary as Type of the Church and the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

Sister Anneliese Herzig, MSsR   (Missionaries of the Most Holy Redeemer)

Translated from the German by David Louch CSsR (Province of Edmonton-Toronto)

“We must become what Mary is.”  With this concise sentence Gisbert Greshake states one of the first spiritual consequences of the Mariology he developed in his 2014 monograph Maria – Ecclesia.[1]  Such an approach is indebted to the Second Vatican Council and in particular to the last chapter of the dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which is devoted to Our Lady.  The Council called the Mother of God “the type and outstanding model [of the church] in faith and charity” (LG 53 & passim).  The Christian faithful, who are still on their pilgrim way, should and must strive to emulate this model, while Mary herself has already reached that perfection (LG 65).  Included, among those who face this challenge, are those who honour Mary under the title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.  “We must become what Mary is.”  What does that mean in practice for all those both within and outside the Redemptorist family, who look upon this beloved icon?

1. Where does Mary fit in?  – the Christo-typical and Ecclesio-typical approaches in Mariology[2]

Mary “repays love with love, and she always adds new favours to earlier ones.”  In this, she emulates our most loving Redeemer, as St Alphonsus insists in his commentary on the Salve Regina.[3]  Over and over, in various ways, St Alphonsus praises Mary as the one who acts as God himself acts.  Quoting St Bonaventure with approval, he writes: “As is written concerning the love of the eternal Father, which HE has proven in giving His Son over to death for us: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His own Son,’ so can we according to St Bonaventure say of Mary: Mary so loved us that she gave her only begotten son for us.”[4]  Insofar as Mary promptly helps, she imitates God.[5]  This view of Mary – who interacts with people on God’s behalf, who is mother to people and embodies characteristics of God (more precisely of the Redeemer), – runs through all the writings of St Alphonsus.  To that extent, Alphonsus is a representative of the modern era with its Christotypical approach in Mariology, which predominated until the Second Vatican Council.  In this approach, Mary stands more on the side of Christ than that of the church, for whom she is first of all “mother” and so in a certain sense “above” the church.  Insofar as this approach views Mary as reflecting or mirroring God’s action on behalf of human beings, it is still justified today.  However, there are also certain dangers in this approach:

∙           One must be very careful lest unintentionally Mary as the kind mother become the “brighter side” of God, and characteristics that are primarily  those of God suddenly seem to be reserved to Mary.

∙           Within this Christotypical approach in Mariology there is also the seed of a “maximalist” Mariology, according to which one can never say enough about Mary. And there have, in fact, been exaggerations![6]  Even St Alphonsus, for example, sees Christ not only as the merciful Redeemer but also as the Judge; whereas Mary is pure mercy and “has no other role except to have mercy on us and to defend us as our advocate.”  However, at the same time, Alphonsus insists that Mary is not more powerful than the Redeemer and that what power she has comes only from God.[7]

Harking back to the theology of the Fathers of the Church, the Second Vatican Council opted for a different approach to Mariology, namely the ecclesio-typical approach.  That is already clear from the decision NOT to have a separate document on the Mother of God, but rather to include the Mariological material in the final chapter of the Constitution on the Church.  (Opinions about that decision were divided and voting was very difficult.)  In this approach, Mary is viewed primarily in the light of her freely given response to God’s call, her consent to God’s will and God’s way.  She thereby steps more onto the side of humanity and the church, where she is seen as their model and archetype.  So in a certain sense, Mary stands “in the place of” humanity; representing all humanity, she gives creation’s answer to God’s call.  Especially as “Daughter of Sion” and hence the personification of Israel, she stands with the redeemed, rather than the Redeemer.[8]  As Gisbert Greshake puts it: she is “not only an individual, but also the crystallization of the whole.”   She is one of us, embedded in the People of God for whom she stands; and at the same time, that what has already been realized in her is a sign of what awaits all of us.  Greshake expresses it this way: what Mary is, “each one of us must become, namely one who hears and believes, someone in whom the Son of God will be born anew, an ‘anima ecclesiastica’ (Origen): one who allows one’s own life to be shaped by communion with God and others and whose life is oriented toward that communion.”[9]

Now what are the implications of all that – for honouring Mary as Our Mother of Perpetual Help?  Without wanting to question the significance of prayers of petition to Mary (see Gaudium et spes, 62), it cannot be only about asking Mary for help, whether for oneself or for others.  Much more, those who venerate Mary through this icon are challenged to become helpers themselves.  If “help” is so prominently rooted in a title of the Mother of God, then it is also clear that the charism of “forms of assistance” (1Cor 12:28) is by no means among the least of the charisms.  Indeed, both the Scriptural sources and contemplation of the icon lead us to investigate what sort of “help” is meant here.

2.  Help that sets free

In the second creation account in the Book of Genesis, God wants to give the man a “helper as a partner” (Gen 2:18), and the man eventually finds such a helping partner in “the woman.”  Unfortunately, this text is often interpreted to mean that the woman is to be the man’s servant.  Apart from the fact that, as far as I can see, the text can also be interpreted to mean that man and woman should be helpers to one another, a deeper reality is hidden behind the word “helper” (ezer in Hebrew).  Because according to the whole of Scripture, it is God who is the [real] helper of all:

∙           “God bears our burdens; God is our helper” (Ps 68:20).

∙           The apparent help of different gods or nations is worthless and empty (cf. Is 30:7).

∙           The creation story shows that it is the vocation of humanity – therefore of each one of us – to bestow on others the help we receive from God, so that they too can experience the helping presence of God.

In this context, the reading of the biblical texts makes clear that it is God’s help that gives a person strength and courage to stand on their own two feet, get going and take charge of their life.  God is not a “helicopter dad” or “helicopter mom” who wants to constantly supervise and protect the children from everyone and everything.  Such parents frequently prevent their sons and daughters from growing and becoming independent.  God’s help is of a different kind: God is there and gets a person going, but God also allows detours and errors and respects human freedom even at the cost of a terribly serious loss of one’s way.  However, God always offers once again a helping hand: “See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, or his ear too dull to hear” (Is 59:1).  Even when intervening, God still “puts on the helmet of salvation [“help” in German]” (Is 59:17).

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help also reveals that the help we are talking about, is help that leaves the recipient free.  Mary does not cling to her endangered child; rather, she offers him her hand.  And the child grips his mother’s hand, but there is no sense of anxious clinging, no sense of protection at any cost.  Mary will not help her son in the sense that he will be spared suffering and the cross, which are the consequence of his message and all that he does.  Her help is a help that leaves him free and lets him go.  Her help is loving presence. Mary is there; she remains at her son’s side and at ours; she endures with us and holds us.  That is fully in accord with how the Gospel of John pictures Mary standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus, side by side with the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 19:25-27).

All who see Mary as (their) mother are called to help in the same way as she does.  Herlinde Pissarek-Hudelist has expressed this in a feminine-motherly way that mutatis mutandis can also be said of men and of women without children:

“Mary as mother” can mean enduring the tension which rips apart in order to let new life grow at the cost of her own strength; then to give over, i.e., to give birth into freedom, which is painful but necessary for survival; with the engagement of all one’s strength and the limiting of one’s own opportunities in order to help the child stand on its own feet; and then to let go; the risk of bearing a child who might have an early death and not a long life.  As mother to accompany a child entrusted to oneself and to nurture that child into assuming personal responsibility.[10]

“Accompany,” “let go” and “growth in personal responsibility” are important key words for the “help” which God has called us to offer one another.  The icon shows us that Mary understood that call and lived it out in her life.

We look for such help that sets the other free not only in the family circle, in religious life (e.g. in formation), or in pastoral work.  It is also expected of each one of us when we undertake any project.  Some day, as members of a religious congregation, we will once again have to let that project go, when, for example, we are transferred to another community of our religious congregation or because of age.  It is wise to make preparations in good time and facilitate a way for the project not to depend on oneself.  The principle of help that sets the other free also applies where people want to help in international networks.  “Help” is often understood in a way that has paternalistic or maternalistic features and so does anything but contribute to autonomy; rather, whether intentionally or not, it makes individuals and peoples forever dependent, like those who depend on an intravenous drip for nourishment.  Sometimes unintentionally and sometimes with a view to their own advantage, helpers create a system of dependency that tends to enslave others rather than liberate them.  What is needed in those situations is vigilance and conversion – that is true for pastoral workers, social workers and therapists, social service agencies, civil development organizations as well as those in commerce and industry.  The Swedish novelist Henning Mankell describes in an exaggerated fashion what can happen when self-interest determines the kind of help given – no matter how wonderful it might look from the outside:

Sture Olofsson had only one ambition, and it went against precisely what he should have done: he should have fulfilled his contract and as quickly as possible made himself superfluous, in order to make room for indigenous African personnel.  However, Sture Olofsson had recognized early on that if he wanted to spend his life as a gentleman with servants, swimming pool and a big home, then that would have to happen in Africa…. It was definitely good to look for water and fight poverty – but not to do so in such a way that one day Sture Olofsson would no longer be needed.[11]

The icon of Perpetual Help also reflects this other kind of help that resonates with Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross (Jn 19: 25-27): help is often simply presence, being there with others, without being able to do anything except in attentive solidarity offer security and a certain protection, or at least consolation and emotional support.  A good example is the presence of female and male religious in war-torn places, immersed in the daily life of the people.  A man who works with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation has reported on a project in Palestine that brings volunteers to live with Palestinian farmers for three months.  They go with the farmers into the fields, wearing bullet-proof vests, and stay by their side – the threatening looks of Israeli settlers notwithstanding.  Sometimes possible provocations are averted.  That is an example of presence as effective help; it cannot prevent everything, but it gives strength and hope.

Finally, many of us know people who like to be begged: they first have to be asked over and over (and that’s what they want) before they will lift a hand to help.  Others are so preoccupied with themselves or so hardened that they no longer even notice the need of others.  However, the mutual help to which God calls us and which Mary models is open-eyed help.  A Biblical paradigm for such help is the way Mary acts at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2: 1-12).  She sees, she notices – and she helps.  She does not wait to be asked.  St Alphonsus emphasizes this point in different places in The Glories of Mary.  He says that Mary notices our need and comes to our aid even before we call on her.[12]  Quoting Epiphanius, Alphonsus calls Mary “many-eyed” – she is all eyes to come to our aid.[13]  The icon which was later entrusted to the Redemptorists gives expression to this in that beholders have the impression that Mary’s eyes are on them no matter where they stand in relation to the icon or from which side or angle they approach it.  It is as if Mary’s gaze follows them.  Moreover Mary is no “greedy hoarder” of the treasures of grace entrusted to her;[14] rather, she generously puts them at our disposal.  In the same way, we who pray before the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help are called and challenged ourselves to go about with open eyes in order to see where people are in need and to share our gifts and resources.  Today, that means looking beyond our own little world and being interested in what goes on in the ‘global village,’ including ominous interconnections.  A good example is the 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato sì.  We could call it a “many-eyed” encyclical, because it connects climate change with the option for the poor, and the concern to protect creation with advocacy and engagement for disadvantaged people, most of whom live in the southern hemisphere. The encyclical challenges us to face reality in all its complexity and not to close our eyes, refusing to see.  Here “help” takes the form of a changed life-style in what Pope Francis calls “ecological conversion.”

The two perspectives – help that sets free and that is open eyed – come together in Mary as we see her in the Perpetual Help icon.  They should come together in us too!  If generous help is not to encroach on others and dominate them, we must remind ourselves that what matters is help that respects the autonomy of the other, leads the other to freedom, and actually sets the other free.

3.  Pointing the Way

The literature about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help always emphasizes that it is a combination of two types – the Hodegetria (pointer of the way) and the Theotokos/Virgin of the Passion.  Mary points to the Crucified One, to the defenseless child whose vulnerability is symbolized especially by the exposed sole of his bare foot.

We could say that Mary helps us most effectively by simply pointing to the one (her son) who is in solidarity with all the suffering and dying because he himself has suffered; he fulfills his promises by actually enduring the cross and suffering, rather than seeking a way to go around them or avoid them.  In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII summarized this conviction in one sentence: “Mary gives us her son and with him all the help we need” (169).[15]  This son is Jesus Christ, who calls himself “The Way” (Jn 14:6); he is the Crucified and Risen One.  Believers hold that the wisdom of God is hidden in him, that wisdom which does not exclude the darkness, but faces it trusting in the power of God (cf. 1Cor 1:23f).  The Crucified One is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  That is signified in the icon by the resolute gaze of the child toward the instruments of the passion which the angel holds.  Mary keeps her word, her ‘yes’ to God, not least of all by joining in the arduous way of her child, and persevering in her ‘yes’ even in the darkest times.  So the presence of the icon in our homes, chapels and churches can keep us attuned to the way of Jesus Christ, the self-emptying way of the Incarnation and Passion, which flows into exaltation (cf. Phil 2: 5-11).  And so we are reminded that a “career” in the church is always a “downward career” – it means self-emptying and giving of oneself.  In countless sermons, speeches and writings, Pope Francis never tires of calling the church and all her members back to this insight and awareness.

In the sight of the icon all Christians are invited, like Mary, to become people who take the Redeemer and his “downward way” as their point of reference and proclaim it through both what they say and the way they live.  This pointing of the way offers help that reaches beyond earthly life into God’s eternity.  Surely this is a way to understand the “perpetual” of Perpetual Help.

Preaching and pastoral work face this challenge of proclaiming the “downward way,” especially in the countries of the northern hemisphere.  How can we effectively proclaim the Crucified and Risen One as “Help” and Redeemer in a world as secular as ours?  How can we invite people to take a fresh look at this way?  There is no simple answer; however, we dare not set this challenge on the back burner, because an important aspect of what is distinctively Christian lies hidden within it.  Since the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is so many-sided, perhaps it can suggest some directions for us.  It is very interesting that we refer to this icon using different ways of addressing Mary; we call her Our Lady (of Perpetual Help), the Virgin (of Perpetual Help) and Our Mother (of Perpetual Help).  Indeed, in this icon Mary appears as the Lady who is self-possessed, at peace with herself and aware of her God-given dignity.  She shines as the Virgin by the way she radiates hope and looks forward, keeping her focus on what lies ahead, gazing into a wide horizon that also embraces the eternity of God.  And finally she is the Mother who gave life to the child Jesus and who has become fruitful by allowing the Spirit of God to invade her being.  Thus does the icon radiate peace, hope and consent.  Anyone who wishes to proclaim Christ as Redeemer today will need these same virtues if they are to be convincing pointers of the way for others.  That also means resisting the temptation to make oneself the centre of attention and pointing instead away from oneself to the one who “does that.”[16]

            4.  Safe Harbour

Using a lovely image, St Alphonsus calls Mary a “safe harbour for the shipwrecked.”[17]  The Perpetual Help icon, which was entrusted to the Redemptorists a century after the death of Alphonsus, fits with that image like the other side of a medallion.  The icon depicts the child, in the face of the coming passion, seeking refuge in the safe harbour of his mother; he finds it in her arms and in her hand.

In recent days and months, people have been fleeing or been driven from their homelands and left stranded in different countries around the world.  States, civil society, as well as parishes, convents and religious orders are challenged to offer these people protection and safety.  All of them – children, young people, women and men, old and young – belong to the “shipwrecked” in our time.  Many others belong to that group too: drug addicts, victims of human trafficking, those who suffer from changed conditions due to climate change, those whose homelands have been exploited etc.  It is fitting that those who venerate Mary under the title of Perpetual Help should themselves become what Mary is, namely, as the icon shows us, safe harbours for the shipwrecked.

Without taking one iota away from this task of helping here and now, it is also important in our preaching to remind people of the ultimate “harbour” of our human existence.  Because in reaching her final fulfilment in God Mary also remains a “type” of the church.  While Mary is already irrevocably with God, the church and individual members of the church are still on their pilgrim way to that same destiny.

The mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come.  Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the Day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2Pt 3:10), a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God (LG, 68).

These days people look for and expect the fulfilment of human hope and longing mostly in this world.  That results in many feeling overwhelmed and overtaxed, constantly under pressure to perform and succeed.  (In the western world, that shows up in the effort to “design” one’s own self, whether at work or leisure.)  Or they demand too much of others, for example in relationships where one partner expects the other to be everything and provide everything.  In these situations, there is refreshing good news, namely,  the faith-conviction that we are still on the way and that fulfilment is a gift, not something earned or merited.  That good news lifts burdens and sets us free.  The rich golden background of the icon brings out this perspective of the fulfilment which Mary already enjoys and which is our destiny.  In fact, it is already given to us in this life as a “foretaste wherever we find faith and love.”[18]


Help that sets free.  Pointing the way.  Safe harbour.  Insofar as we live that way, like Mary we speak our “yes” to our vocation as companions on the journey.

“It is our privilege to live in God’s “yes” echoing in Mary’s “yes”; and so we are both called and empowered to say “yes” ourselves.  We can understand ourselves as engaged and secure and at the same time called to repeat Mary’s “yes” in word and deed, in the believing and hoping knowledge that – despite anything to the contrary, no matter how horrible – everything is already redeemed and called to eternal life.[19]

When we as believers incarnate Mary’s “yes” in our own lives, we contribute to the ongoing mission to bring salvation to all.  We are called to follow the example of Mary and pass on to others what we have first received.  This passing on of the salvation-first-received is not simply the conclusion of a process but actually “the way in which the saving action of Christ is accepted” (Karl-Heinz Menke).  That means, if we do not pass the gift on to others in fact it does not really come to us in the first place.[20] The Holy Spirit calls and empowers us to be partners in the work of salvation and redemption.  We are “God’s co-workers” (2Cor 6:1).  We can also apply this principle to the mystery that we venerate in Our Mother of Perpetual Help:

We are bound to one another in the communion of saints, so each can carry the other and intercede with God for the other.  What is predicated of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as mediator and intercessor in the church extends far beyond her individual person to the whole network of the communion of saints as a mutual mediation of salvation; each is ‘church’ for the other, each is ‘Mary’ for the other.[21]

As Franz Rosenzweig has suggested, we are not simply “clay in the hands of the potter”; rather, as “ones who are loved, we love,”[22] and thereby also as “ones who are supported, we support” and as “ones who are helped, we help.”  Also in view of the Virgin of Perpetual Help it is true that it cannot be only about receiving help; rather, in venerating and contemplating the holy icon – or to be more precise, Mary under this title – we ourselves must become people of help.  That help must be like the help we receive from God, who carries us and saves us (Ps 68:20).  Simply standing in awe or being stuck in one’s own concerns – no matter how justifiable – is useless.  So St Alphonsus prays: “Give me the grace to follow you in loving God and neighbour.”[23]  We must become what Mary is.

End notes:

[1]Greshake, Gisbert, Maria – Ecclesia: Perspektiven einer marianisch grundierten Theologie und Kirchenpraxis.  Regensburg, 2014, 585.
[2]Cf. Greshake, 183f, as well as Beinert, Wolfgang, “Himmelskönigin – Urbild der Kirche – neue Frau: Die Wandlungen des katholishcen Marienbildes von der Gegenreformation bis zum Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts” in Beinert, Wolfgang u.a. (Hrsg), Maria – Eine ökumenische Herausforderung. Regensburg, 1984, 75-116, hier 96-99.
[3] The Glories of Mary. Part I: Commentary on the Salve Regina 1.“Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy” § 3: Our Mother’s Great Love for Us.  22  Note: The references to The Glories of Mary are taken from – Saint Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary. A Liguori Classic. A New Translation from the Italian. 2 Volumes in One. Revised Edition. (Liguori Missouri, Liguori Publications: 2000)
[4]The Glories of Mary, see Note 3, quoted in p.11; see also: Part V: The  Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary  § 3. Mary’s Love for her Neighbor; 339
[5]The Glories of Mary, Part I – Commentary on the Salve Regina  4. To You Do We Cry, Poor Banished Children of Eve . § 1: Mary Is Prompt to Help Those Who Invoke Her, 65
[6]Cf. the axiom de Maria numquam satis.  See Greshake p.184, note 475 with reference to Yves Congar.
[7]The Glories of Mary, Part I: Commentary on the Salve Regina 3. Our Hope § 1: Mary Is Everybody’s Hope 50f.
[8]Cf. Menke, Karl-Heinz, Das unterscheidend Christliche: Beiträge zur Bestimmung seiner Einzigkeit.  Regensburg, 2015, 521.
[9]Greshake, 585.
[10]Pissarek-Hudelist, Herlinde, “Maria – Schwester oder Mutter im Glauben? Chancen und Schwierigkeiten in Verkündigung und Katechese” in Gössmann, Elisabeth & Bauer, Dieter R, Maria – für alle Frauen oder über allen Frauen?  Freiburg, 1989, 146-167, hier 166.
[11]Mankell, Henning, Die flüsternden Seelen.  dt. Wien, 2007, 188 – 191.
[12]The Glories of Mary, Part I – Commentary on the Salve Regina / 1. “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy” / § 3: Our Mother’s Great Love for Us  19f; Part I – Commentary on the Salve Regina / 4. To You Do We Cry, Poor Banished Children of Eve . § 1: Mary Is Prompt to Help Those Who Invoke Her,  65; 67; Part V: The  Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary 3. Mary’s Love for her Neighbor. 338
[13]The Glories of Mary, Part I – Commentary on the Salve Regina / 7. Turn Then, Your Eyes of Mercy Toward Us – Mary Is All Eyes to Pity and Help Us , 116
[14]The Glories of Mary, Part I – Commentary on the Salve Regina  4. To You Do We Cry, Poor Banished Children of Eve . § 1: Mary Is Prompt to Help Those Who Invoke Her, 65
[16] Greshake, 584, 586.
[17] The Glories of Mary, Annex / III. Various prayers to Mary (Ephrem’s prayer to Mary), 57, 188
[18] Greshake, 300.
[19] Greshake, 585f
[20] Cf. Greshake, 467f
[21] Greshake, 477
[22] Quoted in Forte, Bruno, Maria, Mutter und Schwester des Glaubens. Zurich, 1990, 210
[23] Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary, Part V: The  Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary 3. Mary’s Love for her Neighbor, 340


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