Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Reconciliation


Introduction: The Story of a Neighborhood

North Omaha in the 1960s was a hotbed of racial division and strife.  Three times in that turbulent decade the area exploded in racial conflicts and twice the National Guard was called in to quell the violence.  Major national figures had visited North Omaha: including Malcolm X in 1964, he had been born in North Omaha and his family had fled the city after threats from the Ku Klux Klan.  Robert Kennedy went to North Omaha in 1968 during his run for president to speak in favor of Civil Rights legislation.

One of the neighborhoods of North Omaha is Fontenelle Park where I spent my childhood.  The neighborhood is on the western edge of North Omaha and, at the time, was mainly Catholic, working class and white.    As African-American families began to move in a palpable feeling of animosity emerged among us as we felt our space being threatened.   Seeing an opportunity, real estate speculators fed our fears of a black invasion with economic calamity and so white flight from the neighborhood began in earnest.  This demographic shift would not come peacefully.

As children growing up in this situation, it was difficult for us to negotiate our thoughts and emotions as we felt ourselves pushed and pulled in various directions.  For example, although I had played with black children on my own street, racial divisions were so stark that we could not admit that we knew each other outside of our block.  Both black and white kids in the neighborhood were constantly in danger of “being jumped” by other bands of kids if they were caught out alone on the streets.  This happened to me on several occasions. One time my situation was so dire that passersby in cars had to rescue me from serious injury.

Some years later, my dad shared with me a poignant story from our neighborhood.  Leaving work from downtown he spotted our neighbor from across the street waiting at a bus stop.  She was a black woman and she and my dad were friends.  He offered her a ride home and on the way, she said something to him rather casually but it stayed with him, “Well John, I guess you and your family will be leaving soon as well.”  I don’t know if he responded or even if it was possible to respond to such a statement that gets at the heart of the seemingly inevitable failure of human social interaction.  We all seemed trapped in our own prejudice and fear.  Certainly, there were forces that came to bear on us that were quite out of our control, like the fear instilled by real estate speculators but where was the counter force from our own hearts?  Where was the Christian impulse to reach out to the other?  What tools did our Catholic faith bring to bear on an admittedly difficult situation?  Robert Schreiter comments on the Church’s role in reconciliation, “the Church is a treasure trove of rituals and symbols.  These need to be enlisted in the communicative dimension of reconciliation.[1] Was this true? Why weren’t these treasures operative for all in our Catholic community?  Why did it seem necessary to simply accept the hopeless inevitability of failure expressed in our neighbor’s question so many years ago?  Since we cannot seem to live together in peace better that we separate and be done with it.

I will explore in this paper one such treasure, a devotional practice that was part of all of our lives at that time, centered on the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.   The parish all of us attended was a Redemptorist parish and there was a shrine of the image in the church. It could also be found in many of the homes of the parishioners, like mine. I believe that Perpetual Help offers a way for Christians to think about reconciliation and calls the faithful to commitment in that process.  Perpetual Help can create a framework for thinking about our reconciliation with God and one another.

I will investigate the origins of the icon and explain its typology before offering a reading of the icon in relation to the theme of reconciliation, including Miroslav Volf’s idea of embrace as an image of reconciliation.  The meaning of the icon is an important and necessary way of appreciating its religious character; however, its purpose cannot only be to communicate meaning or content.  I will argue that the icon be joined with a concrete ethics of reconciliation, which will be necessary for the continued vigor of Perpetual Help devotional practice.  In other words, there must be a Christian praxis directed toward the world that the devotional practice inspires.  Finally, I will reflect on the Redemptorists as icons of reconciliation.

I write this reflection principally for my confreres in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, who have been entrusted with the icon and charged with a mission in the Church, which the icon continues to animate.  I am neither an expert in iconography nor am I probably the most fervent devotee of Perpetual Help, but though my contribution be small, I offer it in a spirit of charity to my community who made known to me Mary of Perpetual Help, who has since been a part of my Catholic identity and spirituality.  I offer this reflection, therefore, with a grateful heart.

A Brief History of the Icon of Perpetual Help

The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is housed at the church of Sant Alfonso near the great basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome.  The iconographic style of the icon suggests an origin from the Cretan school dating from the second half of the 14th century or the beginning of the 15th century.  How the icon came to be in the possession of the Redemptorists is, to say the least, a long story, the details of which cannot be adequately recounted here.  The icon was on public display for over three hundred years at the church of St. Matthew near the site of the present-day church of St. Alphonsus and the general house of the Redemptorist Congregation.  After the destruction of St. Matthew’s, the Augustinians, who were in possession of the church at that time, moved the icon to St. Mary in Posterula where it remained in obscurity until 1865 when the Superior General of the Redemptorist Congregation Nicholas Mauron, asked Pope Pius IX that the Redemptorists be granted the icon and that it be placed in the newly built Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and St. Alphonsus.  “According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius told the Redemptorist Superior General, ‘make her known throughout the world!’”[2]  I will return to the Redemptorists’ relationship with the icon and that mandate in particular, but it will first be important to understand the style of the PH icon and its meaning according to its iconographic themes.

Iconographic Style: the Sources of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

There has been a simple narrative that has accompanied the icon of Perpetual Help and that contributes to the title of the icon and the devotion surrounding it.  It very simply recounts a story of the young Jesus seeing a vision of angels, who carry the instruments of the passion.  Startled, Jesus runs to his mother for protection and in his haste, a sandal falls from his foot.  The mother of Jesus is, according to our narrative, a refuge for Christians; she is helped in time of need.  The recent restoration of the icon has led to a renewed interest in iconography and some of the wider themes present in the composition.  To read the icon properly one must be aware of the type or types of the icon it represents and the themes at work.

The Perpetual Help icon is of a type known as the “Virgin of the Passion” which was a common theme of the Cretan/Venetian School between the 14th and 18th centuries.  This particular type of icon combines two classic styles of Marian iconography, which are important for our discussion.  The most ancient iconographic form or style represented in the Perpetual Help icon is called the Mother of God Hodegetria “she who shows the way.”  Normally this icon type depicts the Virgin with her eyes fixed on the viewer.  In her left arm she holds the child Jesus and with her right hand, she points to him.  The child is usually seen holding a scroll in his left hand and blessing with his right hand.  He is more than a child and one can see in him the person of the Eternal Logos, who is Emmanuel or God with us.  “The canonical or officially recognized types of Hodegetria display a solemn majesty and a sacred somewhat static quality.”[3]

The second style represented in the Virgin of the Passion icons is called the Mother of God, Eleusa, which dates from the 11th century.  Probably the most famous of example of this iconic type is the Virgin of Vladimir.  This iconographic type is referred to as a “tenderness” icon.   In many of these icons, Jesus has the characteristics of a child being gently held in his mother’s arms.  He is often embracing her around the neck as in the icon the Virgin of Vladimir.  There is often an air of sadness in the face of the Virgin and the theme of Eleusa began to be associated in a special way with the theme of the Passion and of forgiveness.[4]  This is important because what the Eleusa icon does implicitly, the Virgin of the Passion makes more explicit with the appearance of the angels holding the instruments of the passion.  The iconographic theme of Eleusa, therefore, leads spontaneously and specifically to the theme of the Virgin of the Passion, to which the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help belongs.[5]  Perpetual Help is a composite of these two iconographic types making it possible to do a basic first reading of the icon before offering a reading according to the theme of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The Virgin of the Passion: A First Reading

Knowledge of two of the main sources for the theological content of the Perpetual Help icon indicates the wealth of themes that are present in the image’s composition.  Previously, the popular name of the icon and the story that has accompanied it tended to reduce the theological and spiritual potential of the image.  That is not to say that these factors are not part of the theological content of the icon or that they are in any way untrue but as Ferrero asserts, “the icon of Perpetual Help does not tell a story, rather it presents a theological theme with symbolic images.”[6]  Because of its symbolic character, the icon can communicate various themes and images all at once without being tied to anyone in particular.  “It is this that makes the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help a world of symbols and messages, transforming it into an inexhaustible source of aesthetic and religious contemplation.”[7]

Mary looks out at us and invites us into the mystery of redemption.  Her head is inclined toward Jesus indicating her own union with him and his work.  Her face is viewed as portraying sadness and the smallness of her mouth shows the inability of words to contain so great a mystery.  Jesus holds onto her right hand, which she is using to point to him as the way for us to follow.  This is also the symbol of the star on the Virgin’s forehead.  Mary lights the way to Jesus, the Word incarnate. Jesus looks toward the cross without foreboding or fear.  He looks toward his destiny with a quiet resolve.  The hands are not a tight grip, but gentle reminding us of the lightness of Jesus’ yoke.  He shows us the bottom of his foot, his full humanity and his willingness to share a lot of the suffering of the human family.  The Archangels Michael (on the viewer’s left) and Gabriel (on the right) hold the instruments of the passion.  They hold them with veiled hands, as sacred instruments of Jesus’ ultimate triumph.  The whole composition is bathed in gold as if the resurrection has already been won.

Thus far, I have attempted to explain some of the sources of the iconographic style of the Virgin of Passion in general and the Perpetual Help icon in particular.  I have also offered a brief first reading of the icon to point out some of its major symbolic components.  I have done this in order to lay the groundwork for another reading of the icon, one based on the more specific theme of reconciliation and forgiveness.  It is important to do this so that we can be assured that the reading offered is faithful to the styles, symbols and theological themes of the icon.  A familiarity with these basic themes and symbols, in a certain sense, has opened the icon for me to view wider and deeper meanings.  I have discovered this inexhaustible source of which Ferrero speaks.  As I move into a new reading, I remind the reader that Mary is an example of the style Hodegetria, “she of the way” and of Eleusa, associated with the Passion of Jesus and forgiveness.  I believe that within the icon there is a way to read a spirituality of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The Icon: An Image of Reconciliation and Forgiveness

To read the icon according to the theme of reconciliation, I will draw upon Robert Schreiter’s thought on the ministry of reconciliation as spirituality. First, Schreiter describes Christian spirituality as primarily a relationship with God while noting that, “The restoration of humanity might be considered the very heart of reconciliation. The experience of reconciliation is the experience of grace; the restoration of one’s damaged humanity in a life-giving relationship with God.[8]  The icon, as we have seen in our first reading, is an invitation to the experience of redemption in image form.  Mary points to Jesus as the one who brings about this redemption, this restoration of our humanity by his incarnation, death, and resurrection the aspects of the redemption that are symbolically present within the composition.   Mary is pictured in an intimate relationship with Jesus and her eyes invite us into a relationship with our Redeemer.

Second, Schreiter relates the experience of restored humanity to the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples after the resurrection.  Schreiter suggests that more than concepts or dogmatic constructs, narratives are a powerful means of shaping our identity. The resurrection stories can help Christians to understand, “the nature of reconciliation, as a spirituality, as a ministry, and as a strategy.”[9]  As stated earlier, the Perpetual Help icon does not tell a story but rather presents a theological theme through symbol.  While I believe that this is true, it is important to remember that icons are essentially the Gospel in image form.[10]  The power of the icon lies in its calling to the mind of the believer many of the narratives that are found in the Gospels.  Not only does the icon evoke many different Gospel narratives in the mind and heart of the viewer it also facilitates the construction of new narrative strains based on the context of the individual Christian viewing it.  The icon is, after all, a meeting point between the mystery of God and the reality of the human person.[11]  Let us look at some of the symbolic components of the Perpetual Help narrative.  I will focus special attention on the eyes and face of the Virgin, the gaze of Jesus, Jesus’ barefoot and the dangling sandal, and finally, what I will call the embrace of the Virgin and child.

The Eyes of the Virgin

Our entry into the icon is primarily through the eyes of Mary who looks out at us lovingly.  There are two aspects of Mary’s eyes and face that are important to the theme of reconciliation.  First I will discuss the role of women in the process of reconciliation and then I will describe the countenance of Mary, which invites victims of violence and oppression to tell their stories and unite them to the story of Jesus reconciling mission.

There are, of course, icons in which Christ is the one who looks out at the beholder.  Why, when both Christ and the Virgin are present in an icon, is Mary the one who most often looks out at the observer?  If Christ is the one who has reconciled us to God, why does he not look at us?  Why are her eyes not firmly fixed on him as the center of her life and ours?    Is it significant that it is the eyes of a woman that look out at us?  Joan Chittister declares in her seminal work on discipleship, “Women are most of the poor, most of the refugees, most of the uneducated, most of the beaten, most of the rejected of the world.  Are women simply half a disciple?  To be half commissioned, half noticed, and half valued?”[12] Although women’s contributions to peace and reconciliation after conflicts is often half-valued and half-noticed their work mirrors the often imperceptible workings of God’s Kingdom.  Women painstakingly stitch together the fabric of life torn apart by conflict and human enmity creating a place that might once again be called a home.  Mary has contributed to the history of salvation by her acceptance and welcoming of the Divine plan, what Desmond Tutu calls, “the cosmic movement toward unity and reconciliation that has existed from the beginning of time.”[13]

The icon reveals a new trajectory for the history of the human family by recalling the whole redemptive narrative in which Mary plays a central role. From the presence of the Archangel Gabriel who announced to Mary the birth of the Redeemer, to the cross he holds, to the golden light of the resurrection, the icon makes present this cosmic movement toward unity in which Mary invites us to participate.  The eyes of a woman look out at us because, as Robert Schreiter says, “women’s experience has been a school for thinking about and seeking a different way other than the heartbreaking trajectory human history has taken of division and violence.”[14]  This is the school of the Theotokos, the God-bearer, whose eyes reach out to us calling us to the true trajectory of human history. No effort or contribution toward peace and reconciliation will be half-valued or wasted, for in the fullness of time God sent his Son, born of a woman (Galatians 4:4)![15]

We are taken into the icon by the power of the eyes of the Virgin and following the line of her nose, we are led down to her mouth.  The diminutive size of the Virgin’s mouth is symbolic of the contemplative silence called for as one confronts the mystery of God.[16] I think that there is another way to understand this contemplative silence in the Virgin’s face.  It is an attitude of silent contemplation of the human condition.  It is also an attitude of careful attention to suffering humanity.  People seem moved spontaneously to express to Mary of Perpetual Help their stories of pain and alienation.  In other words, people, quite naturally share their stories with her.   John De Gruchy calls story-telling the best way to speak about Christian reconciliation.[17] Mary’s attentiveness invites the victims of violence and oppression to place their stories within the narrative of the suffering, death and resurrection of her Son, Jesus.  The narratives shared with the Virgin are a way for people to, “graft their suffering onto the pattern or model of Christ’s own suffering and death and thus be united to the one who brings about true reconciliation.[18]  I shall return to this theme later.

The Gaze of Jesus and the Dangling Sandal

Mary gazes upon us and invites us into the mystery of reconciliation and points us along a path of our human restoration in Jesus.  Jesus looks off toward the cross that is held by the angel Gabriel.  Jesus’ gaze toward the cross can be related to our reconciliation with God that was accomplished for us on the cross and the path that Jesus marks out for victims of violence and oppression found in the act of forgiveness.  The popular narrative that has accompanied the icon recounts Jesus’ fear upon seeing the vision of the angels carrying the instruments of his future passion and his seeking refuge in the arms of his mother.  The icon itself seems to tell a different story.  Jesus’ gaze is directed toward the cross, but his face is not one of alarm or fear because the cross is not the goal of his life and ministry, God’s vision for humanity is the goal.  Gustavo Gutiérrez states emphatically that, “Jesus did not come to suffer but to announce the Kingdom (God’s vision of reconciled humanity) and the cross was the price he paid to bring that vision to fruition.  The cross is the result of Jesus’ fidelity to that vision.”[19]  I suggest that Jesus’ gazes through the cross, beyond the cross to the final goal of reconciliation, which is the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

The dangling sandal and the barefoot of Jesus is full of meaning.  I think that as Jesus looks toward the cross, the suffering that he must pass through, the sandal symbolizes Jesus commitment to make the journey.  Reconciliation is a revelation of how God relates to the world, and how God sees the destiny of the world.[20] God relates to the world in a manner of absolute commitment and fidelity to bring about the reconciliation of the human family.  As Miroslav Volf relates, “the cross is the giving up of God’s self in order not to give up on humanity.”[21]

Jesus’ gaze toward the cross also provides us with a horizon for our participation in the work of reconciliation.  If Jesus did not come specifically to suffer neither is human destiny meant to be one of suffering and oppression.  Forgiveness is a decision by victims of wrongdoing to no longer have their lives directed by past injustice.  The reconciliation that Jesus has won through the cross takes place within the horizon of God’s infinite love. God’s forgiveness of sinful humanity is the fruit of that infinite love.[22]   Human forgiveness may take place within that horizon but it has a different basis; it is an expression of freedom from past hurt and a decision to move in a new direction that is not determined by the past.  The restoration of our humanity in the act of forgiveness is made possible by the fact that God’s own Son entered into the full dimension of our humanity, and himself experienced violence and death.[23]

The dangling sandal also reveals Jesus’ continued commitment to our ongoing attempts at reconciliation and forgiveness.  Jesus can see us through the starts and stops of our attempts at reconciliation.  There is one more idea I want to share, however much this might stretch the intention of the iconographic symbolism. The dangling sandal of Jesus is reminiscent of the removal of Moses sandals on Mount Sinai in the presence of the Holy One.  Jesus’ sandal falls as a sign, that in the wideness of God’s all-encompassing vision, God considers the smallest, almost insignificant attempts at reconciliation wrought by men and women, holy ground.

The Embrace of The Virgin and Child  

I have considered some of the themes of reconciliation in the icon of Perpetual Help by considering the figures of the Virgin and Jesus separately from one another.  Nevertheless, they are very much together in the composition.  How are they represented together and does that representation have implications for the dynamic of reconciliation?  I believe that the icon shows a type of embrace shared by the Virgin and Jesus that expresses a spirituality of reconciliation.

The embrace of the Virgin and child in the Eleusa icons (especially the Virgin of Vladimir) has a spontaneous deeply emotional quality.  It is almost as if we are witnessing a private moment between a mother and her child.  As Alfredo Tradigo notes, “the Virgin of Mercy (Eleusa) expresses the intensity of the loving affectionate relationship between the Mother and the Christ child meant to exhibit profound affection veiled by the thought of the child’s future passion.”[24]  In the Eleusa type icon the embrace is recognizably just that, an embrace.

In the Virgin of the Passion icons generally and the Perpetual Help icon specifically, the embrace has a more formal stylized quality without the emotional intensity of the Eleusa iconic type.  For example, the child seems almost weightless in his Mother’s arm.  Their hands rest gently together, they are not closed in around each other.  There is intentionality in their embrace.  It is not a private moment shared between mother and child.  It is an intentional moment created for us.  The embrace is not one of spontaneous intimacy but one of intentional community.  The icon makes room for us to become part of it.  It reveals the essentially social nature of reconciliation.

Miroslav Volf uses embrace as a metaphor for the social dimension of reconciliation.  He notes that, “the ultimate goal of reconciliation is a community of love.”[25]  Volf explicates a whole phenomenology of embrace that shows the intentionality that is part of the creation of a space in the self to allow the other to enter.  I believe that the idea of embrace counterbalances our tendency to focus on the personal dimension of reconciliation.  Cecilia Clegg observes that, “Concentrating on the personal dimension of reconciliation has denied the Christian community a vision of creation and salvation, and a description of the mission of the church, which speaks directly to the fragmented state of societies and of the world.[26]

The embrace of the Virgin and the child Jesus in the Perpetual Help icon help us to imagine the community of love that we are called to create with them.  In a certain sense, our imagination must help us to get behind the icon and look out at the other in order to invite he/she into the embrace of communal reconciliation.  Because of its formal nature, I think the dynamic intentionality of the icon is overlooked.  The icon takes on a static objectified quality because the scope of our vision limits it power.

The popular devotional practice set up a relationship where the viewer, whether it be an individual or a community, remained at a distance in an attitude of the petition.  The popular story that is associated with the icon gives it a meaning of “protection from” the vision of angels and the instruments of the passion rather than a “movement toward” the ultimate reconciliation of the human family which moves through the cross.  In fact, in popular devotional practice, the word “protection” is a common theme.  But let us look again at the image.  It is clear that the Virgin is holding Jesus but it is not evident that she is holding him back.  Their hands are not locked together in cringing fear but rather of mutual reassurance that God’s plan for the human family will ultimately triumph.  The turn of Jesus’ neck has a resoluteness about it that sets his course, reminiscent of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel in which the scripture tell us, “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

The hand of the Virgin does point to Jesus but if you follow the trajectory of her hand it is in the same line with the direction that Jesus has determined to walk.  As Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “it is our historical following- in our walking the path of Jesus- that the final judgment on our faith in Christ will be made.[27]  His foot and the dangling sandal are Jesus’ commitment to our continued historical walking as the Body of Christ of which he is the head. Likewise, the gold background of the icon does indicate an experience of the grace of reconciliation, which as Robert Schreiter asserts, “is not simply the opportunity to dwell in the overwhelming grace of God: it leads to action.”[28] In other words, the gold background is not meant simply to be dwelled in it is meant to be moved toward. If the icon is not a static image neither is the concept of reconciliation that it symbolizes rather, “it seeks peace and actively engages in practices of forgiveness, it requires us to seek reconciliation in our own families and communities, it calls us to sustain communities of reconciliation that can provide accompaniment and hospitality to those seeking reconciliation in their own lives.”[29]  I want to return to my childhood neighborhood to view the situation of our lives through the vision of reconciliation symbolized in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

The Story of a Neighborhood and the Icon of Perpetual Help

Remembering the story of my Dad and our neighbor riding home from work, I am struck that everyone thought our separation inevitable.  For the white Catholics in the neighborhood, it was “get out if you can.”  For those who stayed, it would be some time for the process of cooling down to reach a level of civility.  It was, as Cecelia Clegg comments, a situation in which, “we in the Christian churches have the mission, we have many of the resources, but we seem to lack the will to embrace one another in any sustained way.  And so we linger between embrace and exclusion.”[30]  Perpetual Help had a prominent place in our Church and in our Catholic devotional lives; what role could the icon and devotion to it have played to help us bring about a different end?

The icon had a meaning attached to it that made up the heart of our devotion.  In difficult times, the Virgin was a powerful advocate for Christian people but our devotional interaction with the icon took on an air of individualistic interiority that did not act on our imaginations in any significant way.[31]  Our reactions and actions of hostility, resentment and fear seemed inevitable because we could not imagine any other way to be or any other way to be with the “other.”  Richard Kearney calls this sense of inevitability a, “social paralysis that a poetic imagination might counteract by attempting to restore man’s (sic) faith in history and to nourish the belief that things can be changed.  The first and most effective step in this direction is to begin to imagine the world as it could be otherwise.”[32]  Did our interaction with Our Mother of Perpetual Help embody a different dynamic?  Were we asking her to protect us from our present dilemma?  Was our imagination simply a remembrance and a longing for how things were?  The meaning that we had given to the icon had facilitated this dynamic.

The meaning of a picture or an image is only one way of interacting with it.  As Anthony Godzieba frames the question, “Is the “meaning” the most fundamental thing that matters when we encounter a picture?”[33]  To engage the poetic (or religious) imagination in an exercise of how things might be “otherwise,” our devotion to Perpetual Help needed to answer the question: what did the image require of us?  “How does the befriending of an image (icon) and the dynamic it represents (reconciliation) penetrate more deeply into our inner self and make, or remake us, into its own image?”[34]

I do not wish to do away with the popular story that has been part of the devotional practice of Catholic people for centuries.  As I stated earlier, for victims of violence and oppression, their feeling of security and safety in sharing their story before the icon is an essential aspect in processes of reconciliation.  Nevertheless, the meaning of the icon must be opened up beyond that popular story, especially as it pertains to a concrete ethic or way of life that embodies reconciliation.  Spirituality certainly has an interior dynamic; however, at its core spirituality is a way to follow Christ in the historical situation in which we find ourselves.  What did Mary of Perpetual Help require of us in North Omaha so many years ago?  How was she calling us to be with our brothers and sisters in the African-American community?  Cecelia Clegg challenges us this way, “This vision of reconciliation demands the recognition that the gift of grace engages Christians in a collaborative project with one another and with Christ not only to overcome conflict and division but also to establish relationships of embrace towards otherness in themselves, other people, the natural world and God.[35]  In our devotional prayers, we describe Mary as a “Mother ready at any moment to help us.”  She desires at this moment to help us follow her Son in overcoming the divisions and conflicts that plague the human family.  She desired, I believe, to help free us from all that hindered us from reaching out to one another in that North Omaha neighborhood decades ago.

The Redemptorists: Icons of Reconciliation

I stated earlier that I was writing this reflection principally for my confreres in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Since the Redemptorists received the icon in 1865, devotion to her has spread throughout the world.  Perpetual Help is, I would venture to say, one of the most recognizable images in the Catholic world.  My confrere Noel Londoño states that, “The Redemptorists made the icon a missionary and Marian image for the entire Congregation.”[36] In 1990, the icon underwent a restoration that addressed some of the physical degeneration that threatened irreparable damage to the image.  With the physical restoration has come a spiritual restoration in the Redemptorist family about how the icon might again animate our mission of preaching plentiful redemption.  I would like to suggest that Redemptorists become icons of reconciliation.

At the 1973 General Chapter of the Congregation in Rome, the capitulars were invited to an audience with Pope Paul VI.  He gave a formal address to the confreres and then launched into a spontaneous chat with them that has become famous in our community.   He said something that I would like to highlight.

This nearness to the people…try hard to strengthen it. If we want to save the world we have to instruct, we have to give a good example, we have to pray; but we also have to unite ourselves to the people by being in the midst of them.  Be among the people, get as close to them as you can.[37]

I find it astounding that this is the one aspect of our religious community and its mission that the Pope wanted to hold out to us as a special charism or aspect of our apostolic life.  Living as icons among the people means that we are in the midst of them sharing their hopes and dreams, their worries and their fears.  We will be in a position to listen intently to the people as they share their stories.  Our nearness to the people will allow us to preach plentiful redemption within the concrete circumstances of their lives.  Like the icon of Perpetual Help, we will be able to point the way to Jesus and accompany people in their historical journeying.  Our Constitutions tell us that we have been, “blessed by God with the ministry of reconciliation.”[38]  To be an icon is to make present what is signified.  As icons of reconciliation, we must make reconciliation a way of life in our religious family bringing the experience near to those we serve.

To do this we must not forget the concrete ethic that is part of the iconic dynamic that Perpetual Help offers.  We must remember that the embrace of the Virgin and the child Jesus offers a mutual reassurance but not a protection from the way of discipleship that Christians are called upon to live.

Reconciliation is part of this way of discipleship.  Our focus has been to invite people to the wonderful sacrament of reconciliation.  Indeed our founder is the patron of Confessors.  Though this has been our focus we should never lose the wider vision in which the icon invites us to participate.  To actively seek reconciliation is an essential dimension of Jesus’ redemptive work.  I must admit that I have become deeply moved by the dangling sandal of Jesus.  It reminds me that my Redemptorist confreres and I must let fall all of our fears and inhibitions, anything that would separate us from the people that Pope Paul VI called us to remain close to.  In the face of so much hatred and division we are call,ed to remove the sandals from our feet in the presence of human suffering and commit ourselves to the work of Christ’s reconciling redemption.  Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.

John Fahey-Guerra CSsR

(Province of Denver)


[1] Robert J. Schreiter, “Mediating Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: What Is the Church’s Role?” The Spirit in the Church and the world [The Annual Publication of the College Theology Society, 2003, vol. 49] (2004): 65.
[2] Noel Londoño C.Ss.R., ed., Our Lady of Perpetual Help: The Icon, Favors and Shrines (Liguori, Mo: Ligouri Publications, 2002), 14.
[3] Fabriciano Ferrero, The Story of an Icon (Chawton Hampshire: Redemptorist Publications, 2001), 60.
[4] Ferrero, The Story of an Icon, 66.
[5] Ferrero, 68.
[6] Ferrero, 118.
[7] Ferrero, 119.
[8] Robert J Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality & Strategies (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1998), 15.
[9] Schreiter, The Minstry of Reconciliation, 21.
[10] Daniel Korn C.Ss.R.,  “The Christus in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help,” Notes for a Province Retreat. (Unpublished, 2010), 4.
[11] Londoño, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 17.
[12] Joan Chittister, In the Heart of the Temple: My Spiritual Vision for Today’s World (New York: BlueBridge, 2004), 145.
[13] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York, NY: Image Doubleday, 1999), 263.
[14] Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation, 30.
[15] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 263.
[16] Korn, “The Christus in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help,” 1.
[17] John W De Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 22.
[18] Robert Schreiter, “Reconciliation as a Means to Overcoming Polarization,” in Killeen Chair Lecture (presented at the Saint Norbert College, De Pere, WI, 2007), 12.
[19] Gustavo Gutiérrez, “The Word in History” (presented during the course, The Option for the Poor: Spirituality and Biblical Foundations, University of Notre Dame, July 15, 2005).
[20] Robert Schreiter, “The Spirituality of Reconciliation and Peacemaking in Mission Today,” in Mission–Violence and Reconciliation, ed. Howard Mellor and Timothy Yates (Sheffield: Cliff College Publishers, 2004), 43.
[21] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 126.
[22] Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation, 57.
[23] Robert Schreiter, “The Ministry of Forgiveness in a Praxis of Reconciliation” (presented at the International Seminar on Reconciliation, Lima, Peru, August 21, 2006), 3.
[24] Alfredo Tradigo, Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006), 177-178.
[25] Miroslav Volf, “The Social Meaning of Reconciliation,” Interpretation 54, no. 2 (April 2000): 163.
[26] Cecelia Clegg, “Between Embrace and Exclusion,” in Explorations in Reconciliation, ed. David Tombs and Joseph Liechty (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2006), 123.
[27] Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2003), 50.
[28] Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation, 16.
[29] Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation, 102.
[30] Clegg, “Between Embrace and Exclusion,” 135.
[31] Mark Searle, “Images and Worship,” in Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal, ed. Anne Koester and Barbara Searle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004), 126-127.
[32] Richard Kearney, “Ethics and the Postmodern Imagination,” Thought 62 (1987): 44.
[33] Anthony J Godzieba, “The Catholic Sacramental Imagination and the Access/Excess of Grace,” New Theology Review 21, no. 3 (2008): 14.
[34] Searle, “Images and Worship,” 133.
[35] Clegg, “Between Embrace and Exclusion,” 133.
[36] Londoño, Our Lady of Perpetual Help: The Icon, Favors and Shrines, 24.
[37] Pope Paul VI, “Spontaneous Address to Capitulars, 1973,” in Readings in Redemptorist Spirituality Volume 1, ed. Commission for Redemptorist Spirituality (Rome, 1988), 178.
[38] General Government C.Ss.R., Constitutions and Statutes: The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Rome: General Curia C.Ss.R., 1988), #11.



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