Hope in the Theology of the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help


Christian faith is the way human beings live their relationship with God in the presence of everything thing in the world, but this only happens when the person responds to the Gospel which was announced to him/her.  The icon of Perpetual Help awakens faith because it announces a message of hope that is contained in its symbolic elements and is deeply inspired by the Gospel. By means of the icon, the person hopes that God will come to his/her help, thus beginning a relationship of faith. That way hope is the entranceway to the Christian life because it is the fundamental disposition for beginning a journey of faith. Just note how Jesus fostered hope among the poor, even among those who had no faith, making it the starting point of Christianity. Many healings happened because people had hope that Jesus would cure them. Evangelization, therefore, is made of words and deeds that awaken hope. The message of hope lifts the spirits and helps one to overcome the feeling of incapacity, which immobilizes a human being, leading him/her to act on behalf of the faith. If a person makes known to another that even in the face of hopelessness, it is possible to have hope in God, that person is certainly evangelizing already. That way, if the icon of Perpetual Help has a message of hope, then it evangelizes.

The Theology of the icon reveals hope

The historical tradition says that the icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help, venerated today in Rome, was painted between the 12th and 13th centuries, being a replica of an icon made by the evangelist Luke in Ephesus[1]. This information could be true since the Council of Ephesus in 431 defined the unique role of Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos). This Council was convened to decide a complex controversy arising from Arianism about the humanity of Jesus, which required treating the person of Mary as the Mother of Christ, but not as the Mother of God. In the end, this Council declared Mary to be the Mother of God, making note that she is the Mother of the Word of God. Certainly, this controversy only happened because Maria was already venerated in prior centuries as the “Mother of God.” It is worth noting that the icon of Perpetual Help carries the abbreviation of Mother of God in Greek just above the head of the angel Michael, and that of Jesus Christ just above the head of the angel Gabriel. Another interesting fact is that the Gospel of Luke is the one that has the most references to Mary. Even in the Acts of the Apostles, he places Mary in the upper room, together with the followers of Jesus who awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 1:14). This detail confirms the importance that Luke gives to the person of Mary, affirming that he may really be the author of the first icon of Perpetual Help. That being the case, it is from the spirituality of Luke that we will observe the sign of hope that this icon reveals to the human being.

The Gospel of Luke makes the freeing of the poor to be the central point of Jesus’ mission (cf. Lk 4:18-19). For example, in the Canticle of Mary and that of Zechariah, he paints a scene where the meek and poor are those who have no power, and, for that reason, the power of God manifests itself to free them from oppression (cf. Lk 1:46-56, 67-79). The Beatitudes are the high point of this message because it lifts up the poor and casts down the rich. Luke wants neither rich nor poor, but equality among all. But, why this preference of God for the poor? Because it is the preference of a situation. God chose the people of Israel and freed them from Egypt, not because those people had spectacular merits, but because they were weak, small, poor, and enslaved. Together with the reality of the poor, pointed out by Luke, we see the reality of suffering that shook the people of the 14th and 15th centuries, the time when the icon began to be venerated in Rome, after having been brought by those who fled the Island of Crete, which had been invaded by the Turks[2].

In the aforementioned centuries, the European population passed through many difficulties. The people suffered from the Bubonic Plague, which devastated Europe and killed more than 50 million people. There was also the Hundred Years’ War, the great conflict between England and France, which left everyone in a state of alert and anxiety. And then there was the Great Western Schism, which put the Church into a profound religious crisis (1378-1417). This environment of suffering brought out devotion to the Mother of God, which, according to historian Jacques Le Goff, was already alive since the 11th century[3] through hymns, devotions, representations, and works of art[4]. Just remember the writings of Dante, in the Divine Comedy, which summarizes a little of that environment: “O Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, humble and raised above every other creature, the specific purpose of the eternal design, you are the one who has ennobled human nature in such a way that the One who made her would have it no other way than to be made by her.”[5]  Because of an abstract theology about God, that did not help to have hope in the face of suffering, the figure of Mary took on the divine qualities of care and protection in the eyes of the people. The strengthening of the Marian devotions, experienced as an aid to ease suffering, was certainly the cause of the renewal of devotion to the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help in Rome because its spirituality helped to preserve hope in the midst of so many difficulties.

In summary, the expressions of the evangelist Luke about the lifting up of the poor, united with the suffering of the poor who were caught up in theology of exile, deeply affirmed by the Christianity of the Middle Ages, help us to see that this icon does not express a theology of suffering, but rather a theology that seeks to create or maintain the hope of those who contemplate it.

 Suffering, hope, and mission as the proposition of the Icon

Although suffering is not a specific reality of the poor, it is in them that it appears with more frequency and in more profound ways, since the situation of poverty tends to suffer. Luke seems to say that the outbreak of this suffering is at the beginning of theology, expressing this in his Gospel. Among the elements that appear in the icon, the two angels – Michael and Gabriel – present to Jesus some of the instruments of his crucifixion that are symbols of pain: the spear, sponge, cross, and nails. These instruments scare the boy; however, he runs to the arms of his mother and holds her hand. The pain has not yet touched him physically, but he hopes that in the moment of suffering, his mother will stay close to him and give him security. Luke does not speak of Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross, keeping watch over her son, but he makes mention of this in the very beginning of his Gospel, when he describes the old man, Simeon, warning Mary that a sword would pierce her soul (cf. Lk 2:35). This means that the whole Gospel of Luke is permeated by the situation of waiting in the face of suffering. In the Acts of the Apostles, he places Mary in prayer together with the community of Jerusalem at the moment after Easter (cf. At 1:14), teaching us that, after all the suffering, Mary did not get discouraged or turn aside from her mission. She faced everything with serenity, remaining firm in her hope of the resurrection and acting together with the disciples. Thus, we observe that the Christian community is the place where the faith is kept alive and where hope is strengthened.

To look at the icon of Perpetual Help through the angle of hope is to recognize that it is made for all those who feel crucified; and, for that reason, those who suffer identify very much with it. History shows that when suffering increases in human lives, people return to devotion in search of hope. In the message of the icon, those who are crucified discover that pain is a reality of life and can even be avoided. However, when it appears, it must be suffered with hope, since this is the only way we can face it. Pain is not a divine determination, but rather a human reality produced by life situations and by injustices. When suffering arrives and becomes sharp, it brings up the question about God, because incomprehensible suffering brings into doubt the concept that a human being has of itself and places one face to face with one’s limitations, making him/her seek answers outside him/herself. Because of this, if a person suffers terrible pain with no hope, he/she becomes totally alone, since they see no other possibility than to completely give in to the suffering. On the other hand, if a person suffers from hope, he/she knows that the moment will pass and, in that way, gathers all one’s forces to fight against all the difficulties that suffering presents. With this, hope blares like an order to resist the pain and conquer it. Pain tears down a human being and hope build one up because it orients one toward a better future.  When facing pain with hope, a person struggles for life, because one will always have to open to oneself the possibility of a future. Here is the true meaning of faith, in that it provides conditions to survive the open wound of pain, hoping to heal it.

Hope is not a mere expectation but is a call to action in the present, preparing for the future. That being the case, it is not a passive waiting, nor something unreal that will never happen, but a process of believing that the present prepares what is to come, and God is in this process. This does not mean taking on the future at the expense of the present, but rather, transforming the present with a view to the future. The criteria of hope help a person to enter into direct contact with reality, to commit oneself to transform it here in the present, looking forward to a different and better future. This is what makes up missionary activity, which means leaving the tranquility of established truths for the cause of the Faith, breaking with that which induces immobility and promoting change, without allowing oneself to be determined by the surrounding world. The criteria of hope take a person out of a tranquil faith by inviting one to be active in history. This consists in leaving behind a deterministic mindset, which thinks of things as something already finished, without the possibility of transformation or change.

The crucified ones – those who suffer – produce salvation because they live in hope and acquire the value of solidarity. The crucified ones of this life have nothing more than hope and, because of this, live the mission of presenting that to the world. In this way, each devotee of Perpetual Help who demonstrates hope before the icon is a sign of hope for those who are desperate.

Through the icon, Mary expresses solidarity with those who hope in God

In the icon, Mary is presented as the one who welcomes the child Jesus in her arms, indicating her solidarity with those who are despairing and are seeking hope. The hand of the boy grabbing the hand of his mother is at the center of the icon. Holding hands is a sign of solidarity, indicating that by holding hands with God and with others, the human being goes on living.  By giving her yes to God in the annunciation, Mary also held hands with God and with humanity, demonstrating her solidarity with all those who awaited the Messiah and sighed for freedom. The same attitude of solidarity appears in the episode of the visit to the family of Elizabeth. The help given to her cousin displays the fact that basic human necessities united to a profound experience of God are important factors of the mission. Luke expresses this through the hymn of exaltation that Mary pronounces before Elizabeth (cf. Lk 1:39-56).

In the song of the Magnificat, Mary expresses the profound solidarity that God has with those who suffer. As a strong woman, who holds those who suffer in her arms, she invokes divine justice over this world and begs the intervention of God in favor of those who suffer. The wonders of which Mary sings are born of a profound love for the poor and those in need of freedom. It has the same connotation as Jesus’ mission in the reading he made from the text of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth (cf. Lk 4:16-21). Mary teaches that the struggle against suffering has no need of discourses or great events, but rather the practice of solidarity. An example is the attitude of the flight into Egypt with the boy and Joseph because of Herod’s persecution. If she had lived a tranquil or accommodated faith, she would have stayed at home, arguing that God would take care that no harm should come to the boy; however, she fled into Egypt with the intention of saving the life of her son. Faith involves everything, but it does not replace human effort, action, and intelligence. This is the practice found in devotees who expect grace from God through the intercession of Mary. It is well known that in seeking grace, hope helps them to chase after medical, legal, or relational resources to get what they need. 

The hope revealed by the icon shows that the action of God shows preference where human need is revealed. There, where pain and suffering threaten to erode hope and the meaning of life, is the place where Mary, through her icon, motivates the hope to continue to struggle. Thus, heaven continues to unite itself with the human reality, becoming present when the person for the most part is weakest, which is to say in pain. 

Hope as a confrontation with fear

In the icon, Mary’s look turns toward the person who is before her and not toward her son, showing that God has his face turned toward the human being, dispelling any kind of fear. When there is no hope in the interior disposition of a person, fear can win out. Jesus said to his disciples not to be afraid since fear is one of the fundamental problems of life and human relationships. The more a person is closed off in fear, the more he/she loses the ability to relate with others. Hope helps to overcome fear. It is true that a person trapped in a harrowing situation becomes fearful since it is human to be fearful. However, when this person is filled with hope, fear cannot tie him/her up, choke him/her or make him/her weak. Armed with hope, a person passes through fear and breathes freely, without being a slave to it. The more there is hope, the less fear there is. Being afraid and learning to hope, even in the midst of fear, is the sign of a winner because hope has already become present. 

In this sense, the artist of the icon surely wished to teach how to defeat fear through a hopeful attitude. The attitude of hope is not something solitary or individualistic but refers to human relationships since by diminishing fear a person opens him/herself to interaction with others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people pray the novena with the icon of Perpetual Help since the novenas are held in so many different places, alongside those who are different and have different ways, without prejudice, because it is true that fear, individualism, and prejudice enslave. The possibility to overcome all this is nourished by hope. Thus, we believe that this was the reason why the artist of the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help chose this theology.

Final considerations

Hope is not a prognosis, but a process built by the power of the Gospel. Therefore, it is consistent to say that the icon of Perpetual Help has a Gospel message and seeks to recover hope, not as momentary optimism, but rather as a power that helps one to continue trying to face down life’s worst possible conditions. Thus, the most profound plan for witnessing to hope is through suffering and poverty (cf. 1Pd 3:15). The person who opens him/herself to hope makes the longing for a hoped-for future happen within history. Without hope, a person closes him/herself to the transcendent, entangling him/herself in subjectivism. On the other hand, when hope passes through concrete historical mediations, it takes flesh into the existential reality of life. The icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help is an instrument of contemplation, but in giving expression to hope, it involves the life of the person, orienting him/her to struggle in order to transform the world by the power of faith.

Fr. Gelson Luiz Mikuszka, C.Ss.R., Province of Campo Grande / Brazil

Translated by Fr. Karl Esker CSsR., Province of Campo Grande / Brazil

[1] Cf. SCHENEIDER, Antônio. Nossa Senhora do Perpétuo Socorro: história, culto e devoção. Aparecida: Santuário, 1991, p. 32.

[2] Cf. DUNOYER, R. P. Notre-Dame du Perpétuel-Secours: histoire, merveilles, prières. Paris: Saint-Nicolas du Port, 1900, p. 9.

[3] We must remember that in the 9th century the Church definitively structured itself into juridically recognized parishes. In this way, the Church brought together two specific axes: namely, to administer its structural complexity and to evangelize in order to save souls. The administrative dimension went on to prioritize the sacraments and the material structures, leaving the evangelization of the people in the background. This made the people seek popular or particular means to nourish their faith (cf. RAMOS, Julio A. Teologia pastoral: sapientia fidei: serie de manuais de teologia. Madrid: Biblioteca de autores cristianos, 2004).  

[4] Cf. LE GOFF, Jacques. Em busca da Idade Média. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2012, p. 202. 

[5] This text is in Canto XXIII of the Divine Comedy.