The most beloved and most popular icon in the world


Ever since the entrusting of the original icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help[1] to the Redemptorist missionaries in 1866 by Pope Pius IX, devotion to this icon, especially through the novenas, began to be diffused all over the world. Thanks to the inherent missionary spirit of the Redemptorists, the papal instruction to “make her known” became second nature to them. It is important to note here that during the past 150 years, this particular Marian devotion spread not only within the ambient of the 80 countries in which the Redemptorists established themselves, but also in countries where they do not have foundations yet. For example, I have personally seen this icon well-enshrined in the Churches of Myanmar and Cambodia, two countries that have not yet seen an established Redemptorist presence. The point that I endeavor to make here is that the devotion to Mother of Perpetual Help is now an universally popular Catholic devotion. In what follows, I will try to highlight a few reflections from different theological aspects linked to the universal popularity of this devotion.

The Mariological Aspects

The title that is popularly assigned to this icon, “Madre de Perpetuo Succursu” implies that here is the Mother who is ever-ready to be of help. Going by the characteristics of the personality of Mary as portrayed in the New Testament, in its very limited references to her, one cannot but simply conclude that she is indeed ‘a mother’ who is ever ready to go out of her way to help others, particularly those who are in need. Her visit to the hill country of Judea to be of assistance to her aged cousin Elizabeth then-pregnant mysteriously (Lk.1:39-56), her voluntary interceding with her divine Son to do something to save the couple from the embarrassment of running short of wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (Jn.2:1-11), her courageous standing by the foot of the Cross on which her own Son was brutally murdered, that too, at a time when all His male disciples had abandoned Him (except the ‘beloved disciple’) (Jn.19:25-27) and her staying together in solidarity with a terrified, timid group of Apostles in prayer in the upper room (Acts 1:12-14), are clear scriptural indications of this characteristic trait of Mary. As such, it goes without saying that the title is most fitting to refer to Mary the Mother of Jesus, ever ready to help all those who are in need.

Since Jesus is both fully divine and fully human as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, Mary, too, is both Mother of God and Mother of Humanity. This last aspect of her motherhood is further confirmed by Jn 19:25-27 when Jesus entrusts all humanity to her maternity, in and through the disciple He loved. The icon depicts the former aspect “Mother of God” in Greek abbreviations, in the two upper corners of the icon.

At times, within the framework of the popular mind, one may get the simplistic impression that the various titles showered on Mary by generations of humanity may imply that there are different types of “Mary”/ “Our Lady”! However, as any careful study of the origin of each of her many titles would invariably conclude, each and every title of Mary is an indication of how human beings of various times, contexts and generations have experienced her maternal intercession and protection. Thus, the title “Our Lady of Lourdes” would signify how Mary had been encountered by thousands upon thousands of human beings ever since she first appeared at Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Similarly, the title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” would signify how she has been experienced by human beings ever since that well-known encounter of the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531. Thus, numerous titles such as “Our Lady of Fatima”, “Our Lady of Lepanto”, “Our Lady of Velankanni”, “Our Lady of Aparecida”, “Our Lady of Madhu”,…..etc. evoke a particular historical encounter with or an experience of Mary by different persons. However, all such encounters and experiences, and the titles themselves, are subsumed in the single title “Our Mother of Perpetual Help”. Hence its universal appeal for her maternal care.

The Christological Aspects

As is well-known, the image of MPH belongs to the group of Christian art, known as ‘icons’. The word, ‘icon’ is derived from Greek eikon. Icons, within the Christian Tradition, especially in the Oriental Christian Churches, have their own uniqueness, in the sense that they refer to a religious painting with a deeper meaning. They belong to the sacred work of art that normally provides spiritual inspiration and connects the believer with the spiritual world. That is to say that they differ from an ordinary painting, mainly in the sense that they communicate a message in and through the symbols given in the icon.[2] Archeologists believe that icons were first popular in the houses of early Christians, and that later they began to appear in places of worship, probably towards the end of the 3rd century. Accordingly, by the end of the 4th and 5th centuries, their use was widespread among Christians.[3] Zakaria Wahba, an Oriental Coptic Christian theologian writes:

The idea behind the use of icons in the Early Church is due to the unique experience the Church faced. Most Christian converts came from pagan cultures and most of them were illiterate. Many of them had difficulty in understanding Biblical teachings and their spiritual meanings, as well as the historical events that took place in the Bible and in the life of the Church. Therefore the leaders of the Early Church permitted the use of religious pictures (icons) because the people were not able to assimilate Christianity and its doctrine unaided by visual means.[4]

The words of St. John Damascene illustrates the singular importance attributed to icons during the Patristic era: “If someone asks you to demonstrate your faith to them, bring them to a church and place them before the sacred icons”.[5] Today, official Catholic teaching, too, holds that “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other”.[6] After all, Jesus of Nazareth Himself became the visible, living icon of the invisible God, at His incarnation (Col.1:15; Heb.1:3).

As a visual means, the main message of the icon of MPH is that Mary is ever close to us in our own sufferings just as she was in the sufferings of her son, Jesus. To illustrate this point briefly: the child Jesus, being also divine, sees the impending suffering and death that awaits Him, in a vision. The two archangels on either side of the upper part of the icon, Michael and Gabriel hold the instruments of His passion and death. St. Michael is depicted as holding the lance (that pierced His side while hanging on the cross) and the gall-sop (that was given to Jesus when He cried out of thirst), while St. Gabriel is depicted as holding the cross and the nails. According to the icon, when the child Jesus sees His future horrifying passion and death, He does exactly what any human child would normally do: He leaps into the arms of His beloved mother. Mary, in turn, is depicted as a tenderly loving mother, who holds Him tightly in her left arm while allowing Him to hold her reassuring right hand with both his tiny hands. This firm clasping of hands is an unmistakable sign of the close intimate link between Jesus and Mary. This clearly implies that Mary and devotion to her, are a sure way to Jesus, because Jesus and Mary are inseparably linked. In the contemporary world where we find so many idols that lead us away from God, in this icon and in the devotion to it, we thus find a sure way to Jesus, the true God.

While the terrified gaze of the child Jesus is clearly on the instruments of His passion, the gaze of the mother is on those who look at the icon, from whatever angle they may look at it. It is precisely here that one notices the main message of the icon, namely, her closeness to us humans in our own sufferings and daily deaths, just as she was to her son Jesus. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paschal mystery is at the centre of our Christian living: “The Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross and Resurrection stands at the centre of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world”.[7] This icon depicts not only the impending passion and death of Jesus, but it also depicts the maternal reassurance of Mary that implies hope in His eventual resurrection. Her maternal gaze on us, who look at this icon, is surely an invitation to courageously live our own paschal mysteries with hope, in our daily lives, and to unite them with that of Jesus. Thus, we need to see here the central message of our Christian living:

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not merely a decoration but a message. It is a dissertation about the central mystery of our faith. The different elements that appear in the icon, tell us about God-with-us, the way of the Cross, the loving intercession of Mary and the glory of Divine Light (golden background).[8]

Last but not least, this icon also reveals the central truth about the person of Jesus: He is a true God and true Man. It emphatically reminds us that Mary is the locus where the divine (Word) met the human (Flesh) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Hence she is seen as the bridge that re-links the original harmony between the divine and the human (as originally intended by God) that was shattered by human sin.

With the eruption of various Christian fundamentalist sects all over the world, especially during the past few decades, the trite accusation is often made against the Catholic practice of the veneration of saints. The characteristic Catholic Marian devotions are not spared, in the sense that they too are confused as “worshipping” of Mary![9] The icon of MPH is a fitting anti-dote to such naïve fundamentalist accusations. After all, here is a depiction of the central mystery of our salvation itself (i.e., centred on the paschal mystery). But this depiction not only centres around the figure of Mary, but also points out the indispensable role she plays in the paschal mystery, and how she would do the same in our own ‘paschal mysteries’. That is to say, by invoking her help, by venerating her, we Catholics worship God. One is reminded of the traditional Catholic formula: “To Jesus, through Mary”!

The Moral Aspects

Thomas Aquinas indicates the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. They are infused by God’s grace and they direct a person toward God as the object of supernatural happiness.[10] They, in fact, are the defining contours of a Christian. According to Aquinas, the above-mentioned theological virtues are called ‘divine’ virtues, because God makes humans virtuous by them and directs humans to Himself through them.[11]

As we already saw above, the New Testament portrays Mary as the help of all those who invoke her, ever ready to help. Thus, she is “charity personified”. She, the first disciple of Christ, thus reminds us of our duty as disciples of Christ to be charitable. This very readiness to help anyone and everyone who invoke her, automatically evokes faith in God, through devotion to her who herself had such unwavering faith in God. In fact, one of the titles bestowed on Mary by the gospel itself is “She who believed” (Lk.1:45). Last but not least, her reassuring clasping of her son’s tiny hands when He needed her most and her tender motherly gaze at us signifies the hope that is automatically evoked in us when we meet with our own sufferings and deaths in this “valley of tears”. Thus, we may conclude that in this icon, Mary evokes (and enables) in us theological virtues that form the foundation for a good Christian moral life: faith, hope, and charity.

The Missiological Aspects

While it is true that the devotion to this icon of MPH is now a universal Catholic phenomenon, one also needs to note that it has gained unprecedented popularity in the vast continent of Asia which has a minuscule Christian population. The popular Asian novena shrines in Baclaran (Manila, Philippines), Singapore, Mahim (Mumbai, India), Bangkok (Thailand), Borella (Sri Lanka),….etc. attract not only Catholics but also people of other faiths. The doors of the Baclaran Church are never closed and it was reported some time ago that the highest number of converts to Christianity in Singapore are through the Novena Church there. These phenomena in Asia (where all Christian believers together would not exceed 3% of the total Asian population) should be a clear pointer for evangelizers (especially the Redemptorists) in the vast continent, to integrate this unique devotion as a special means for their work of evangelization.

Asians, who are the inheritors of rich ancient cultures and great religions, often if not always, prefer to refer to divine/mystical reality through their cultural signs, symbols, and metaphors rather than through well-defined, accurately formulated dogmas or doctrines.[12] Since icons too are considered to be symbols[13], the symbolical message communicated through the icon of MPH along with its emotional and maternal appeal cuts across all races and creeds, especially in Asia.  As Ferrero points out:

Icons can also be considered as symbolic images of an artistic and theological nature which both refer to and recall far more than they represent. In these images, the form and meaning of the symbol have been sublimated by the power of the sacred objects while at the same time they acquire aesthetic and psycho-religious qualities capable of influencing those who contemplate them…..When we place ourselves before them in an appropriate manner, they begin gradually to arouse in us an attitude of prayer.[14]

In other words, here is a mother, a divine mother at that, who is ever-ready to hold humans (irrespective of their religion) in their varied quotas/degrees of sufferings and deaths, always pointing to hope. After all, it is not only Christians who suffer and die in this world! For Christians, this hope becomes a hope based on her Son Jesus, and His triumphant resurrection. For the religious-minded Asians, belonging to other faiths, she is “a divine mother”, a mother of all humanity.  In this sense, the icon of MPH, in Asia (as hopefully elsewhere, too) becomes a symbol of Mary’s maternal nearness to all who suffer – Christians and those of other faiths alike. It emphatically indicates that Mary is the “new Eve” or the “new Mother of all humanity”, just as the first Eve was destined to be the ‘mother of all humanity. Hence the overall universal appeal to her maternal intercession, through the popular devotion to MPH in Asia.

Consequently, one also needs to see here, a deeper meaning, especially for the common people of other faiths: the icon is centred around not a ‘god’ who is distant, who has no sense of human suffering, but a ‘God’ who Himself shares our sufferings and deaths. This invariably ought to have a wider appeal to the devotion to the MPH, and the eventual appeal to the gospel message itself, an appeal that has more attraction than a dry, abstract formulation of a doctrine or a dogma of religion. Hence the extraordinary popularity of the devotion to this icon in many parts of Asia.

The Redemptorist Aspects

Christian faith, right from the beginning, is community-based. It is the collective community faith that is passed on from one generation to the next, since Apostolic times. As such, ideally, the lived Christian faith is not limited to the teachings from top to bottom, i.e., from the clergy to the laity. It also has an indispensable dimension that proceeds from the bottom to the top, i.e., from the ordinary simple beliefs and practices of the faithful. Moran expresses this point well when he writes:

The history of religious practice in the Catholic Church is generally written from the top down. The primary sources of study are magisterial statements of popes and councils, pivotal theological works…….This is, of course, a valid and fruitful approach to the life of the Church. An equally valid history of Catholicism could be written from the bottom up: from the perspective of popular religion; from the relation of the ordinary people with the sacred, or from the religious consciousness of the common people. The currents of popular religion run parallel to those of the official Church.[15]

It is in the same sense that Pope Francis could say in Evangelii Gaudium that popular piety enables us to see how faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on (EG, No:123). So for him, “the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated” become “active collective subjects or agents of evangelization” (EG No:122). The Pope goes on to call it “a spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly” (EG, No:124), and says that popular piety is not “devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum” (EG, No:124). According to the Pope, “for those who are capable of reading them”, expressions of popular piety “are a locus theologicus” especially at a time when we are looking to new evangelization (EG 126).

Writing of the Redemptorists and popular piety, Moran says:

From its very beginning, the Redemptorist Congregation was to make the ordinary lay person, the incarnate masses, the special object of its apostolic dynamism. By the practice of popular devotions, the Redemptorists attempted to translate the great salvific truths of the Christian faith into a mode of living the Christian life that was accessible to ordinary people, that met their spiritual needs, and at the same time, kept them in vital contact with the institutional Church.[16]

With the entrusting of the MPH icon to the Redemptorists in 1866, their innate tendency to promote popular devotions along with their proclamation of the Word, became further sharpened. From then on, it was natural that they promoted the popular devotion to MPH, especially in the form of the novenas wherever they went. It is in this sense, that the MPH devotion has become an indispensable part of their evangelizing work. As Serafino Fiore points out, “Pope Pius IX could not have imagined that in that icon would be the synthesis of the Redemptorist charism. There is the mystery of redemption, with the symbols of death and the colors of hope. there is the solidarity of those who suffer. There is the Gospel that the Redemptorists are called to proclaim”.[17]

Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

Region of Colombo, Sri Lanka

[1] Henceforth, in this essay, ‘Mother of Perpetual Help” will be denoted by MPH.

[2] For a detailed discussion of icons, see also Linda Proud, Icons: A Sacred Art, Re-print, London: Pinkin Publishing Ltd., 2013; Daniel Korn, Embracing the Icon of Love, Liguori (Missouri): Liguori Publications, 2015, 9-10.

[3] Cfr., Zakaria Wahba,  “Icons: Their History and Spiritual Significance”, The Orchard  (the Monthly Review of St.Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Washington DC, USA), January 1993.

[4] Cfr., Wahba.

[5] St. John Damascene, as cited in Fabriciano Ferrero, The Story of an Icon: The Full History, Tradition and Spirituality of the Popular Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Chawton: Redemptorist Publications, 2001, 31.

[6] See Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), No:1160.

[7] No: 571.

[8] Noel Londõno (Ed.), Our Lady of Perpetual Help: The Icon, Favours and Shrines, Rome: Redemptorist Missionaries, 1998, 21.

[9] Cfr., Marek Kotynski, Meditations on the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Rome: Scala Publications, 2015, 23.

[10] Cfr., Summa Theologiae, I-II, q.62, art.1.

[11] Cfr., Summa Theologiae, I-II, q.62, art.2.

[12] Cfr., Michael Amaladoss, “Is There an Asian Way of Doing Theology?”, East Asian Pastoral Review, 45:1 (2008), 17-20. In fact, according to Thomas Aquinas, too, no human expression can grasp fully the reality it refers to. See Summa Theologiae, II-II, q.1, art.2.

[13] Ferrero, 12.

[14] Ferrero, 27.

[15] Terence Moran, “Popular Devotion and The Congregation of The Most Holy Redeemer” in Readings in Redemptorist Spirituality, Vol.4, John O’Donnell (Eds.), Rome, The Permanent Commission for Redemptorist Spirituality, 1991, 126.

[16] Moran, 127.

[17] Cfr., Serafino Fiore, “Suggestions for Homilies for the 2015 Perpetual Help Triduum”, the leaflet that was circulated by the CSsR Spirituality Centre, Rome, 2015.