Our Lady Help of Christians and of Sheshan

On the 24th of May 2024 the Church celebrates the feast of Mary, the Help of Christians. Its latin name is Sancta Maria Auxilium Christianorum.

It was St John Chrysostom who made use of this title, way back to the year 345. Other historical connotations which are intimately connected with this feast can be found in the defense of Christian Europe, the North of Africa as well as the Middle East when they were attacked by non-Christian peoples during the Middle Ages. At the time of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire who tried everything to invade Christian Europe in 1571, it was Pope St Pius V who summoned Christian armes to defend and successfully prevailed over the Turks. Mary’s powerful intercession was decisive in this great victory of the Christian army.

Towards the end of the 17th century, Emperor Leopold I of Austria took refuge in the Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Pasau. History tells us that some 200,000 Ottoman Turks besieged the capital city of Vienna. However, a magnificent victory took place thanks to Mary Help of Christians: on September 8th, Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday, plans were drawn for the battle. On September 12, Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, Vienna was ultimately saved through the intercession of Mary Help of Christians. The entire Europe cried out out “Mary, Help!” and prayed the Holy rosary together with the Emperor.

Another significant historical event which is linked with Mary Help of Christians occurred in the nineteenth century. In 1809, Napoleon’s men managed to enter the Vatican, arrested Pius VII and brought him in chains to Grenoble, and finally Fontainebleau. The Pope spent  five years imprisonment. While in chains, the Holy Father vowed to God that, if he were restored to the Roman See, he would institute a special feast in honor of Mary. Military reverses forced Napoleon to set free the Pope, and on May 24th  1814, Pius VII returned triumphantly to Rome. Twelve months later, the Pope decreed that the feast of Mary Help of Christians be celebrated on 24th of May.

In the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII signed and gave a pontifical decree of canonical coronation of the Turin image on February 13, 1903. The rite of coronation was done on May 17, 1903 by Cardinal Agostino Richelmy. It is now perpetually enshrined within the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians.

The Order of Servites has been celebrating the feast of Mary Help of Christians since the 17th century. This feast gained an incredible momentum in Rome when it was greatly popularised by St John Bosco and St Vincent Pallotti. St John Bosco was a zealous promoter of the devotion of Mary Help of Christians. He not only built a huge basilica in 1868 but also founded a female religious congregation for women with the name The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. Furthermore, St John Bosco interpreted the painting he himself commissioned for the basilica as Mary Mother of the Church. The Popes have always addressed mary as Mother and Help of the Church. St John Bosco prophetically opted for this devotion due to its intimate relation to his devotion to the church, the bearer of Christ.

The late Pope Benedict XVI asked all Catholics around the world to pray for Christians in China on May 24. This is what Pope Benedict wrote in that famous letter of May 27, 2007 addressed to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China:

Dear Pastors and all the faithful, the date 24 May could in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.

I would like that date to be kept by you as a day of prayer for the Church in China. I encourage you to celebrate it by renewing your communion of faith in Jesus our Lord and of faithfulness to the Pope, and by praying that the unity among you may become ever deeper and more visible. I remind you, moreover, of the commandment that Jesus gave us, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, as well as the invitation of the Apostle Saint Paul: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:1-4).

On that same day, the Catholics of the whole world – in particular those who are of Chinese origin – will demonstrate their fraternal solidarity and solicitude for you, asking the Lord of history for the gift of perseverance in witness, in the certainty that your sufferings past and present for the Holy Name of Jesus and your intrepid loyalty to his Vicar on earth will be rewarded, even if at times everything can seem a failure (no.19).

Let us pray to Mary Help of Christians with the prayer Pope St John Paul II gave us on 22 November 2001:

O Mary Help of Christians, in our need we turn to you with eyes of love, with empty hands and longing hearts.

We look to you that we may see your Son, our Lord.

We lift our heads that we may have the bread of life.

We open wide our hearts to receive the Prince of Peace.

Mother of the Church, your sons and daughters thank you for your trusting word that echoes through the ages, rising from an empty soul made full of grace, prepared by God to welcome the Word to the world, that the world itself might be reborn. In you, the reign of God has dawned, a reign of grace and peace, love and justice, born from the depths of the Word made flesh.

The Church throughout the world, joins you in praising Him whose mercy is from age to age.

O Stella Maris, light of every ocean and the mistress of the deep guide the peoples of Oceania across all the dark and stormy seas, that they may reach the haven of peace and light prepared in Him who calmed the sea.

Keep all your children safe form harm for the waves are high and we are far from home.

As we set forth upon the oceans of the world, and cross the deserts of our time, show us, O Mary, the fruit of your womb, for without your Son we are lost. Pray that we will never fail on our life journey, that in heart and mind in word and deed, in days of turmoil and in days of calm, we will always look to Christ and say: “ Who is this that even the wind obey Him?”

Our Lady of Peace, in whom all storms grow still, pray at the dawn of the new millennium that the Church in Oceania will not cease to show forth the glorious face of your Son, full of grace and truth, so that God will reign in the hearts of the Pacific peoples, and they will find peace in the world’s true Saviour.

Plead for the Church in Oceania that she may have strength-to follow faithfully the way of Jesus Christ, to life fully the way of Jesus Christ, to tell courageously the truth of Jesus Christ.

O Help of Christians, protect us!

Bright Star of the sea, guide us!

Our Lady of Peace, pray for us!

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.