The Festival of Mary, Help of Christians, by Father B Rohner, OSB

detail of a statue of Our Lady, Help of Christians, date and artist unknown; Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians, Miguel Hidalgo, Federal District, Mexico; photographed on 14 May 2012 by Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIt was Pope Pius V who, after the Christian victory over the Turks at Lepauto, added to the many fond titles of the Blessed Virgin that of “Help of Christians,” and ordered the same to be inserted in the litany of Loretto. The festival, however, of “Help of Christians” is of very recent date. In order to understand the origin of this feast it is necessary to relate a brief chapter of very modern Church history, namely, the history of a great sufferer and of a great tyrant-of Pius VII, and Napoleon I.

When General Bonaparte secured his position of power in France, he affected the greatest respect for the Catholic Church. With a view of furthering his own ambitious projects he repealed such of the revolutionary measures as militated against religion, repaired the churches and reopened them for divine service, and, in accord with the Sovereign Pontiff, provided the desolated flocks of God’s people with good and zealous priests and bishops. On being proclaimed emperor in 1804, Napoleon wished to be crowned by the Pope. Pius VII consented, though with reluctance, to the emperor’s desires and, with much inconvenience travelled, in the winter season, across the Alps from Rome to Paris. By this act of condescension he hoped to so conciliate the emperor as to prevent any future assaults upon the rights of the Church. But he met with disappointment. According as the power and influence of Napoleon in- creased, the more did he seek to tyrannize over the Church. He was foolish and wicked enough to expect that the Pope would declare null and void the lawful marriage between the emperor’s brother and his lawful wife, and that the Pontiff would make war wantonly on Napoleon’s supposed enemies. Because Pius would not comply with these requirements Napoleon declared the states of the Church discontinued as a sovereign State. The Pope issued a solemn decree of excommunication against the emperor. On the night between the 4th and 5th of July a body of French soldiers invaded the Vatican palace and, pushing their way into the very sleeping apartments of the Pope, took him prisoner and, in company with his favorite friend, Cardinal Pacca, hurried him into a closed carriage and took him out of Rome. Nor was the Sovereign Pontiff permitted to stay anywhere within the boundaries of his own territory. After having been brought to France, he was taken back to Savona, a small town near Genoa, where Napoleon kept him a prisoner during three long and painful years. Although, at first, the saintly prisoner was treated with comparative mildness, as time wore on his grievances were multiplied and aggravated. All his faithful friends were forbidden to see him. No bishop was permitted to speak to him, every letter to him was intercepted and read, even his breviary was taken from him, out of his very hands. Meanwhile he was in constant receipt of information from all quarters, that his cardinals had been abused, arrested and banished, as well as many bishops. Pius VII felt that his situation was indeed a lonely one. Yet he always relied on assistance from Heaven. He himself prayed, and he instructed others to pray, to the Blessed Virgin for deliverance of the Church. Meanwhile Napoleon was adding victory to victory and triumph to triumph. His power was daily increasing, his empire was spreading on all sides, and when, just at this time, a son was born to him, he named him the king of Rome. He laughed at the bulls of the Pope, saying, with a sneer, “Excommunication will not cause the arms to drop from my soldiers’ hands.” But yet, in 1812, in the unfortunate expedition to Moscow, the arms did really fall from the frozen hands of the French soldiers. But the adverse fortunes of Napoleon brought no relief to the imprisoned Head of the Church who, that same year, received orders to repair to Paris, and without any sign of his Papal office. Again the Pope was compelled to make another fatiguing journey, in a closed and strictly guarded carriage. Although all along the road he was so feeble and sick that he received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction in preparation for his expected death, he was not permitted to rest for a single night. His food was given to him in his carriage, in which, also, he was compelled to pass the nights. At length, in an almost dying condition, he reached Fontainebleau. Here he encountered new injuries and insults, and hardships of mind and body. Not only was he kept aloof from every wise and conscientious counsellor, but he was besieged by crowds of unworthy sons of the Church, the minions of Napoleon, who sought to break down the Pope’s constancy and to persuade him to yield to the iniquitous demands of his enemy. Napoleon himself came, at first with smiles and fair words, and afterwards with threats and insults. At one time the Holy Father, completely broken down with suffering, showed a momentary weakness. At once, however, he recalled his words publicly, undismayed by the storming rage of his tyrannical oppressor. At length Providence interfered. In October 1813, Napoleon lost the battle at Leipsic, and in January of the following year he set the Pope free, and a few months later he signed, at that same palace of Fontainebleau. his own abdication of power, almost on the very day that saw Pius VII triumphantly enter his own city of Rome, the 24th of May. The Pope might well shed tears of joy, and of gratitude to God, when he saw once more the door of his own home, from the portals of which he had given his last blessing to his subjects as he was being torn away from their midst by his ruthless captors.

Yet the Pope’s trials were not at an end. He was once more to be an exile. Napoleon having escaped from his prison on the isle of Elba, came again to France to try his fortune and succeeded again in making himself emperor of the French. His friend and relative, General Murat, again seized the kingdom of Naples and dispatched troops to assault the city of Rome. Pius VII was compelled to leave the city and to betake himself to Genoa, where the king of Sardinia received him with profuse hospitality and unbounded respect and reverence. This time the afflicted Pontiff foretold that his exile would be of short duration. Sure enough, in a little over three months Napoleon’s power was overthrown and Murat’s projects were brought to grief. Before setting out on his return to Rome the Pope, on the 10th of May, 1815, with much pomp and piety, and in presence of the royal family, and of great multitudes of the faithful laity, solemnly crowned the miraculous image of the Mother of God in Savona, where he had passed the days of this his latest exile. On the 7th of June he once more returned to Rome in triumph. Thus Pius VII again assumed his seat in the chair of Peter, while Napoleon, his persecutor, was a prisoner on the distant and lonely island of Saint Helena. All things considered, this turn of events approached very nearly to a miracle, if it were not really one. In order, therefore, to make known to whom he was indebted, next to God, for this happy state of affairs, he ordered, on the 16th of September, 1816, that every year, on the 24th of May, the festival of “Mary, help of Christians” should be kept a day of devotion throughout the Church, in commemoration of his happy restoration to the rights and dignities of the pontificate and of his release from the hands of his enemies.

– text taken from Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Feasts, Prayers, Religious Orders, and Sodalities, by Father B Rohner, OSB, adapted by Father Richard Brennan, LLD, published in 1898 by Benziger Brothers; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine, Archdiocese of New York, New York, 22 June 1898