Mary Help of Christians (in Latin Sancta Maria Auxilium Christianorum), is a Roman Catholic devotion created to the Virgin Mary. John Chrysostom was the first person to use this title in 345. The devotion became popular in Europe during the pontificate of Pope Pius V and the fights against the Ottoman Empire. It was definitely established due to the great appreciation of Don Bosco for this Marian title and the development of the Salesian works in several countries since the second half of the 19th century. Although it is commonly associated to the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church knows also the devotion since 1030 in Ukraine, when the country was defended from a barbarian invasion.
The title of Mary Help of Christians is associated to the defense of the Christian Europe (Latin and Greek), the north of Africa and the Middle East from non-Christian peoples during the Middle Age. In 1572 the Ottoman Empire intended to invade the Christian Europe. Pope Pius V called Christian armies from all over Europe to defend the continent and asked the believers to pray to Mary in order to help the Christians. The defeat of the Turks was attributed to the intercession of Mary under such title.
The Marian feast was celebrated by the order of Servites since the 17th century. Pope Pius VII extended the feast of the Seven Dolours of Mary to the universal Church on September 18, 1814. The veneration to Mary became popular under this title in Rome especially, where the feast was especially promulgated by Saint John Bosco and Saint Vincenzo Palotti (Remigius Bäumer et al. Marienlexikon 1994, p.533)
There are two inscriptions of the first centuries of Christianity in Greek related to the Virgin Mary: : θεοτοκος (Teotokos,Theotokos, Mother of God) and Βοετεια (Boeteia, The Helper). The Fathers of the Church referred to Mary as "Βοετεια". John Chrysostom used the title in a homily of 345. Proclus in 476 and Sebas of Caesarea in 532. After the Patristic time - 5th century -, other persons used it like Romano Melone in 518, the Archbishop of Jerusalem, Sophronius, in 560, John of Damascus in 749 and German of Constantinople in 733.
Pope Pius V
In 1576 Bernardino Cirillo, archpriest of Loreto, published at Macerata two litanies of the Bl. Virgin, which, he contended, were used at Loreto: One a form which is entirely different from our present text, and another form ("Aliae litaniae B.M.V.") identical with the litany of Loreto, approved by Pope Clement VIII in 1601, and now used throughout the entire Church. This second form contains the invocation Auxilium Christianorum. Possibly the warriors, who returning from the Battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571) visited the sanctuary of Loreto, saluted the Holy Virgin there for the first time with this new title. It is more probable, however, that it is only a variation of the older invocation Advocata Christianorum, found in a litany of 1524.
Torsellini (1597) and the Roman Breviary (24 May, Appendix) say that Pope Pius V inserted the invocation in the litany of Loreto after the battle of Lepanto. But the form of the litany in which it is first found was unknown at Rome at the time of Pius V.
The feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was instituted by Pope Pius VII. By order of Napoleon I of France, Pius VII was arrested on June 5, 1808, and detained a prisoner for three years at Savona, and then at Fontainebleau. In January, 1814, after the battle of Leipzig, he was brought back to Savona and set free on March 17, on the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of Savona. The journey to Rome was a veritable triumphal march. The pontiff, attributing the victory of the Church after so much agony and distress to the Blessed Virgin, visited many of her sanctuaries on the way and crowned her images (e.g. the "Madonna del Monte" at Cesena, "della Misericordia" at Treja, "della Colonne" and "della Tempestà" at Tolentino). The people crowded the streets to catch a glimpse of the venerable pontiff who had so bravely withstood the threats of Napoleon. He entered Rome on May 24, 1814, and was enthusiastically welcomed. To commemorate his own sufferings and those of the Church during his exile he extended the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary (third Sunday in September) to the universal Church, September 18, 1814. When Napoleon left Elba and returned to Paris, Murat was about to march through the Papal States from Naples. Then Pius VII fled to Savona on March 22, 1815, where he crowned the image of Our Lady of Mercy on May 10.
After the Congress of Vienna and the battle of Waterloo he returned to Rome on July 7, 1815. He gave thanks to God and Our Lady and consecrated the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, to be celebrated every May 24, the anniversary of his first return.
Other places in the world
The Dioceses of Tuscany adopted it on February 12, 1816 and it has spread nearly over the entire Latin Church, but is not contained in the universal calendar. They hymns of the Office were composed by Brandimarte. It became the patronage feast of Australasia, a double of the first class with an octave, and in accordance with a vow (1891) is celebrated with great splendor in the churches of the Fathers of the Foreign Missions of Paris. It has attained special celebrity since Don Bosco, founder of the Salesian Congregation, dedicated his foundation to Our Lady, Help of Christians, the mother church of his congregation at Turin on June 9, 1868. The Salesian Fathers have carried the devotion to their numerous establishments.
- This article incorporates text from the entry Feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians in Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain.