Feast day: MAY 24
On May 24, 2015, the Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Feast of Mary Help of Christians. Pope Pius VII instituted this feast in 1815 to fulfill a vow he made to Our Lady.
The Pope vs. the Emperor
IN 1809, after Pope Pius VII excommunicated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France for annexing the Papal States and Rome to his empire, Napoleon’s men kidnapped the Pope. Instead of releasing the aging and sickly Pius VII, the emperor exiled and imprisoned him for the next five years. With deep faith, the Holy Father vowed to establish a special feast in Mary’s honor when he is reinstated to the Holy See in Rome.
The Feast of the Champion of Christians
After mounting military losses forced Napoleon to release the Pope, on May 24, 1814, Pius VII returned to Rome in a triumphant procession. Just as he vowed, on September 15, 1815, Pius VII declared that May 24, the anniversary of his return to Rome, shall thenceforth be celebrated as the Feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Long before the declaration of the Feast, however, there already existed the devotion to Mary, Help of Christians (Latin: Sancta Maria Auxilium Christianorum; Filipino: Maria, Mapag-ampon sa mga Kristiyano).
Almost 250 years earlier in 1571, Pope Pius V called on Europe’s Catholics to hold rosary rallies seeking Mary’s help in a naval battle. And help she did! During the famous Battle of Lepanto, the desperately outnumbered Christian naval fleet miraculously defeated the Muslim Ottoman Turk invaders.
To honor their heavenly champion, Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in October and included the title, “Help of Christians” in the beautiful “Litany of Loreto,” often recited after praying the rosary.
Don Bosco’s Madonna
Saint John Bosco, who, by happy coincidence, also celebrated his birth bicentenary in 2016, the same year as the 200th anniversary of the Feast of Our Lady, was one of the most prominent devotees and ardent promoters of the devotion to Mary Help of Christians. In 1868, Don Bosco built the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in Turin, Italy; and, in 1872, co-founded the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, a religious congregation for women—the largest in the world today with 15,000 members in 90 countries.
“Be devoted to Mary Help of Christians,” Don Bosco would often say, “and you will see what miracles are.”