Mary, Help of Christians in Australia: Bishop Elliott
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Mary, Help of Christians in Australia: Bishop Elliott

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Bishop Peter J. Elliott
Surely the Holy Spirit guided the Bishops of Australia when they placed our young nation under the patronage of Our Lady Help of Christians, at the First Provincial Synod held in Sydney in 1844. Now, as we move towards a Plenary Council in very different times, we should turn to our Holy Mother to seek her help under the title Auxilium Christianorum, The Help of Christians.

First we need to be aware of the history of this beautiful title. There is no substitute for history. If we do not know and honour our past, if we lose our Catholic memory, we have no identity now and we will wander into a perilous and confusing future. So let us look back in time, first of all to the Sixteenth Century, the century of the Reformation, Counter Reformation and Catholic Reform. This was also the century of a great military threat to the Christian world.

On behalf of the Catholic faithful, Pope Saint Pius V gave thanks to the Mother of God who had given the Christian fleet a victory over the Turks at the critical naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. He knew her help as “Our Lady of Victories” would be needed again and so it was when she was fervently invoked to gain another victory, when King Jan III Sobieski defeated the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. This was followed by a third decisive victory over the Turks in Hungary. These three victories were crucial for the survival of Christianity in Europe. The defeat of the Catholic forces would have led to an Islamic Europe subject to the Ottoman Empire.

Over a century later, the cry for Mary’s help derived from Christian victories rose again during another grave crisis for the Church and the world, but this time the threat was from within Europe. After the horrors of the French Revolution, in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, Napoleon Buonaparte rose to power. He conquered Europe and made himself Emperor. He conquered the Papal States and, in order to keep the Church in her place under his system, he humiliated two Popes. He held Pope Pius VI and then Pope Pius VII as his prisoners. But the power and pride of Napoleon was broken by an alliance of nations. Defeated finally at the Battle of Waterloo, he was sent into exile.

In grateful fulfilment of a promise he had made to the Mother of God, Pope Pius VII instituted the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians on May 24th and so began an era of Catholic revival marked by renewed Marian devotion.

An important event was the apparition of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at rue du Bac, Paris, in 1830, which paved the way for the papal definition of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This was anticipated in the prayer inscribed on the medal as revealed to Saint Catherine Laboure. “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”

In 1845, the year after the Australian Bishops entrusted our nation to Mary, Help of Christians, John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church. This great English theologian and writer went on to the priesthood and eventually he was made a cardinal. He was canonized by Pope Francis on October 13th. He had a deep devotion to Mary.

In 1846, Our Lady appeared to two children at La Salette, weeping at the loss of faith and morals among the Catholic people. She predicted the potato famine that descended soon after, with tragic effects in Ireland. Two years later revolutions erupted across Europe.

In 1854, after consulting the bishops of the Church, Blessed Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Four years later, Mary Immaculate herself appeared to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. The definition of the dogma and the apparitions deepened popular devotion to Our Lady.

Later in the nineteenth century, the Redemptorists promoted a more personal way of seeking the assistance of Our Lady under the title of “Perpetual Help”. The sorrowing Mother of God is depicted in the Byzantine icon, which was to become the most familiar image of the Blessed Mother in the world.

By contrast, the image of Our Lady Help of Christians does not depict the sorrows of Mary, rather she is the glorious Mother, assumed into heaven. Not only is she crowned but she bears a royal sceptre, a sign of power and authority. In her arms she presents us with her crowned infant Son, his hands outstretched as the Lord of all creation. There is a sense of glory and triumph in the figures of Jesus and Mary, poised over the world or, in local versions, over a map of our land. This was the image chosen by Saint John Bosco when he placed his Salesian Congregation under the protection of Mary, Help of Christians. His spiritual sons and the young people they serve have spread the title and devotion across the earth.

However, we should reflect on the Help of Christians in terms of our nation, that is, in light of the decision made by the Bishops in 1844. By choosing Mary as our patroness, the Bishops entrusted our nation to her. That act goes back to the words of Jesus Christ, as he was offering himself for us on the cross. “Mother, behold your son. Son, behold your mother…”

From the cross, Jesus Christ entrusted us to his Mother, so the help we seek of Mary is her motherly protection and particularly her protective care in difficult times. Christians have been praying to her with this intention since the earliest years of the Church, that is, in the era of the first persecutions. It is interesting that the most ancient Marian prayer is the Sub Tuum Subsidium, an Eastern Christian prayer even older than the Hail Mary. Note the tone of urgency and humility in these simple words.

We fly to your protection, O Holy Mother of God. Scorn not our petitions in the hour of need. O glorious and blessed Virgin, deliver us always from every perila.

Early in the Seventeenth Century, the title “Help of Christians” appeared in the Litany of Loreto. In his reflections on the rich Marian titles we use in this litany, Saint John Henry Newman links Mary Help of Christians to the Holy Rosary. He points out that the moments in history when the title emerged were all marked by the Popes and the people fervently praying the rosary for Mary’s help in times of conflict, when they faced political and social threats. I believe that the new saint, John Henry, is alerting us Australian Catholics to do just that. We should pray the rosary for our nation.

We do not face huge invading armies or the oppression of an emperor or dictator. Yet in these times we sense that we are surrounded on all sides by dark forces. We see the truths of Catholic faith and morals mocked and scorned, by ignorance and spite. Even the most sacred sacraments are sullied by blasphemy in all forms of the media. We feel defeated when unjust and immoral laws are passed, even celebrated with gloating, laws that promote abortions, euthanasia and marriage that is not marriage, laws that would dismantle the sacred seal of confession or throw open the deadly pathways to drugs. Our religious freedom is menaced by atheistic ideologies that assault the family with deranged concepts of “gender” and arrogant assertions of human “autonomy” or selfish individualism.

Yet in these times we turn as never before to the gentle but powerful Help of Christians, she who is “our light, our sweetness and our hope”. We confidently place our nation, our families, our friends and our foes, into her provident and protective care as she directs us all towards the eternal Kingdom of her Divine Son. The rosary is our weapon in this spiritual combat for his kingdom.

We began this Mass with the stirring Australian hymn Help of Christians, guard this land, written by the James McCauley with music composed by Richard Connolly. I select some of the poet’s words that raise a timely prayer for our nation.

Help of Christians, guard this land from assault or inward stain;
let it be what Christ has planned, his new Eden where you reign….

After setting out the threats to our nation, we finally appeal to Mary to help us in our human weakness:

Take from us the coward heart, fleeting will, divided mind;
Give us sight to play our part ‘though the world around is blind.

Image of the Risen life shining in eternity, glimmer through our earthly strife,,
draw us to your victory.
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