Given on 26 April 2016 at his titular church of Sant' Alfonso, Rome, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the return of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to public veneration.
‘Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.’
With these words Pope Francis opened the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy which is now underway. The Holy Father’s words are unequivocal, and they are true. Yet they do not mean that we cannot also see mercy in other faces – in the face of the stranger who looks to us for the security they can no longer find in their home country; in the face, perhaps, of a family member whose forgiveness we may feel we do not deserve, yet whose joyful love for us is great enough to look beyond our faults and unworthiness. Such faces mirror, however dimly, the merciful face of Christ himself.
The Year of Mercy has already proved for many an opportunity to journey towards a deeper appreciation of the mercy of God, not least in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Today we too have been on a journey, in honour of one whose face reflects more brightly than any other the mercy of Jesus Christ: Our Lady, Mother of Perpetual Help.
In making this journey, from the great Basilica of Our Lady to her more intimate shrine here at Sant’Alfonso, we walk in the footsteps of history. 150 years ago today, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help travelled, just as we have done, in procession to this church, so that she might once again be a focus of devotion for the faithful. It was a journey that might so easily never have happened.
From the end of the fifteenth century onwards, the icon was the great treasure of the simple church of St Matthew that used to be on this site. We can only guess at the saints and martyrs, and countless others, who might have prayed before this image of Our Lady. I am sure that many of you here know how the story developed: the church of St Matthew was destroyed in 1798 as war raged in Rome, but the icon was saved by some of the last Augustinians to leave. She ended up in a private chapel of the convent of St Maria in Posterula by the Tiber, to which the Augustinians moved. And there the story of the icon might have faded into dusty history, if it had not been for the Augustine Brother Augustine Orsetti, who was determined to keep the devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help alive, and passed on that enthusiasm to a boy called Michele Marchi. Michele became a Redemptorist; and when, in 1855, the Redemptorists bought the land for the new Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and St Alphonsus, they discovered that, apparently by chance, they were building on the site of the old church of St Matthew. Brother Michele remembered the icon, and knew where to find it. And so it was that Pope Pius IX approved the request that the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help be placed in the new church, so that public devotion to her might be resumed after a gap of nearly seventy years.
And here she remains, 150 years later.
When we look at the face of Our Lady in the icon, we don’t see obvious external joy. Indeed, in the procession we sang of her face as ‘mesto’, ‘mournful’. The woman who, 150 years ago, brought her sick four-year-old son to the window as the procession of the icon passed down the Via Merulana must have been rather mournful too. Her mourning was turned to joy: as she and her son saw the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help passing by, he was cured.
The First Reading in today’s Mass hardly makes for joyful listening either; the weakness of humanity, illustrated in this story of the Fall, continues to make itself painfully manifest, in individuals, in societies, in nations. The way that Adam and Eve, in turn, each seek to evade responsibility for what they have done has echoes in the experience of each of us, uncomfortably so.
There is a direct and uncomfortable link between the First Reading and the Gospel. As the Mother of Perpetual Help stands, apparently helpless, looking up at the face of her Son, dying on the Cross, her face is deeply mournful, beyond all sorrow. There we see our Saviour taking on himself, the sins of the world for our sake. As he hung there, he was abandoned by many, but not by his mother. She is there for him, even as in the icon she supports and embraces the Child who is God, ‘he whom neither heaven nor earth can contain.’
The Gospel makes clear that we too receive the same invitation to be close to Jesus through Mary. ‘Woman’ he says ‘behold your Son; son, behold your mother.’ It is an invitation to love; it is an assurance of Christ’s unwavering mercy for us, even in the most desperate of circumstances. As the desolation of the Cross gave way to the bright hope of the Resurrection, mourning turned to joy. Contemplation of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help can remind us of that, and assure us that Our Lord and his Mother are always there for us, to console and to wipe away the tears and to bring us to that final joy.
Today we thank God for the 150 years that the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has been venerated in this church. We give thanks for the encouragement that she has given to many people in their own journeys of faith, here in Sant’Alfonso and wherever this image of Our Lady is to be found. ‘Make her known to the whole world’. It is my prayer today we may continue to take those words of Pope Pius IX to heart, and that devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in this church and elsewhere, may continue for the next 150 years, showing to many the limitless mercy of God for us all, his little ones, and made manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen