The invocation "Help of the Christians" is very old, having been included in the Litany of Loreto by Pope Saint Pius V in 1571, as a token of gratitude to the Most Holy Virgin. After having recourse to the Most Holy Rosary, the pope learned of Christendom’s victory over Muslim forces in the famous Battle of Lepanto. Attributing the naval victory to Our Lady’s intercession, the Holy Father wished to make her power known throughout the world. To learn more of this amazing event in history, please click here.
But that was not to be the last intervention of Mary under that glorious title. Several centuries later, she came to the aid of another Holy Father, this time Pope Pius the VII.
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Pope Pius VII's Captivity
During five years of captivity, Pius VII appealed continuously to Our Lady under the invocation of "Help of Christians." From 1809 to 1812, the Pontiff remained imprisoned in the Italian city of Savona, then making a vow to crown an image of the Mother of Mercy existing there, should he be granted his freedom.
In 1812, the Pope was taken to Paris, remaining a prisoner in Fontainebleau, where he suffered terrible humiliations inflicted by the French tyrant.
But in the course of time, Divine Providence intervened, overturning the good fortune of the despotic ruler, Napoleon.
In 1814, weakened by losses suffered on several fronts and pressured by public opinion, Napoleon permitted his august prisoner to return to Rome. The Supreme Pontiff took advantage of the journey to honor in a special way the Mother of God, crowning her image in Ancona under the invocation of Queen of All Saints. And, fulfilling the vow that he made when still prisoner in Savona, he adorned the forehead of the image of the Mother of Mercy with a golden frond as he passed by that city.
The journey continued amid glorious displays of reverence on the part of the common people in all the localities where Pius VII passed. And on May 24th, he made a triumphant entrance in Rome, being received by the population at large.
As the carriage that transported the Supreme Pontiff advanced with difficulty amid the crowd along the Flavian way, a group of faithful, earning the applause of all onlookers, unharnessed the horses and went on to pull the vehicle up to the Vatican Basilica themselves.
Pius VII, attributing this great victory of the Church over the Revolution to the powerful intercession of Mary Most Holy, wanted to show his gratitude by means of establishing a feast day of universal scope dedicated to the beautiful Marian invocation, Our Lady Help of Christians. Therefore, May the 24th became her feast day, in thanksgiving for the Holy Father’s happy return to Rome.
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Such invocation took a new turn in the Catholic world due to the action of one of the greatest saints of modern times: Saint John Bosco, founder of the Society of Saint Francis of Sales (Salesians) and of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.
The companions of Saint John Bosco noticed that, from 1860, he began to invoke the Most Holy Virgin under the title of Mary Help of Christians, Maria Auxilium Christianorum.
In December of 1862, the Saint made a resolution to build a church dedicated to that invocation. And he declared, on that occasion:
"To the Virgin Most Holy whom we desire to honor with the title of 'Help of Christians'; the times we are in are so sad that we truly need the Most Holy Virgin to help us in preserving and defending the Christian Faith as in Lepanto, as in Vienna, as in Savona and Rome.... and it will be the mother church of our future Society and the center from where all our works will radiate in behalf of the youth."
Six years after, on May 21, 1868, the magnificent Church of Mary Help of Christians was solemnly consecrated in Turin by the Archbishop of the city. The dream of Saint Bosco became a reality. Since then, this special devotion to Our Lady Help of Christians has spread throughout the Catholic world, owing in great measure to the work of the Salesian Congregation.