The name of our parish is Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church, a title that is by now very familiar to all of us. But where did this title come from? After some research, I think you will enjoy learning more about the patronage we are under at our parish.
Mary has been invoked as a helper for Christians since the first centuries of Christianity. She has always been seen as a special intercessor before her son. As time went on, certain litanies to Our Lady were created, and one was adopted by the Marian shrine in Loreto, Italy between the years 1300 and 1500. By the mid-1500's, pilgrims to this shrine were taking this famous litany back to their home countries. But how the line, "Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us" was inserted into the litany is a matter of dispute. Some say that the priest at Loreto inserted this title when he published the litany in 1576, perhaps basing it off of an earlier title of Mary. Others attribute it to Pope Pius V, who added it after the Battle of Lepanto.
Regardless of its origin, this title became popular in the 1500's and 1600's because of the great battles that were then occurring between the Christian West and the Turkish Muslims for control of Europe. From the mid-1300's, the Ottoman Turks had steadily conquered much of southeastern Europe, including Constantinople, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, and finally Hungary., In 1529, the threatened Vienna itself, but were defeated, thus checking their westward expansion into Europe. At sea, the Ottoman Turks hoped for a decisive battle which would open up the entire Mediterranean for their naval expansion, including Rome. Pope Pius V urged all the Christian faithful to entrust the battle to Our Lady and pray the Rosary specifically. On October 7, 1571, at the Battle of Lepanto, the forces of Spain, Venice, and others defeated the Ottoman Empire, thus protecting the western Mediterranean and Rome from conquest. October 7 became the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the title Our Lady Help of Christians grew in popularity.
But is wasn't until the 1800's that the Church instituted the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. When Napoleon invaded Rome and conquered the Papal States, he imprisoned Pope Pius VII in southern France. When the pope refused to cooperate with Napoleon, especially in the naming of Bishops, the latter raided the Vatican again, imprisoning some cardinals, and moving many others to France, hoping to permanently relocate the papacy there. After much conflict with the Pope over control of the Church, events caught up with Napoleon as a Germany force defeated him at Leipzig in 1813. This defeat led to the crumbling of Napoleon's empire and his exile to Elba the following year. The year 1814 also saw the return of Pope Pius VII to Rome on may 24, a day the pope and the Church greeted with great joy. In thanksgiving to Our Lady's guidance and protection, the pope made May 24 the feast day of Our Lady Help of Christians. It spread over much of the Church, though it is not on the universal calendar.
As you can see, this title of Our Lady has a lot to do with the survival of Christianity and the papacy. May we invoke her for our current needs as well.
Written by Fr. Anthony Lickteig