The feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, which we celebrate on May 24, has a very interesting history. Here is my answer to a question on it, from my book Question Time 1.
129. Mary, Help of Christians
I am happy when we celebrate each year the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians on May 24. But I have always wondered why we make so much of this feast, which does not celebrate a great event in the life as Mary as do, for example, the feasts of the Divine Maternity of Mary, the Annunciation, the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. Could you please explain why this feast is so important?
You ask a very good question, and the answer goes back a long way. I shall endeavour to answer it succinctly.
The title “Help of Christians” is an old one that forms part of the Litany of Loreto, which is often said after the Rosary. The Litany has its origin in Marian litanies in the early Middle Ages. In 1558 it was published as “The Litany of Loreto” by St Peter Canisius, and it was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
In 1571, Pope St Pius V asked the Church to pray the Rosary to Our Lady, under the title Help of Christians, for success in the battle that the Christian navy, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, was waging in the Mediterranean against the Turkish navy. It should be remembered that Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453 and, with control of the Mediterranean, the Turks were threatening Rome itself. Although heavily outnumbered, the Christian navy defeated the Turks in a hard-fought battle in the Gulf of Lepanto, off Greece, on October 7, 1571. The following year the Pope instituted a feast in honour of Our Lady on October 7, first called “Our Lady of Victories” and later “Our Lady of the Rosary”.
In 1683, when Vienna was besieged by the Ottoman Turks, Pope Innocent XI asked the Church to pray the Rosary to Our Lady, again under the title of Help of Christians. The battle against overwhelming odds began on September 8, when the Church celebrates Our Lady’s birthday, and it ended successfully four days later, on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. Thereafter, the military might of the Turks was no longer a threat to Christendom.
In 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of France and began to persecute the Church. Pope Pius VII excommunicated him, but in 1809 Napoleon entered the Vatican, arrested the Pope and carried him off in chains to Fontainebleau where he was held prisoner for five years. The Pope managed to communicate to the Church his request for everyone to pray to Our Lady, Help of Christians for his release, promising Our Lady that he would institute a feast in her honour if the prayers were answered. Once again, with the help of the Rosary, the Pope’s wishes were granted. On the 24th May 1814, Napoleon abdicated and on that very day the Pope returned to Rome. As his first official act he proclaimed the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, to be celebrated on the 24th May.
In 1844 the first Provincial Synod of the bishops of Australia, held in Sydney, proclaimed Mary, Help of Christians, the principal patroness of Australia. For that reason the feast has great prominence in this country, and is celebrated as a Solemnity, the highest category of feast.
Australia’s mother church, St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, is dedicated to Mary the Immaculate, Help of Christians.
So there is much history behind the feast and every reason to thank Our Lady, Help of Christians, for her loving and powerful care for the Church, both the universal Church and the Church in Australia.