I. Pope Pius VII. established the feast which, under this glorious title, is celebrated in honour of our Blessed Lady. It is usually kept upon the twenty-fourth of May. Upon that day the much-enduring and saintly Pontiff, after an exile of several weary years, returned to his capital, whence the violence and tyrannical injustice of the first Napoleon had banished him. Almighty God, in a most unexpected and almost miraculous way, restored him to the arms of his exulting flock, and the holy Pope ever afterwards attributed that restoration to the intercession of Mary, the Help of Christians. In order to show his gratitude to her he ordained that this feast should be kept throughout the Church.
Already at several critical junctures in comparatively modern times, had she proved herself the buckler and defence of the Christian people. When, in the sixteenth century, the Turks were threatening to pour down their devastating hordes upon Europe, and sweep away the civilization bequeathed to us by many generations of patient toilers and men of genius, another Pius--the fifth of that glorious name--like a watchman upon the towers of Israel, roused up the nations to a sense of the peril which threatened them. They responded to his call; gathered together their forces, under the leadership of John of Austria; and invoking the aid of Mary, Help of Christians, began, in the Gulf of Corinth or Lepanto, that famous seafight which ended in the destruction of the fleet destined to bear the forces of Islam into Europe.
In the following century the same inveterate foes of Christianity had actually invested Vienna, and were, to all human appearances, sure of an easy victory. The Christian people once more invoked Mary's aid, and another Christian hero led the insignificant army of Christ, to a glorious triumph over the forces of the false prophet. Thirty years later, the Emperor Charles VI. smote them once again at the Island of Corfu, and by the powerful intercession of Mary, snatched victory from the warlike sons of Mahomet.
It is with reason, therefore, that we look upon Mary as a tower of strength against the face of our enemies, and as the helper of the Christian people. Though she is bright as the sun, and beautiful as the moon, yet, to those who would trample upon the people whom her Son willed to save, and crush out the faith which He came on earth to establish, she is terrible as an army in battle-array.
II. As in the past, Mary has proved herself to be the powerful helper of Christians, so will she still prove herself to be their protectress, at the present day. The power of her intercession with Jesus is as great now as it was then. For, as He is always the Almighty, so is she always our powerful advocate, able to obtain from Him an opportune intervention of His mighty arm, to avert the danger which threatens to overwhelm us.
First, there is the Church of God, over which she stretches the shield of her all-helping hand. The powers of the world gather together, and take counsel against it. They look upon it as an antiquated institution, which is no longer of any use in the world. They imagine that it is an obstacle to the march of what they call 'modern progress'; that it is a galling fetter upon the political and the intellectual well-being of man. Consequently, they unite together and say to one another: 'Let us burst her bonds asunder, and cast her out from before our face. Let us thrust her aside as a worthless piece of machinery, which must make way for the modern improvements invented by a more enlightened wisdom to overawe and rule the souls of men.' So they bring to bear upon her all the force and all the cunning that worldly wisdom can array upon its side. They stop at no calumny, they shrink from no injustice to compass their ends. They lash themselves into fury, and dash themselves madly against her; but in the very feverheat of their rage, we remain calm and fear not, for their efforts are vain. Like the billows of the sea, foaming, and chafing, and hurling themselves upon the rocks which bound our coast, they may seem, for a time, to overwhelm her, but when they retire she still stands there unmoved--victorious, and triumphant over every storm. For, in the midst of persecution, we cry to the Help of Christians, and her powerful intercession gives worth to our prayer, and wins God over to listen to us, and to look upon our trouble. Then does He arise in His strength; He laughs our enemies to scorn; and scatters them with the breath of His fierce anger, as chaff is scattered before the storm.
III. Mary is the helper not only of the great Christian commonwealth of the Church, but of the individual members who constitute that vast body of which Christ is the head. For what is true of the great body of Christians in general, is true also of each individual Christian man. If the great mass suffers persecution and bitter trial, the individual member is not left unmolested. There are enemies who combine against his individual soul, just as the powers of the world unite their strength, in order to divide and conquer the mighty army of which he is but a private soldier. Some of these attack him from without, and others from within. Against each of these he stands in need of help.
Examine your own life and you will see that all this is perfectly true. Is not your peace of mind often disturbed by the envy and the jealousy of companions; by the ignorance and the prejudice of those who misinterpret your actions, ascribe to you unworthy motives, and perhaps punish you for that of which you have never even dreamed? Have you not also much to suffer from yourself? Are there not cares, which though small in themselves, nevertheless harass and worry you? Have you no passions to keep under control; no evil habits which hold you in bondage, and make you feel what a bitter thing it is to be a slave?
Added to all this, do you not feel that there are powers of darkness surrounding you and laying snares to entrap your soul? Whither shall you turn for help? You feel that you are not worthy to approach to God, that your sins render you displeasing in His sight. Whither shall you go in your anguish but to the Mother of Jesus, that Mother who is so pleasing to Him, and so spotlessly pure? You know that she loves you, that she feels for you, and that she is ready to help you. You call upon her and she hears you. She unites her prayers with your's, and Jesus listens. You become patient of suffering and of wrongs; you accept the ills of life, as penance for past sin; you courageously resist the devil; you acquire virtues; you become fixed in your resolve to love and serve God. In one word, you triumph over the enemies of your soul, through the powerful intercession of the 'Help of Christians,' who by praying unto God for you, makes Him more ready to hear your cry, and more willing to grant your petition.