By Fr. Carlos Bosio, SDB
(ANS – Rome) – One of the most important legacies that Don Bosco left to the Salesian Family is devotion to Mary Help of Christians. Countless schools, chapels, squares and neighborhoods around the world bear her name. Millions of children, older youth and adults gather around the Virgin and are sheltered beneath her mantle. Although this devotion existed before, it was Don Bosco who made it popular all over the world and left it for protection and encouragement.
The Virgin Mary was always present in John Bosco’s life, above all because his mother, Mamma Margaret, instilled in him a love for and devotion to the Blessed Mother through her prayers and daily life. In the dream when he was nine, so significant for his life, it was precisely the Virgin Mary who showed little John his vocation to the priesthood.
In 1862, Don Bosco reaffirmed his Marian choice saying that “the Virgin wants us to honor her with the title of Help of Christians: the times in which we live are so hard that we need her help to preserve and defend the Christian faith.”
The following year he began the construction of the church, now Basilica, of Mary Help of Christians, which Our Lady had asked him in his dream to build in Turin. Although at the time he had but a few pennies to pay the builder, the miracles that the Help of Christians granted to her devotees were so many and so great that such a great undertaking was completed just four years later. Don Bosco used to say: “Every brick in this church corresponds to a miracle of the Blessed Virgin.” And in this regard, a conviction that went through all of his work and which he repeated whenever he could was that “She did everything” or “It wasn’t me, it was the Virgin Help of Christians who saved you.” For this reason he asked the boys and the Salesians to say a brief prayer several times – “Mary Help of Christians, pray for us” – and to spread devotion to her: “So you will see what miracles are.”
This devotion is not only from Don Bosco’s time: we are struck by its relevance today, especially considering the difficult times that young people have to go through. Today, more than ever, special help is needed, special accompaniment in order to be able to live the message of Jesus authentically. Especially when we are so often bombarded by lifestyles that do not coincide with the criteria and attitudes of the Gospel.
Faced with the challenges of the present time, Mary presents herself as an example of a life based on love and availability. It is an example of listening to the Word of God, which makes the task of education and evangelisation fruitful.
Mary Help of Christians is also invoked as a refuge. Beneath her mantle is protection, rest and peace; a place where we can recover from daily struggles and labors, to recover from our failures and discouragement.
At the same time, She is an incentive for us not to give up, to persevere on the path of joyful and generous dedication, to live the holiness of daily life, to continue to cultivate the art of listening to and accompanying young people.
Today the entire Salesian Family, faithful to the spirit of the founders of the various groups and in the different presences they animate, continues to propose the help that comes from the Virgin Mary as an example, protection and encouragement .
Mary Help of Christians is always to be found in the life of the Church. The first to call the Virgin Mary by the title of “Helper” was St John Chrysostom in Constantinople in the fourth century. He said: “You, Mary, are the most powerful help of God.”
Years later, in 749, St John Damascene was the first to spread the brief prayer: “Mary Help of Christians, pray for us”. And he said that Our Lady is “Helper to avoid evils and dangers and to obtain salvation.”
Already in 1572, Pope Pius V ordered that the litanies of the whole world include the prayer: “Mary Help of Christians, pray for us”. The previous year, a league of Western European kingdoms had defeated the invading Ottoman army in the famous Battle of Lepanto. The Catholic faithful of the time saw in this military triumph the support of the Virgin Mary who came to the “aid” of Christians.
Finally, in 1814, when Pope Pius VII was a prisoner of Napoleon, he promised Our Lady that the day he arrived in Rome in freedom he would institute the feast of Mary Help of Christians. And, beyond his best expectations, the Pontiff arrived on 24 May.
Other pontiffs have also cultivated a special devotion to the Help of Christians. An image taken from a Salesian Bulletin was hung on the wall of St. John XXIII’s room. It was he who proclaimed her patroness of the Second Vatican Council. St John Paul II used to go to the Salesian church in Krakow, Poland, where he prayed in the chapel of Mary Help of Christians. There, on 3 November 1946, he celebrated one of his first Masses as a priest. And Pope Francis, during the period he spent at Ramos Mejía, a Salesian school, learned to love the Virgin. So much so that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, every 24th of May he celebrated the main Mass for the feast of the Help of Christians in the Basilica in the Almagro district.