In 1844, Mary, under the title of Our Lady Help of Christians was chosen as the patroness of Australia at the First Provincial Synod of Sydney. Our Lady has been invoked under the title Auxilium Christianorum or Help of Christians since at least the sixteenth century. After the battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, at which a Turkish fleet was defeated by a Christian fleet, Pope Pius V, who had previously called upon Catholics to invoke Mary’s assistance so that the Turkish threat may be averted, inserted the title “Help of Christians” into the Litany of Our Lady as he believed that the threat of invasion had been averted through Mary’s intercession.
Our Lady was again to be invoked under the title Help of Christians early in the nineteenth century. Pius VII was elected to the Papacy in 1800, soon after Napoleon had seized power in France. Although Pius VII and Napoleon had signed a concordat in 1801, Pius later refused to accede to many of Napoleon’s demands to whittle away the Church’s prerogatives. In a fruitless attempt to coerce Pius VII, Napoleon kept him under close arrest in Savona in Italy and other locations from 1809 to 1814, forbidding cardinals and other Church officials to meet him. A prayer campaign was organised amongst Catholics throughout the world to obtain the Pope’s freedom, particularly the freedom for him to exercise the Petrine office. Pius VII attributed his eventual freedom in 1814 to Our Lady Help of Christians and decreed that the feast be celebrated on the anniversary of the day upon which he re-entered Rome, 24 May.
Vatican II, in the Constitution on the Church (sections 61, 62), cites this title of Mary, placing it in the context of Mary’s maternal role. “In an utterly singular way she co-operated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the Saviour’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace…By her maternal charity, Mary cares for the brethren of her Son who still wander through this world in the midst of dangers and difficulties until they are led to the happiness of their heavenly home”. This role, however, does not, as some allege, obscure Jesus’ salvific role and his mediatorship between God and human beings. Indeed, as one professor of Mariology once put it, “Mary is important, because Jesus is important”.
The Church has traditionally focussed on two aspects of Our Lady’s help on this feast day. Firstly, the Church focuses in this feast upon the role of Our Lady’s intercession in the fight against sin in the life of a believer. Many people attest to the power of Mary’s intercession in their lives and those of friends and family. In one instance, a man who had been an alcoholic for a number of years, who had endured an irresistible craving for alcohol almost every waking hour of the day, woke up one morning without a craving for alcohol and never drank thereafter. He had prayed almost daily to Our Lady that he be released from his addiction. In another instance, a lapsed Catholic who led a wayward life, but nevertheless prayed the rosary daily, by chance met a priest, who accidentally wandered into his hospital room looking for another patient three days before he suddenly died, who heard his confession and gave him communion.
Secondly, the Church has focussed upon Our Lady as one who assists Christians as a community, through her intercession, in fighting against anti Christian forces. Many, however, would regard such an approach as outdated, arguing that in the wake of Vatican II the world and non Christians elements therein were seen in a positive rather than a hostile or threatening light. Much good has certainly been achieved through the ecumenical movement and dialogue with non Christian religions. However, it would seem that it would be naive on the part of Christians to regard all movements and all social trends as either good or harmless, particularly in an age in which so many Australians have succumbed to drug addiction and drug related deaths and in which vocal and organised groups are campaigning for things such as the legalisation of euthanasia.
Thus, the Opening Prayer for Our Lady Help of Christians, the Church prays that through Our Lady’s intercession God will “grant wisdom to our leaders and integrity to our citizens”, so that ,”under her protection, Australia may be granted, harmony, justice and peace”. The Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians is an opportunity for Australians to thank God for His blessings they enjoy. Those who met at the Synod in 1844, in an era in which a considerable proportion of the population were convicts, others were stigmatised because they were ex-convicts and Catholics were treated as second class citizens would surely be proud of the advances made in the last 150 years. However, the feast is also a prophetic call to all Australians to work against social trends that marginalise sections of our community, for example those that continue to marginalise aboriginals and those that are creating an underclass of people in entrenched poverty.