Growing up, this was an image that I was very familiar with. I don’t know if I necessarily understood that there was a difference between other images of Our Lady and Jesus and this one, but I knew this image. My home parish is named for this icon, and there is one present in the side chapel of the church.
As I was preparing for my first holy communion, one of the things that we did in preparation was a class tour of the church. I remember walking into the church on that saturday morning, and it being dark. I had never been in the church without its lights on. There was something peaceful about that. I remember being aware of that, even at seven years old. A sacristan gave our little class a tour of the church, but the only part of that tour that I have a memory of, is the explanation of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. At seven years old, the part of that explanation that I took away, was that Jesus was frightened of his passion, and he ran into the arms of his mother.
This was something that stuck with me as a child. That Our Lady was our Mother too. Jesus ran to her when he was frightened, and we could too. I can remember, whenever I did pray, praying a Hail Mary instead of a Glory Be or an Our Father. I knew all three prayers, but I always gravitated towards Marian prayer.
As I was preparing for Confirmation, I fell in love with Youth Ministry. And somewhere along the way, I thought that carrying prayer cards would help me to pray. At 12 my purse looked like it belonged to an elderly church lady. After getting a few odd looks and questions, I decided to pair it down to just one card. Can you guess what that card was?
Our Lady of Perpetual help.
The Catholic Company has a beautiful explanation of what this icon means:
The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help represents the Christian mystery of Redemption.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a Byzantine icon that is believed to have its origin sometime during the 13th -15th century. The image is also known as “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.” The icon is known for being miraculous; over the centuries countless healings and special graces have been attributed to it, so much so that the image has been honored and venerated by many Popes.
The miraculous icon is painted on wood and measures about 20″ in height (54 x 41.5 centimeters) and depicts the Virgin Mary, under the title “Mother of God,” holding the Child Jesus.
The Archangels Michael and Gabriel, hovering in the upper corners, hold the instruments of the Passion. St. Michael (in the left corner) holds the spear, the wine-soaked sponge, and the crown of thorns. St. Gabriel (in the right corner) holds the cross and the nails.
The intent of the artist was to portray the Child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future Passion. Frightened by the vision, he runs to his mother for consolation. The anguish He feels is shown by the loss of one of His sandals as he quickly flees into the arms of his Mother.
Despite a forboding vision of suffering, the icon also conveys the triumph of Christ over sin and death, symbolized by the golden background as a sign of the glory of the resurrection. The royal crowns on the heads of Jesus and Mary also symbolize their triumph as the King of Kings with his Queen Mother.
In a very beautiful way, the Child Jesus grasps the hand of the Blessed Mother. He seeks comfort from His mother as He sees the instruments of His passion. The position of Mary’s hands – both holding the Child Jesus (who seems like a small adult) and at the same time presenting Him to us – convey the reality of our Lord’s incarnation, that He is true God who became also true man.
What Our Lady of Perpetual Help Means for Us
Just as the Child Jesus fled into the arms of his Mother when he was frightened, so too do we flee into the arms of our Blessed Mother with child-like confidence whenever fear envelopes our hearts. Just as the Virgin Mother consoled and comforted her Divine Child, so too does she console and comfort us, her spiritual children, in our afflictions. We can always come to her in our time of need and receive her help.
In this iconography, Mary is represented as the one who guides us to the Redeemer. The Virgin Mother is also our Help who intercedes with her Son on our behalf. The star painted on Mary’s veil, centered on her forehead, highlights her role in the plan of salvation as both the Mother of God and our Mother.
To this day, the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome displays the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They are the guardians and promoters of the holy icon, the only religious order entrusted with the task of doing so with a venerated image of Our Lady. You can view a live image of the real Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon here.
As I got older and learned more about the actual image of OLPH, I began to listen to how Our Lady had interceded in the lives of those around me. I can remember some of the older teens in youth group talking about how OLPH followed them around. Then my youth minister mentioned how she did the same for him.
I thought that this was pretty cool. And so, the following February I had the opportunity to travel to Dublin and Paris.
It’s a little blurry, and not actually Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but when I saw this image in Notre Dame I felt as though Our Lady was looking out for me, praying for me, and reminding me to look to her son.
About six months later I was on pilgrimage in Madrid with my parish, and this is what I saw:
At this point, I understood that this image was actually Our Lady of Perpetual Help and not just an image of Our Lady. I knew that I had a friend in heaven advocating for me.
Over the next few years I grew in my love for the Lord and for my parish, and really began to understand the point of intercessory prayer.
Over the past few years, I would joke that OLPH follows me around a little bit. She lets me know that she is praying for me, etc etc. However, this year, she has taken it to a whole new level.
As many of you know, I took a big step this year and did a year of service. And as a result, I moved to the Hudson Valley. Within the first few months of my year as a CCV, OLPH came around quite a few times, reminding me to pray, and that I was doing the right thing.
The image above can be found in the Parish that I do Youth Group in.
These two images were found at Graymoor.
This image was in my room at a convent that we stayed in for a retreat in the Bronx.
This image was in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Pelham, NY.
However, when we visited Boston back in December, it was a little bit overwhelming with the amount of times OLPH showed up…
This image was in the School of Theology and Ministry’s chapel in Boston.
This image was in the room I stayed in during my time in the Boston Friary.
The two images above were in the Parish where the CCVs did a retreat in Boston.
This was outside of the Providence College Chapel.
Finally this was on the cover of a book at the center.
It was here that I began to refer OLPH as my “Saintly Stalker” because she showed up everywhere I went. I’ve had some fun joking about OLPH being my stalker. However, she is a true reminder for me that I am loved by Our Lord, and that she is a great intercessor for me.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.