Marian shrines in particular
provide an authentic school of faith
based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”
During seminars on the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we asked the participants: Who is the perpetual help? Immediately they would answer with great conviction, Mary, of course. But then we’ll repeat the question. This time, we’ll rephrase the question: Mary is the Mother of perpetual help, so who is the perpetual help? This time they would think for a while and stare at us intriguingly.
We use this question as a take-off point for a deeper study of the icon. Mary is our Mother of Perpetual Help. Mary is the mother of the source of perpetual help which is her son Jesus. As in the icon, Mary is she who points to the way—Jesus Christ.
This question also becomes the starting point for the study on the life of Mary and the theology of Mary or Mariology. Mary is not just the mother of God but also the first disciple and missionary of Jesus.
Evangelization is one of the major mission of the shrine. Evangelization represents the biggest challenge of the shrine for the renewal of the devotion. A major expression of this challenge is for the shrine to be a school of Mary. As the document states, “Marian shrines in particular provide an authentic school of faith based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”
Some of the programs of the shrine as school of Mary are catechesis, evangelization and proclamation. The shrine evangelized the devotees primarily through prophetic preaching—by connecting the Word of God and their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help to their daily issues, struggles, concerns and aspirations. Prophetic preaching challenged the devotion by proclaiming the transformative power of the Word and Mary’s life in the personal lives of devotees. Genesis Toledo Lustre narrates such experience in October 31, 2017.
I was four months pregnant when I set foot at Baclaran Church not knowing why I went there. I was frustrated and depressed during those times. My original plan was to end up my life because of the unbearable pain caused by the predicament I was going through at that time.
I was seated at the side of the church and was thinking why I am in this place. And then I heard the words of the priest: “There is no test the Lord gives which we cannot carry.” Along these lines, I asked God if I am really strong enough for such a test. These thoughts kept echoing on my head. Then suddenly, I was enlightened and asked any sign from God if I should fight for my husband or not. And God gave me his quick answer. On my way home God showed me the sign to continue fighting for my family.
From then on I often went to this church to pray or sometimes just to light candles and ask God’s help through Mama Mary. From that time on my problems gradually lessened. My situation slowly changed based on my wholehearted petition to God. Today, what I asked of God was fulfilled. There is so much change in my husband and things are fine for all of us. Most of all, we are together now in going to Baclaran Church to pray. I saw the sincerity in my husband’s eyes which made me happy and contented.
Thank you Lord for hearing my prayers. You did not disappoint me for my simple petition.
After the explosion of the novena and the influx of thousands of devotees in 1948, the focus of the Redemptorist was the leading of the novena and the administering of the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. Because of this, the evangelization’s orientation of the shrine at this time was more devotional —focusing on Mary’s privileges and the need to honor her with affection and constant prayer. Undoubtedly, this has encouraged a deeply personal and pietistic devotion.
Beginning in the 60s, the shrine began to preach about the signs of the times in the light of the gospel. The shrine actively promoted justice and peace in preaching and seasonal liturgical celebrations. This heightened the awareness of the devotees to the social dimension of their devotion.
In recent years, the shrine has integrated more the theology and spirituality of the icon in their homilies and catechesis in the shrine. This reflects a shift from introducing the icon merely as a devotional object to an icon with profound spiritual and theological meaning and calling. The restoration of the original icon in Rome in 1995 became an inspiration for the Redemptorists to preach more about the icon—it’s story, meaning, spirituality and theology.
The shrine also stressed the evangelizing power of the life of Mary. This necessitated a rediscovering of Mary in scriptures and the human Mary. By understanding more about the life and character of Mary, the shrine hope that devotees may be able to emulate her more and identify with her.
The shrine in recent years has also tried to integrate the popular religiosity of the devotees with a genuine sense of mission and active social involvement. The shrine has also encouraged the devotees to develop their devotion from praying the novena to becoming more active in their respective parishes and communities.
An important tool for evangelization in the shrine is the Novena text. The novena is not just all about petitions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The novena has been evangelizing the devotees since the very beginning. The Novena text has always emphasized the life and example of Mary as a disciple of Christ and Mary exhorts all the devotees to follow her son as well. As devotees pray in the novena,
While you were on earth, dear Mother * you willingly shared in the sufferings of your Son.* Strengthened by your faith and confidence * in the fatherly love of God * *you accepted the mysterious designs of His Will.*
We, too, have our crosses and trials.* Sometimes they almost crush us to the ground.* Dearest Mother, * share with us your abundant faith and confidence in God.* Make us aware that God never ceases to love us; * that He answers all our prayers * in the way that is best for us. * Strengthen our hearts to carry the cross * in the footsteps of your Divine Son. Help us to realize * that he who shares the cross of Christ * will certainly share His resurrection.
The shrine in it’s latest version of the novena made several revisions to reflect a healthier theology on Mary. The biggest revision along this line is shifting the focus of the source of help from Mary to Jesus; that the source of help is God–Jesus. Mary intercedes for the devotees so they can receive God’s perpetual help. For example the response to the petitions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help was changed from Help us to Pray for us
LOVING MOTHER HELP US…
LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US…
Mary is an intercessor rather than the giver of grace. In the following prayer in the novena, the words powerful help supposedly coming from Mary was changed to compassionate intercession.
Dearest Mother, help us to avoid sin which separates us from our heavenly Father * and from one another. Full of thrust in you * we place ourselves under the mantle of your maternal protection * and confidently hope for your powerful help.
Dearest Mother, help us to avoid sin which separates us from our heavenly Father * and from one another. Full of thrust in you * we place ourselves under the mantle of your maternal protection * and confidently hope for your compassionate intercession
Similarly, in the prayer below, the source of perpetual help is God. Mary points all devotees to God the giver of all help and graces. Thus, the words addressed to Mary as help us was changed to pray for us. Similarly, the words your powerful help was changed to God’s perpetual help.
Holy Mary * help us in our needs * pray for all the people of God; * may all experience your perpetual help.
Holy Mary pray for us * pray for all the people of God; * may all experience God’s perpetual help.
Return to Mary
The traits and personality of Mary resembles some of the character of the devotees. Many of the values and qualities of devotees resonate with the values and qualities of Mary. The simplicity and humility of Mary, for example, correspond to the warm affection and trust of the thousands of devotees. The devotees emulate some of the simplicity and humility of Mary. No wonder, most of popular devotions are Marian in nature. American journalist Maureen Orth, suggests that one of the reasons for the popularity of devotion to Mary is because “Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings.”
Many devotees, however, see Mary primarily as intercessor with God. Many devotees venerate Mary to intercede for them with God, and lesser do they take her as model to imitate because they do not know much about her life and journey during her life on earth. Taking Mary primarily as an intercessor may also be rooted to the indigenous origins of Filipino religiosity deeply embedded among the devotees. Indigenous Filipinos believe in a shaman who enters the supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting their individual lives and the community. They intercede with the gods to seek solution and bring good results.
They may now see Mary as the new shaman. A big part of the appeal of Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the certainty among the devotees that their prayers will reach God because Mary is the most powerful intercessor. Mary is closest to God–she is full of grace and most blessed of all human beings that ever lived–therefore God will listen to their prayers because Mary intercedes for them.
Mary, however, goes beyond being a powerful intercessor or shaman. She is a model disciple and missionary of Jesus which all devotees need to emulate. To understand Mary beyond being an intercessor, the shrine has integrated more the life of Mary in the preaching in novenas and masses. In these preaching, the shrine challenged the devotees to return to the life of Mary. The shrine has emphasized the need to unravel more her virtues and reconnect their devotion with the real Mary.
Moreover, Mary is one among us; she is not just sitting on a pedestal. Yes, she is a model of the church, but she is also a member of the church. As American theologian Elizabeth Johnson would say, she is not just our mother but also our sister. Following the example of Mary, each in his or her own way brings forth Christ as Pope Francis explains,
In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful… Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul” (EG, #285, 212).
Preaching more about the life of Mary entails a shift in devotion from honoring the privileges and splendors of Mary for their own sake to following more her example; a shift from putting Mary on a pedestal where no one can reach her to remodeling their lives with the life of Mary. Devotion is to be like Mary, to learn from Mary. Yes, Mary recognizes our basic economic needs but there is more to our economic needs. Mary pierces into our souls—Mary sees a more profound need, hunger and thirst within us, that is, existential and eschatological hunger.
It is in this context that Mary becomes an evangelizer in the shrine. As the thousands of devotees see in the icon, while Mary’s eyes gaze intently on us, her right hand points to Jesus. Mary is the Hodegetria—she who points the way, leads people to follow Jesus. In the words of Pope Francis,
Mary is the woman of faith, who lives and advances in faith, and “her exceptional pilgrimage of faith represents a constant point of reference for the Church”. Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith towards a destiny of service and fruitfulness.
It is in this light that Pope Paul VI proposed that Mary be the model for all evangelizers. He gave Mary the title “Star of Evangelization,”
On the morning of Pentecost she watched over with her prayer the beginning of evangelization prompted by the Holy Spirit: may she be the Star of the evangelization ever renewed which the Church, docile to her Lord’s command, must promote and accomplish, especially in these times which are difficult but full of hope.
Similarly, Pope Francis called Mary as the Mother of Evangelization: “She is the Mother of the Church which evangelizes, and without her we could never truly understand the spirit of the new evangelization.”
In living out a proper and meaningful devotion, they can look up to Mary. Mary is herself a devotee; Mary is the exemplar par excellence of a devotee. She is a devotee they need to look up to for she already experienced what they all long for as a devotee. Mary as a devotee has fully reached out to heavens; has tasted, felt, and touched heaven, the sacred, the mystery and the divine. She has bridged the ordinary and the divine. Mary as a devotee with us, praying with us is expressed by Portia Fidelis C. Legaspi, in a thanksgiving letter she wrote on April 18,2014:
It is always at the darkest and difficult time of my life that I experience your loving presence, giving me hope and strength to survive. And later, witness how through your intercession my human limitations and weaknesses be fortified by your unfailing guidance. I owe you all that I am today. I am a mother of three children, a real estate broker and a law student from 2009 until 2013. During my fourth year in law school last 2012, our family was beset with a painful test. My second child only 15 was charged with a criminal case. I felt devastated. We knew that my child was innocent, and that the charge was meant to extort money from my family. This event challenged my conviction as a mother and as a future lawyer. It came to the point, that I asked God and Mother Mary, to help me look after my child And protect him from all the evil people. That I am willing to stop my studies and career in the law profession if the situation will demand for it. Today, I have passed the 2013 bar exam, and a full fledged lawyer at the end of April 2014. During the times, when my mind and heart went out for my child rather than to my bar review, it was God and Mother Mary that helped me survive each day. It was through her intercession that I surpassed my human weakness and be Strong by having faith. Success is always possible, I and others like me just have to keep our faith to God and Mother Mary. For what I am today, it is God and Mother Mary that lifted me up. Thank you so much.
Return to the Icon
The renewed interest in the Eastern theology of the icon inspired the shrine to return to the Icon as an important vehicle in the school of Mary. In recent years, Redemptorist were preaching more about the iconographical elements of the icon. The Redemptorists were also preaching more about the Eastern theology and spirituality of the icon.
In so doing, devotees saw the icon not just as a devotional object but as a window to the divine, to eternity, an encounter between their mundane existence on earth and the certain promise of a future life with God. Experiencing icon in this way appeals profoundly to the devotees’ rootedness in the indigenous cosmic worldview. If we recall, our ancestors believed in an invisible society coexisting with their material world. This society, they believed, was inhabited by spirits that included dead ancestors, deities, and lesser gods. To represent this society and the spirits residing in this world, our ancestors created anito which are sometimes called larauan (icons) made from wood, stone, or ivory. They served as the bridge to the spiritual world. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help appeals to the devotees because it served as a window to eternity in the same way that their ancestors’ larauan served as bridge to the higher heavens.
The return to the icon also shifted the ultimate focus of devotion from Mary to Jesus. Mary is the Hodegetria—she who points the way. The perpetual help of Mary is centered on Jesus. As Fr. da Silva reiterates,
With her Son in her arms, which expresses at the same time both the Incarnation and the Passion, Mary gives us our plentiful redemption again and again …This is why Mary is our perpetual help, the mediator of all graces. All the other petitions we are accustomed to present in our Novenas should come later, as though integrated into the greatest grace that Mary offers us, that is, her very own Son.
Another important tool of evangelization in the shrine is the liturgy. Many have called our attention that novena is more popular than the Eucharist and sometimes it seems that the Eucharist is just an addendum to the novena. Some of the devotees, after praying the novena, leave the shrine and do not attend the Eucharist anymore. Indeed, in Baclaran, Wednesday—novena day—is more popular than Sunday.
Through these years, the shrine has strengthened its celebration of the Eucharist. The shrine has enhanced the participation of the whole assembly. Efforts have been made in the shrine to harmonize the novena prayer with the liturgy and the liturgical seasons. Recognizing that liturgy is the most important activity of the shrine, the Redemptorist saw this as a very important undertaking taking into consideration that our shrine is not just an ordinary shrine but a national shrine. This is also in line with the call for liturgical renewal as envisaged in Vatican II’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium):
… the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the church’s power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made children of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” –The Constitution on the Liturgy, 10
A perennial question hurled by other Christian denominations at Catholics is: Do Catholics worship Mary? Devotees’ main attraction is Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help; their fondness for Mary has often times made her more important than Jesus.
Ever since ancient times, the church has always reiterated the importance of worship over devotion or veneration. The church has distinguished between latria (worship) and dulia (veneration). This distinction was made as early as Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome. In 787 the Second Council of Nicaea affirmed a three-level hierarchy of latria, hyperdulia and dulia that applies to God, the Virgin Mary and then to the other saints respectively.
Dulia (Greek doulia; Latin servitus), is a theological term signifying the honour paid to the saints, while latria means worship given to God alone, and hyperdulia the veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hyperdulia is not adoration; only God is adored. Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, does not amount to worship – which is reserved for God. This distinction implies giving importance to the Eucharist and the sacraments which are celebrations of true worship of God. Moreover, this clarifies for the devotees the importance of the worship of God and the following of Jesus as his disciple over devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. As Ang Mahal na Birhen declares, “all veneration of Mary is to be subordinated to the adoration of the triune God and of Christ who is the Mediator.”
On the other hand, there should be integration between liturgy and devotion. Ulyssys da Silva calls for a stronger unity between the official liturgy and popular piety of the people:
[I]f the sacramental action, celebrated in the Liturgy, does not move toward an encounter with an interior piety, already called forth and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, it becomes ineffective. When both are experienced in parallel, as two distinct realities, without seeking a concrete integration that unites them in a single celebration, we are not being faithful to Jesus, for whom what mattered most was not the “official cult” or the pious customs, but rather, the experience of meeting the Father and the fraternity among his disciples. Therefore, the first purpose of sacramental action is to further enhance the experience of piety, even to the experience of complete union between a human being and God. Only in this way does a creature arrive at perfect conformity to the Will of the Father and undertake in earnest the mission of the Kingdom of His beloved Son. When will we get to the point of having this gospel reality clearly visualized in all our liturgical celebrations and acts of piety?
In recent years the shrine has emphasized the unity of devotion and mission. This is encapsulated in what the shrine called debo(Mi)syon: a concatenation of two words: debosyon (devotion) and misyon (mission). This implies that devotion and mission mutually saturate each other. Devotion cannot be confined to devotion but is essentially missional. Mission cannot be confined to mission or action but is essentially devotional. They are not two separate entities. Fr. Victorino Cueto explains that this is the disposition that pervade the Baclaran phenomenon,
a dis/position that is akin to a journey, a search that lies devotion and mission. It is highly devotion-al as it is filled with zeal and love. The devout is intensely touched by his/her experience glimpsed through the Icon of God. S/He is “consecrated” to the altar of a man-God whom s/he encounters in his/her narrations of prayerful pleas and heartfelt gratitude. In the same regard, it is mission-al in its practiced desire to reach-out and serve others, not in his/her own terms alone but in the service of God’s mission and His/Her Reign.
Translated into evangelization, the aim of debo(Mi)syon is to make devotees become aware that they are missionaries and are partners in the mission of God. Through preaching, retreats, prayers and liturgies, devotees deepen their understanding of their identity as missionaries and by virtue of their baptism, they are sent as missionaries. Through evangelization the shrine has emphasized the identity of Mary as first disciple of Jesus so that as they grow in their devotion to Mary, they grow as disciples of Jesus. On the other hand, as they become worthier disciples of Jesus, their devotion to Mary grows stronger.
The goal of debo(Mi)syon is for the devotion to become not mere religious piety and ritualistic devotionalism, nor mere supplication and thanksgiving, nor just practical participation in the mission of the church, but more importantly, it is entering into the mystery of the mission of God. Just as the icon calls devotees to participate in the divine mystery of the icon which is the life of glory with God and the saints, debo(Mi)syon calls devotees to see their lives in the life of the divine trinity—a life of mission within the three-persons-one-God and the overflowing of this love to the world, the whole of creation. Debo(Mi)syon is ultimately imitating the life of Mary who is the epitome of an icon of God, the prototype of a redeemed creation and the exemplar par excellence of a disciple of Christ. The shrine becomes the locus of the encounter betwixt and between heaven and earth, of living the present and the eschatological fullness of life.
Evangelization, indeed, is the greatest challenge of the shrine today as in the past. Much remains to be desired in this area. The shrine has to give more emphasis in evangelizing the devotees about the Icon and the life of Mary. The shrine also needs to further promote a holistic evangelization. Evangelization needs to address the many areas of life and piety of devotees that are disconnected from each other.
(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)
 The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God
 The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God
 Maureen Orth, “How the Virgin Mary Became the Most Powerful Woman,” National Geographic, December, 2015, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/virgin-mary-text
see Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003).
 Evangelii Gaudium, #285.
 Evangelii Gaudium, #287.
 Evangelii Nuntiandi, #82.
 Evangelii Gaudium, #284.
 Almocera, Ruel A., (2005) Popular Filipino Spiritual Beliefs with a proposed Theological Response. in Doing Theology in the Philippines. Suk, John., Ed. Mandaluyong: OMF Literature Inc. Pp 78-98
 Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #48.
 Ang Mahal na Birhen, #80.
 Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #34.
 Cueto, DEBO(MI)SYON: Celebrating the Spirit in / of Baclaran, 12.