[H]er gaze is like the continuation of the Father’s gaze,
the Father who looked at her as a child and made her God’s Mother;
like the Son’s gaze from the cross, from where He made her our mother;
the same gaze with which she looks at us.
– Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Many perceive the shrine as a busy shrine with people constantly coming and going, day and night. The shrine, however, can also become a quiet place and evoke an aura of stillness. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, the traffic, the noise and pollution of Manila, Baclaran is a place that offers silence, a time to rejuvenate the soul, a venue to unleash the pains and stress of people who daily confront the struggles in life. The shrine is an oasis of prayer in the city as Jo-Me De la Peña Mamić writes, “I’m so glad I had a chance to visit the miraculous church of Baclaran. It is a great feeling and even if it’s crowded I felt peace and silence in my heart.”
To think that the shrine only comes alive on Wednesday, Sundays and special liturgical seasons, underestimate the number of people who come to the shrine on ordinary days. On ordinary days, there is no letup of people entering the shrine most often to pray silently in front of the icon and the tabernacle. While Wednesday is replete with collective prayer such as novena, silent and private prayer from intermittent devotees coming in and out of the shrine characterizes ordinary days. Being a shrine and not a parish ensured that the shrine is quiet and empty most of the time on days except Wednesday and Sunday. This has contributed to the nurturing of a prayerful atmosphere.
Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula interviewed Emily, a devotee, who explained that while she goes to the shrine every Wednesday, she would also come during “less busy” days like Tuesday or Thursday as well because she appreciated the solitude. She explains, “When you ask for something, it is better if you are just alone when talking to her [Virgin Mary]. I think that God can hear my prayers better if I pray by myself,” she claimed. Lastly, she recounted that there were times when she did not finish the novena prayers. At some point, she would stop participating and would pray in her own words. “I prefer that because I can really talk to her.”
Many devotees find the solemn and sacred environment of the shrine uplifting to the spirits. A devotee, Carmen Torres Gutierrez comments on March 25, 2018,
After I attend mass at Baclaran, I would just sit at the edge of one of the pews of the church. Nothing special whatsoever… just so all my worries will disappear, then before I leave, I take a deep breath. I’m fine once again.
Jomar Gabayeron also commented, “A very solemn and sacred church. Has a big space in my heart and plays a big role in my life.” Likewise, Macky Cona commented, “It is a very solemn church which motivates us to pray harder!!!”
Many times, we have been asked: Where is the Blessed Sacrament chapel in the shrine? I always reply that there is no chapel of the Blessed Sacrament because any chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, no matter how big it is, could never fit the constant influx of devotees that come to the shrine outside of the novena and mass hours. No chapel of the Blessed Sacrament could adequately accommodate the sheer number of people who come and pray at the shrine. Thus, we always reply that the whole shrine is the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
As the icon is positioned at the top of the tabernacle of the shrine, the experience of most devotees about the icon is that OMPH is gazing at them. This is particularly shared by Jhuzel Alarcon in a thanksgiving letter she wrote on August 1, 2015:
During those times when I had problems, it is you who I always come to. As I pray before you, you see everything that happened in my life, all the right and wrong things I have done. For the wrong things I have done I implored you to ask for mercy to the Lord on my behalf. I also ask for your help to guide me in straightening my life. You really straightened me because despite all the wrongs things I have done I graduated from college and was able to take the Board Exam … Thank you very much for your help and for interceding for me to our God. I offer my success to you Mother who have been with me in all the events of my life till now.
At the same time, devotees gazed at the icon, pouring their hearts out. Charmaine writing in May 27, 2015 expressed her profound experience of gazing at the icon of OMPH
It’s been one year since I first gazed on your picture and prayed. In all of my life, that was the only time that I prayed as if there was no more tomorrow. I remembered how my tears flowed while looking at your picture. Now I give you thanks, a never ending gratitude for all the petitions that you granted and will grant in the future. Thank you very much.
For the past eighty-five years, the icon of OMPH enshrined high above the altar, has gazed upon the millions of devotees who visited and prayed at the shrine 24/7. Many devotees found comfort under the loving gaze of OMPH. As Mary gazed at the devotees she points them to Jesus as the path of their true salvation and peace. Mary’s gazing upon the devotees is ultimately to direct them to Jesus. As St. John Paul II states,
Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51). The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side.
Similarly, Pope Francis when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio reflecting on Mary’s gaze connected it with God’s gaze:
Her gaze is like the continuation of the Father’s gaze, the Father who looked at her as a child and made her God’s Mother; like the Son’s gaze from the cross, from where He made her our mother; the same gaze with which she looks at us.
The then-Cardinal further describes the impact of this kind of gaze upon us:
The Virgin’s gaze helps us look at each other in a different way. We learn to be more human, because the Mother looks at us. To have that gaze that seeks to save, accompany and protect. We learn to see ourselves in her motherly gaze.
While OMPH’s gaze is directed at the devotees and the world she points to Jesus whom she holds firmly with her left arm. By contemplating at the icon, devotees learn to ponder the meaning of discipleship in Jesus. This reflects what the CCC said about contemplation:
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.
Despite the popularity of the novena, I see more and more devotees contemplating before the icon. Contemplation is the most effective way of praying with the Icon. Mary calls her devotees to enter into contemplative prayer as they gaze upon her. Contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplari which means “to gaze, observe, behold.” To contemplate the icon is to be aware and to behold Mary and God’s love and presence.
Contemplation is entering into God’s presence where Mary and the saints are now residing. It is placing our lives into the life of God. It is finding our story in God’s story. Contemplation evokes a response of waiting, loving, trusting, and obeying. It is the same response that Mary made when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of God, “Let it be done according to your will.” Contemplating the icon of Mary helps devotees to see what God desires of them—what His will is.
This is the experience of many devotees who contemplate before the icon for hours on ordinary days. The devotees reflect the attitude of which the CCC describes of the faithful who enters into contemplative prayer:
Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.
The rich eastern theology of the icon further gives insights about the significance of contemplation. In Eastern theology of the icon, before the icon, the viewer or gazer is invited to enter into the mystery or sacrament of the icon. The object of contemplation is the mystery, the world of the icon, the prototype not the object itself. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it–the love of God expressed through God’s creatures. Thus, contemplation affords more the experience of praying with the icon rather than just praying to icon. Icons are not the final object of our prayer but God who invites us to enter into God’s love and participate in God’s love through our love for fellow brothers and sisters and the whole of creation.
In a profound way, contemplating the icon is an event–the encounter between our life on earth and God’s life in heaven. Icon is more than an object of veneration; it is a window to eternity. Icons stand in-between our life here on earth and the life of the saints in heaven. Mary gazes on our life here on earth while we gaze on the life of Mary and the saints in heaven. Thus the icon and Mary helps to awaken an aesthetic, contemplative and doxological attitude—a sense of gratitude, awe and wonder—in the devotees’ life and faith.
Mary as model of contemplation
As devotees enter more and more into the contemplative spirit, they see Mary as a model of contemplation. This is what St. John Paul II underscored in his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae:
The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed she began to sense his presence and to picture his features. When at last she gave birth to him in Bethlehem, her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son, as she “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Lk2:7).
The mouth, ears, and nose of Mary in the icon of OMPH symbolize the contemplative attitude of Mary. We see the mouth and the ears of Mary particularly small. The mouth of Mary is small because it is already transformed in its heavenly form; she no longer needs the food that the world gives. Moreover, her mouth is sealed because prayer needs silence and fervent attention on God. The ears of Mary are not given much attention and it is almost hidden under her veil. This implies that it is no longer fascinated with the sounds of the world but only to the word and command of God. Her nose is long and slender which evokes honor. It is no longer dependent on the aroma of the world but only to Christ and to the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.
An invitation to contemplate one’s own life
Mary’s gaze upon the devotees is sorrowful because Mary sees our misery here on earth. Mary feels the pain and suffering that we undergo daily. Her gaze, therefore, is a gaze of mercy and compassion.
Moreover, Mary’s gaze enables the devotees to see the mystery of their own life and of life itself. Mary’s enigmatic gaze pierce into the soul of devotees that they could not escape plunging into their conscience and discovering its beauty and lowliness. Mary’s gaze is an invitation to plunge into God’s Mystery, through the mystery of their own lives. This is the experience of Milton Coyne III aka Bluedreamer:
When I was working in Makati, Baclaran Church has become a normal sight to me. The buses from Cavite will normally stop near the Baclaran while the jeepneys bound to Ayala can be found near the site. Since I usually arrive early, for some reason, I decided to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes praying in front of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As time passes by, I realized that my prayers are becoming deeper that I’m starting to find peacefulness every time I kneel down and pray. I even cry and I do not even bother if anyone sees me weeping. It was a sudden change of faith and I started to realize how blessed I am by appreciating those simple things that came to my life unexpectedly.
Milton Coyne’s contemplative experience shows that in contemplating God it is God finding us rather than us finding God. It is not so much how we see God and Mary in the icon but we experience more how God and Mary see our lives. As Polish Redemptorist Maryk Kotinski said,
The icon is first and foremost about God who constantly looks for us. Christianity is, above all, an intervention of God. It is not so much human’s search for God as a descent of God’s life to the human level. It is God who reveals himself, who manifests himself.
An invitation to contemplate the world
Gazing at the icon also invites the devotees to gaze at the world like Mary. Contemplating the icon help the devotees to form within themselves the mindset of Mary.
Through contemplation of the sacred image the viewer-believer should raise himself above the flawed world that surrounds him to the very real world of the Divinity, thus producing a bond between the viewer and the image that is not only aesthetical but also mystical.
The icon enshrined in the retable is a silent witness to the many changes in the world during these eighty five years. Many of the devotees who come to the shrine sought guidance and strength in navigating these constantly changing issues. They brought the many concerns and issues that affect their lives in their families, communities, the nation and the world. In the midst of the sweeping changes and the burning issues in the nation and the world, the icon has become an anchor of hope and transformation for the devotees.
Through the Icon of OMPH devotees learned to contemplate the world through the gaze of Mary. In seeking directions for the contemporary challenges, the icon gives the devotees a framework at how to see and navigate the world. The icon offers the devotees a contemplative perspective of life and of the world
An invitation to contemplate Christ
Mary’s gaze is not only a gaze of sorrow and mercy but a gaze of hodegetria; a gaze which gives us a wider vision, a renewed vision of our lives through the world of Jesus. It is a gaze to see their whole life’s involvement in the work of Redemption of Christ.
Mary’s gaze is directed towards contemplation of Christ. Jesus in the icon is looking not at Mary but at the cross, even beyond the cross outside of the icon. The eyes of Jesus are looking at God the Father with a mixture of sadness and joyful hope. The cross will bring pain and death but it will also lead to the glory of all humankind in the time to come. Mary invites us to learn from her son Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. The path of Jesus is the cross that will lead us to new life and victory.
Ultimately, the gaze of Mary is a call to mission. Contemplating the icon of OMPH is not just contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Mary’s gaze is a call to become a disciple of Jesus. Having become aware of ourselves and the world in the perspective of Mary and following the path of Jesus, contemplation essentially leads to the mission of Jesus. Contemplation is geared towards participation in the mission of God within ourselves and in the world.
Baclaran is not just a shrine of devotion but also a shrine of contemplation. The atmosphere of the shrine is an invitation for the devotees not just to pray the novena but to enter into a deeper form of prayer–contemplation. Devotion to Mary and prayer to God is not only through words but also silence.
The greatest challenge that devotees received in experiencing the shrine as a shrine of contemplation is how to transform their devotion from petitionary form of devotion to participation in Mary’s life. They need to experience Mary as a model of contemplation—a life of continuous surrender and letting the mystery of God’s mission and plan enter their lives.
(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)
Pope Francis then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Homily of October 10, 1999 in Antonio Fidalgo, C.Ss.R, “To See as OMPH Does,” Scala News, May 8, 2018. Accessed at https://www.cssr.news/2018/05/to-see-as-our-mother-of-perpetual-help-does/
 Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 215.
 St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, #11.
 Cardinal George Bergoglio, “Homily of October 10, 1999” (arzbaires.org). See also Homily of September 22, 2013 (vatican.va) in Antonio Fidalgo, C.Ss.R, “To See as OMPH Does.”
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2715.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2712.
 St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, #10.
 Marek Kotynski, Meditations on the Icon of OMPH (Rome: Scala Publications, 2015),
 Maria Luisa de Villalobos, in Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., “Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety.”