I just came back from visiting our home in Bicol, Philippines for the celebration of 93rd birthday of my father. It was just a simple family celebration to give thanks to God for having given my father such a long life. He doesn’t have any major illness but just general weakness and immobility due to old age.
During the mass in celebration for his birthday, we all shared about the legacy of our father. We all agreed that one of the lasting and greatest legacy he has left us is the value of persistent prayer. He taught us to pray daily the Rosary as a family together. He told us, as well as many people, to pray always. As a Legion of Mary diocesan leader, he would tag us along in going house to house exhorting the people to pray always.
Today’s readings of the 17th Sunday in ordinary time, teach us about persistence in prayer. Jesus in the gospel even tells us to be obstinate in asking God for all our needs.
Abraham in the First Reading continuously bargained and negotiated with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorah from destruction for the sake of innocent people who lived there. For each of Abraham’s petition, God granted Abrahams prayer.
Jesus recommends the same attitude of persistence in prayer. In the Gospel he tells the famous parable about knocking on the door of a friend late at night to borrow some bread. The friend refuses because he and his family are all in bed. Jesus says, “If he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get out of bed to give him what he needs because of his persistence.”
These readings tell us that prayer is not just mere verbal supplication of our needs but more profoundly a positive and courageous attitude before God. As Pope Francis said, prayer is a courageous “knocking at the heart” of God with a strong unwavering faith that he will respond.
When we pray courageously, the Lord gives us the grace, but he also gives us himself in the grace: the Holy Spirit, that is, himself! Who comes to bring it to me. It’s him. Our prayer, if it is courageous, receives what it asks for, but also that which is more important: the Lord. …
Pope Francis, Vatican City, Oct 10, 2013
In the Baclaran shrine, this persistence in prayer attitude is shown through the letters that devotees write to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. From the thanksgiving letters we read every Wednesday, one important albeit hard insight that devotees learn is that in prayer they receive may not be the answer which they desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and love knows to be best. In other words, not all petitions from the devotees were answered by God in the exact way and time that the devotees hoped for.
Even though their prayers were not answered in the way they expected it, Our Mother of Perpetual Help empowers and strengthens them as they continue to hope that God will respond to their prayers in the way that God knows what is best for them. As the devotees pray in the novena, “Make us aware that God never ceases to love us; that He answers all our prayers in the way that is best for us.” Krystelline Jimenez testifies to this conviction in her thanksgiving letter February 3, 2016,
I have prayed the Novena every Wednesday morning for a couple of years now. Some of my petitions were answered with a “no”, some were “not yet” but most were “YES”. But more than the petitions, the Novena gives me a sense of security, a sense of peace, where nothing could ever go wrong. I thank the Lord and Mama Mary for taking care of me and my family despite my shortcomings. Thank you for my whole life, including the No and Not yets.
There are some devotees where many of their petitions were not even answered. Despite this, they continue to come to the shrine. For them, the warm presence and loving gaze of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enough as it gives them inner peace and strength. This is the experience of Ritchie Limpin who wrote in July 08, 2014,
For a person who has many concerns like me—a single mom who brings up my children alone, it is only to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that I hold on to. I must admit, there are times that I started to ask myself, what do I get out of coming here besides the profound peace I feel whenever I come to this place? Are there any prayers that she has already heard and come true? Despite all of these, I continue to visit her even though sometimes there is nothing that I can think of anymore to pray for. I just remain sitting or kneeling there and praying the novena.
For the petitions answered, however, they are not just graces coming from God but supplemented by human efforts and cooperation. As the Filipino saying goes, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa” (Mercy is God’s, action is us) implies that prayer must be complemented by action and action must be supplemented by prayer.
The longest mural in a church in the Philippines is found in the Baclaran shrine. The mural is titled Panagpo. It is about the journey of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help from the island of Crete to Baclaran, Philippines. This mural was created in celebration of the 150th Jubilee of the Icon in 2016. This is located at the back of Candle Chapel at Baclaran shrine.
In preparation for the feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help on June 27, we will not just be praying the Novena but also contemplate on the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help–the meaning of the whole Icon and its parts for nine days.
The contemplation of the icon can be done either before or after praying the novena. It would be most appropriate to have an Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help or a copy of the icon in front of you. You can adorn it with candles and some flowers.
For the seventh day of the Novena we will contemplate on the golden background of the icon.
The color gold is the dominant color which occupies the whole icon. Gold is a color which is not normally found in nature. The color gold implies a place which this world cannot give; a place that is bright, peaceful, abundant and joyful. It is already here but we only see a glimpse of it because it is hidden. We will experience the fulfilment and full disclosure of this place at the end of our lives.
The golden background that occupies the whole icon, therefore, is a symbol of heaven, where Jesus and Mary and the saints now dwells. Gold in the icon evokes the life of joy and peace in eternity with God which we are all destined to be at the end of time.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the exemplar of the glory and joy that will happen to us at the end of times. Even as the completion of this glory will happen in the end, the icon invites us to open our hearts and mind to the glory of God already unfolding in our daily events—even in the gloomiest days of our lives.
The light of heaven which passes through the clothing of Mary and Jesus indicates the heavenly joy which Jesus and Mary bring to the hearts of all the faithful. Looking through the icon, therefore, we are invited to see an “it-could-be-otherwise” world. The icon invites us to see behind and beyond their world—with all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence, enslavements – in anticipation of a possible world full of possibilities. The icon invites the devotees to contemplate the world in the light of God’s vision and fullness of redemption. “I have come to bring life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”
As we contemplate the icon, we experience a creative tension between our present situation and the future life in eternity with God which the icon represents. The icon, therefore, is the encounter between heaven and earth, our present age and the fullness of time. Icons are doorway, a means of access into the age to come. It is a meeting point and a place of encounter with the communion of saints.
Mary calls us to participate in this mystery that is depicted in the icon. Therefore, more than an object, the icon is an event. It is an event of proclamation and encounter. As an event it calls our active response.
Let us contemplate and gaze at the golden background in silence …
At the end of our contemplation, let us pray,
O Mother of Perpetual Help, you are the exemplar of the glory and joy which will happen to us at the end of times. May we open our hearts and mind always to the glory of God unfolding in the daily events—even in the most mundane and gloomy days of our lives. Amen.
In preparation for the feast of Our Mother of Perpetual Help on June 27, we will not just be praying the Novena but also contemplate on the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help–the meaning of the whole Icon and its parts for nine days.
The contemplation of the icon can be done either before or after praying the novena. It would be most appropriate to have an Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help or a copy of the icon in front of you. You can adorn it with candles and some flowers.
For the fourth day of the Novena we will contemplate on the Hands of Mary.
The right hand of Mary does not hold the hands of Jesus but points to Jesus which says: “Follow him: He is our Redeemer!”
The left hand of Mary holds Jesus in a loving and caring way. The left hand of Mary symbolizes the throne of Jesus where Jesus sits. Mary, therefore, is the seat of Wisdom who is Jesus.
An important Marian archetypes that is significantly present in the icon of OMPH is the Marian archetype of Hodegetria. Hodegetria is a Greek word which literally means “She who shows the Way.” It depicts Mary as the guide. In this type, the Ever Virgin Mary is holding Christ and pointing toward Him, as a guide to God and salvation. It is interesting to note that Mary in the Eastern tradition does not give so much emphasis on Mary in her own right. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never depicted by herself, autonomously, separately but always depicted with her divine son—Jesus.
Mary’s right hand is, above all, the Hodegetria hand, that is to say, the hand of she who shows the path to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, as in the wedding feast at Cana, she appears to say to believers: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
Let us contemplate and gaze at the hands of Mary in silence …
At the end of our contemplation, let us pray,
O Mother of Perpetual Help, your greatest aspiration for us is to follow the way of Jesus when you said, “Do whatever he tells you”. You are the first disciple of Jesus and you showed us the true meaning of discipleship. Pray for us that like you we may become true disciples of Jesus by being totally open and cooperative to God’s plan and word in our lives.
As we come close to Valentine’s Day, lots of signs of love are all around us. Shopping malls conspicuously display hearts of all sizes and designs in their mad scramble to attract consumers. Roses and chocolates are particularly hot commodities. The post office and the internet are flooded with love letters and memes of love and devotion for one’s beloved.
Here at the shrine, lovers and couples have made the shrine a favorite meeting place. It is so lovely to see lovers and couples not just meeting but praying together. Our Mother of Perpetual has perhaps witnessed the expressions of love and devotion between thousands of lovers in the hallowed sanctuary of the shrine. The shrine may have easily fit the setting of an old popular sentimental Tagalog kundiman (love song), Sa Lumang Simbahan,
Sa lumang simbahan (In the old church) Aking napagmasdan (I witnessed) Dalaga’t binata (Young men and women) Ay nagsusumpaan (Promising to each other) sila’y nakaluhod (They knelt) Sa harap ng altar (In front of the altar)
Many relationships began and developed at the shrine. Like the story of Jess and Gemma Granadosin. Gemma has, for a long time, prayed to meet the man who will love her forever. Gemma met Jessie in Baclaran. It was love at first sight for Jess. They fell in love. The shrine became their constant meeting place. Now both of them are happily married. Not only that their love life grew but also their spiritual life. When Gemma became an usher of the shrine, Jess joined her too. Both of them served Our Mother of Perpetual Help as ushers of the shrine.
However, the shrine and its environs have also been covertly taken advantage by unscrupulous individuals for activities that defile the very meaning of love. Some notorious individuals have taken advantage of the large gathering of devotees in the compound of the shrine to do their flesh trade. Outside the shrine, there are abortifacients being sold openly on the streets.
Time and again, we have strongly condemned these abuses in the name of love. Indeed, love has become one of the most abused words. So often, we can easily say I love you to the other but fail miserably in proving that love in action. Learning the art of loving entails constant commitment; indeed, it is a lifetime mission.
We cannot, however, truly learn to love unless we go back to the very author of love—God. It is God who loved us first. God loved us because God is love. Before God loved us, God has lived that love first in Godself–three divine persons yet one God. We see in the one God, three persons that God’s love is completely selfless and focused on the other. It is because of this love that God sent his son to share God’s love to us and give us abundant life.
Valentine’s day is not just a day for lovers. It is a day for all of us who are called to participate and partake of God’s love. As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, may we truly learn and live the love that God has shown us. May we learn from Mary, our Mother of Perpetual Help, who is our model in loving God and others.
Tomorrow, Chinese from all over the world will celebrate New Year in the traditional Chinese calendar. Here at the shrine, there are many Chinese-Filipinos who attend the novena. Did you know that there was a Chinese novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help at the shrine before? In this article, Fr. John Maguire traces the history of the Chinese novena at the shrine.
When I first came to the Philippines in 1963 there was a Chinese Novena every Wednesday at 9.a.m. This was attended by a few (around twenty) Chinese who used to gather in the Tribune of the Shrine (now the Sacristy). The Novena was conducted by a foreign priest, not Chinese, who would read the prayers up to the time of the sermon and then give a summary translation of the sermon being preached in the main Shrine, by the priest conducting the regular Novena. After the sermon they would part ways again, one continuing in English and the other in Chinese.
The priest who conducted the Novena in Chinese was a Jesuit from the group commonly called the “Chinese Mission”. They had been sent to China as Missionaries but when the boat was nearing China, the Communists had taken control and no more Missionaries were allowed into the country. They had come here to await developments but as we now know, no change ever came in their lifetime.
Many Chinese missionaries worked in the Philippines for years and some died here. Examples were Fr Parisi, S.J. who was well known for his counseling center called “Our Lady of Peace” and who died here a number of years ago, Fr Calle, who taught Catechists and is now in Hong Kong or Macao, and a Fr Mario who heard confession in Baclaran every Wednesday for more than twenty years until his death. He is buried in the Jesuit Novitiate (Retreat House) in Novaliches.
When the new Revised Novena began in 1973, the year of the Silver Jubilee of the Novena, Fr Santiago de Leon S.J, who at that time led the Chinese Novena at 9.a.m. each Wednesday, said that they still had copies of the first Chinese Novena Booklet that was printed in 1966. Before that they had mimeographed copies dating back to 1960. At that time about twenty Chinese were still gathering in the tribune of the Shrine each Wednesday. They had the Revised Novena translated and printed in Chinese in Taipei.
The Chinese Novena continued for a number of years after this but eventually it was impossible to get a priest on a regular basis, and the need for such a service seemed to have disappeared, so the Tribune became a Sacristy.
A large number of Chinese still attend the different sessions of the novena.
After the great spectacle of popular religiosity during the Traslación of the Black Nazarene or Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, Manila, the whole country gears for another grand pageantry of popular devotion in the coming feast of Sto Niño on January 20–the third Sunday of January.
The feast of the Sto. Niño (Holy Child Jesus) is celebrated annually in January in many parts of the Philippines. The most prominent of them all, however, is in the biggest city in southern Philippines–Cebu–the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. The most significant symbol of this historical episode is the relic of Santo Niño de Cebú. The Santo Niño de Cebú (Cebuano: Balaang Bata sa Sugbu, Filipino: Ang Banal na Sanggol ng Cebu) is associated with a religious image of the Christ Child widely venerated as miraculous by Filipino Catholics. It is the oldest Catholic relic in the Philippines, originally given in 1521 as a gift by the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Cebu’s local chieftain, Rajah Humabon, and his wife as a baptismal gift.
The shrine has its own statue of Sto. Niño in its front area near the main entrance door. The statue is enclosed in a protective fiberglass container. It is the second most popular statue in the shrine, second only to the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross. It is, indeed, a perfect example of contrast as the two statue faced each other at the entrance of the shrine: the child Jesus with a cute innocent smile and the adult Jesus in pain on the cross. Devotees criss cross, in going from one statue to the other, to seek divine intervention and guidance amidst their everyday travails and struggles.
The people usually touch, kiss, bow or wipe with their handkerchief as they pray in front of the statue of Sto. Niño. Sometimes they offer flowers at the foot of the statue. There is a special ritual, however, that devotees do in front of the statue Sto Niño statue–people knocking on the glass. Nobody knows who started this ritual, when this ritual begun and what this ritual truly symbolized. Perhaps the best explanation I can surmise for this ritual is this is a popular expression of the devotees’ complete trust in the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 7: 7-8):
Ask, and it will be given you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Every January 9, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene (commemorating the “solemn transfer” of the image’s copy from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo) makes its way along the streets of Manila through a 6-kilometer-long procession. An estimated number of 3 million people are expected to participate and witness the event, which may last about 22 hours as in previous years. The traslación is undoubtedly the biggest one-day public display of popular religiosity in the Philippines, or perhaps, the whole world.
The Black Nazarene ( in Filipino: Poóng Itím na Nazareno, Hesus Nazareno) is a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the Cross enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.
Thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene, some wearing maroon shirts and carrying white towels, and barefooted have started the hours-long journey through the streets of Manila early morning today. The Black Nazarene will be accompanied by throngs of people with many trying to climb onto the carossa carrying the miraculous image. Devotees scramble to touch the statue as part of their prayer and expression of devotion.
Many devotees of Poong Hesus Nazareno, especially those coming from Parañaque, Las Piñas and Cavite area, pass by the shrine on the way to Quiapo. Many of them in barefoot wear maroon t-shirt with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno, carry white towels and maroon handkerchief with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno and some carry the statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno. They say a little prayer in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help inside the shrine and the shrine’s statue of crucified Christ at the entrance of the shrine, before they continue their journey to Quiapo.
We don’t have a statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno in the shrine but we have the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross at the entrance of the shrine. This statue is easily the most favorite statue in the shrine. Many devotees crowd the statue, touching, wiping and kissing it. Many can be seen crying in front of the statue. At least every six months, the shrine needs to repaint the statue because the paint has faded after all the wiping and kissing of the statue by the thousands of devotees.
For many devotees in the shrine, the statue is a tangible representation of our Lord Jesus whom they can touch and kiss. When they touch and kiss the statue they believe that they already touch Jesus. And because they have touched him, they were able to bring to him their petitions and pleas. Perhaps, another reason for its popularity is because the devotees can see their own sufferings in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Because of this, they feel that Christ on the cross identifies with their own sufferings.
Watching the devotees wiping the statue of the crucified Christ with their handkerchief or bandanna then wiping it on themselves reminds me of the story of Veronica who met Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. According to Church tradition, Veronica was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face was miraculously impressed upon Veronica’s veil.
I believe that the experience of Veronica, encountering Jesus on his way to Calvary, is the same experience of the millions of devotees in the shrine and in Quiapo. When devotees wipe the statue of the crucified Christ in the shrine and Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, the crucified face of Christ becomes impressed upon their handkerchief or bandanna. Their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ becomes a great resource for them in their life-journey especially in their daily struggles and hardships. When devotees wiped their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ on their bodies, they experienced Jesus touching and embracing their tired and worn out bodies. They can sense Jesus’ solidarity and identification with their suffering and trials in life. This gives them the greatest hope to continue to face life’s difficulties and reach their aspirations because Christ has also experienced pain and suffering. Like Christ, they will also resurrect and emerge victorious amidst the seemingly insurmountable problems in life.
It is also important to remember that the celebration of the traslacion of Poong Hesus Nazareno still falls within the Christmas season. We are in the Wednesday after the Epiphany of Lord, which is part of the Christmas celebration. This means that the passion and suffering of Jesus cannot be separated from the incarnation of Christ–God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When the Son of God became human, he was prepared to embrace our pain and suffering, including death. If we are to truly live the spirit of Christmas, therefore, we must also be prepared to identify with the mission of Jesus and follow Jesus’ words and deeds, which led to his suffering and death on the cross.
There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest thing in the gospel about Veronica is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48)
“Be ready to intercede with every form of help for each human heart and all the peoples … especially for those who have heavy ordeals in life due to suffering, poverty and every form of afflictions… Mother of Perpetual Help, accept this humble offering and place it in the Heart of Your Son,”
– St. John Paul II in Baclaran
Filipinos have embraced Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, as their own mother. From the moment that Our Mother of Perpetual Help arrived in the Philippines in 1906, Filipinos took her into their own homes and communities. Many devotees fondly call Our Mother of Perpetual Help “Mama Mary” (Mother Mary). It may sound sentimentalist to some but to many devotees it expresses their deep devotion and childlike dependence on Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Just like Marvin L. Maderas who in October 14, 2014, wrote a thanksgiving letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help which she fondly calls Mama Mary,
Dear Mama Mary,
I cannot stop thanking you for the blessings you have given me. I was jobless and hopeless then. I prayed to You for a job and You found me one in Manila, near your shrine. I tried to make it every Wednesday to attend to the novena asking for a more permanent job so that I can continue to support my children in their college education. You not only given me a regular employment but you restored me to my previous job in my hometown. O Mama Mary, You are really the kindest of all mothers for granting my prayers and giving me this extra gift! I am now working in our place and going back to our home daily and sleeping every night beside my youngest daughter. I can now watch her as she grows up into a lady. Nothing is impossible to you and your generosity is beyond expectation. Thank you, thank you so much Mama Mary. I promise to proclaim Your miraculous intervention in every opportunity that I have. Amen
Mary of Baclaran is the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help enshrined on the altar of the shrine. The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enshrined in Rome in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori (Chiesa di Sant’Alfonso di Liguori all’Esquilino in Italian). It is a Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Church) icon painted sometime between 1350 and 1450 AD in the island of Crete by an unknown iconographer (painter of icons).
Unlike other objects of devotions to the Blessed Mother in the Philippines which are usually images or statues of Western origin, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon of Eastern origin. Not all devotees know that Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon let alone an Eastern icon. Many are unfamiliar that this icon comes from the Eastern Church tradition. This comes to the fore when devotees comment on the beauty of Mary in the icon. Many find Mary in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help different from the smooth, fair, and beautiful faces of Mary they have been used to in images or statues of Mary of Western origin, like Fatima, Lourdes, or Rosary. This highlight a significant reality that Filipinos’ standard of religious beauty has, for a long time, been conditioned by Western standards, symbolism and spirituality.
The unfamiliarity with the Eastern spirituality and understanding of the icon adds to the mystery of the icon. This is symbolized by the location of the icon at the shrine—enshrined at the top of the altar with no physical access for devotees. Despite the inaccessibility of the icon, however, devotees find creative ways to reach the icon. I remember the story of Fr. Maguire on a one Wednesday when he just finished the blessing of pious objects. A woman approached him and said, “Can I go in and touch the image of the Blessed Mother?” He said, “How do you intend to do that?” He had an image in his mind of her trying to climb the bronze decorations above the Tabernacle to reach the icon. She said simply, however, “I just touch the tabernacle; the icon is connected to it.”
For many devotees, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help seems to be full of paradoxes: distant yet near, mysterious yet familiar, unattractive yet inviting, and alienating yet fascinating. Indeed, there is a profound mystery and universal appeal in the icon that transcends the physical and natural as Clement M. Henze suggests,
It appeals to the supernatural within us; to something, therefore, that is wider than the world; to something that is not confined to race, or color, or country; to something that is not determined by artistic theories or artistic values, be they proper to the East or to the West.
Despite all these, Filipinos loved the icon of Mary of Baclaran. How can a strange foreign icon become so popular and well-loved in the Philippines, not to mention in many parts of the world where there is widespread devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help? Brazilian Redemptorist Fr. J. Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R. tries to make sense of this enigma,
[W]e are faced with an Icon that in itself does not belong to the Catholic tradition of the Roman Rite, or to western religiosity, as we know it and inherited it with our paintings and devotional images. How was it possible for this Icon to be welcomed in such an amazing way by the devotional world of the west? What process would have had to happen for the mandate of Pius IX to us Redemptorists to have such an international effect and for peoples of different cultures to feel such a strong affection for a typically Byzantine Icon? Or could it be that we have taken an Icon of eastern culture and conferred a new meaning upon it, so that it might penetrate our religious culture?
Appeal of the Icon to our Indigenous Religiosity
There must be something in the icon of Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help that appeal profoundly to the Filipinos’ sense of religiosity, or as da Silva suggests, Filipino devotees could have conferred a new meaning upon it consonant with their cultural and religious idiosyncrasies. Fr. Nico Perez also ponders on the attraction of the icon to Filipino devotees and posits that it has something to do with the practical advantages of it being an icon. Unlike a statue, a copy of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be easily placed on their wallets. Thus, the icon is always with them wherever they go. It would be inconvenient doing the same thing to a statue. In other words, Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon has the character of accessibility (availability), mobility (transportability) and physicality (presence)—qualities which always appeal to and sustains popular religiosity.
In the previous chapter, we saw how our ancestors also made larauan (icons) made from wood, stone, or ivory which are representation of the invisible society coexisting with their material world. In other words, these larauan served as the bridge to the spiritual world. The icon of OMPH 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.
Rootedness in the Church Tradition and Teaching on Mary
Before Pope Pius IX entrusted the icon to the Redemptorist in 1866, it took an almost 500 year’s journey from Crete to Rome. The miraculous icon was painted or written in the 14th century in the island of Crete. The story of the journey of the icon from Crete to Rome is a fascinating one. It is a long journey replete with miraculous anecdotes. One very significant observation is that from the very beginning of the journey of the icon, the protagonists of the veneration have been mostly lay people: the merchant who ‘stole’ the icon, the family who came into possession of it and the girl to whom Our Lady appeared in a dream so as not to be forgotten. Through many ordinary people, sinners even, Mary was directing people where the Icon should go and where it should be enshrined for veneration. This may also hold true in Baclaran.
The story of the icon, however, cannot be traced only from the 14th century as the icon represents the hundreds of years of church’s tradition, teaching and reflection on the role of Mary in God’s mission beginning from the Council of Ephesus in 431, which gave the title to Mary, as Mother of God. The original Greek word used in this church dogma was theotokos which means God-bearer. Mary was chosen to be the bearer of God-made-man.
The teachings and faith declarations of the church on Mary, however, was based on the scriptures and witness’ accounts of her actual life here in earth. Therefore, the icon also bears the actual life of Mary. To kiss an icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is to show love towards Virgin Mary herself, not just to the wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Veneration of the icon as entirely separate from Mary’s life is inconceivable. Indeed, we can say that the icon is a relic of the living Mary; an icon of a life lived in the fullness of God’s grace: “Hail Mary full of Grace.”
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, is more than a work of art. It is a sacred testament which reveals the church’s profound development in the understanding, belief, and recognition of Mary as the Icon of Trinitarian love. The icon is not mentioned in the scriptures but expressed centuries of church’s traditions and teachings on Mary as well as veneration and devotion of people through the years. In order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, we need to understand the theological and spiritual role of Mary as proclaimed by the church through the centuries. As Fr. da Silva reiterates,
The Icon itself is normally not the object of devotion or veneration, as are our pictures and images of saints. It is totally integrated into a broader context, as a sacramental reference to the contemplation of the mystery of Christ and the Trinity. It is an invitation to contemplate the History of Salvation in its mystery dimension, that is, as a fulfillment of the salvific plan of God.
By containing the church’s teachings and traditions, the icon is important means of evangelization. As the document The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God says, “The icon as an instrument for evangelization especially about the life and theology on Mary. Marian shrines in particular provide an authentic school of faith based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”
Synthesis of Marian iconography/archetypes
Church’s tradition and teachings on Mary is not only ingrained in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The icon is a product of centuries of tradition of iconographic archetypes. Each of these archetype contributed to the final art and meaning of the icon. Ferero states that if we wish to understand the original and overall significance of icons, we must refer back to the iconographic archetypes that produced them.
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is at the tail end of a long creative, artistic and theological process. [T]he original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was written by the iconographer at a time when the Christian art of symbols was reaching the end of its creative process. As a result it becomes a synthesis of the fundamental elements of earlier Marian iconography. Being at the tail end, it gains much of the insights, spirituality and meaning of previous icons.
Let us now examine briefly the iconographic archetypes contained in icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
There are five Marian archetypes that are significantly present in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They originally appear in a number of other fundamental iconographic themes or compositions. Ferero enumerates these archetypes as the Virgin Mother, the Mother of God as Empress, the Orant, the Hodegetria and the Eleusa. All other types and models, including the Virgin of the Passion, are derived from these five archetypes.
Upon her veil are three stars, which represent her eternal virginity: Mary was “always a virgin, before, during and after the birth of Jesus Christ.”
Mother of God as Empress
Besides Christ, the basis of all iconography, no other subject has been more depicted than Mary, the Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”, literally “God-Bearer”). The icon of Theotokos represent the first human being who realized the goal of the Incarnation: the deification of man.
On her left hand the Virgin holds the hand of he who holds the universe in his hand and whom neither heaven nor earth can contain. The words of the Akathistos hymn read as follows:
“He who sits in glory, on the throne of Divinity, Jesus, the Supreme God, came in a veil of cloud, into the arms of the Immaculate, and brought salvation to those who cried out, ‘Glory, 0 Christ, to your power’” (Od. 4).
“Hail to you who bear he who sustains all” (Od. 1). “Hail to you, the seat of God, the Infinite one; hail to you, the portal of the sacred mystery … Hail, to this throne more holy than that of the cherubim; hail seat more beautiful than that of the seraphim” (Od. 15).
Mary as intercessor. In this type, Mary is shown with arms in ornate position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb. “Of the Sign,” is a reference to the words of Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
The Mother of God as one Praying (Orant) is a symbol of the ascension of the soul, through the experience of death, towards the resurrection and participation in the mystical life of Christ. It culminates in the hereafter but we are also called upon to experience it at specific moments of our life on earth, such as times of prayer. This is why the celebrant raises his arms during the Eucharistic prayer and invites the faithful to raise their hearts to God, like Mary as the one Praying and in the scene of the Annunciation, the Ascension and Pentecost.
Eleusa means tender mercy. In this type, the Theotokos holds her Son, who touches his face to hers and wraps at least one arm around her neck or shoulder. This icon type, showing the poignantly intimate relationship between mother and child, is much beloved by Orthodox worshippers, and has been often painted through the centuries
The Eleusa does not offer a moving depiction of the relationship between Mother and Son, instead it expresses the most profound experience of the life of the human soul in God, obtained not from a psychical perspective but in the world of the spirit. The Eleusa focuses more on the human and maternal dimension of this Marian attribute.
Hodegetria depicts Mary as the guide. In this type, the Ever Virgin Mary is holding Christ and pointing toward Him, as a guide to God and salvation.
It is interesting to note that Mary in the Eastern tradition does not give so much emphasis on Mary in her own right. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never depicted by herself, autonomously, separately but always depicted with her divine son—Jesus.
Mary’s right hand is, above all, the Hodegetria hand, that is to say, the hand of she who shows the path to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, as in the wedding feast at Cana, she appears to say to believers: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
Virgin of the Passion
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an example of the Virgin of the Passion type of icon. When we say: Our Mother of Perpetual Succour, we have to include the icon of the Virgin of the Passion and the Marian devotion that has appropriated it.
Da Silva summarized all these iconographical elements in the icon:
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an iconographic representation of the Theotókos, the Mother of God, in the style of the post-Byzantine school of Crete, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Unlike the Icons that present Mary in a majestic attitude, Our Lady of Perpetual Help bears the same characteristics of serenity, but in a maternal attitude, lovingly holding her son. And while holding him, she presents her Son to whoever is contemplating her. More specifically, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is part of the iconography proper to the Virgin of the Passion, in which the Son glimpses his future sufferings and the serene face of Mary is mixed with something like angst. The child clings to her thumb and one of his sandals is loosened from his foot. The same Archangel Gabriel who announced the Incarnation to her, now with the Archangel Michael shows the Child the instruments of the Passion.
All the theological elements that these iconographic archetypes should be present if we are to develop a healthy and balanced devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In understanding the meaning of the icon, we need to consider all the iconographic archetypes. In the past, we have stressed so much the intercessory part of Mary but we have neglected the part of the icon where Mary shows the way and Jesus looking beyond the passion. The intercessory dimension of Marian icons is the least powerful part of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help; the strongest is the gaze and the hand.
What’s in a Name?
The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help also evokes profound appeal that draws the attention of Filipino devotees. The name—Our Mother of Perpetual Help—has also contributed to the phenomenal rise of the devotion in Baclaran. The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help originated in the text itself accompanying the icon. The Blessed Virgin herself chose this name to serve as an encouragement to us all to have recourse to her with complete confidence in all our needs. Let us reflect on each of the name of the title and it’s appeal to the devotees.
Mother is written in the icon. MP OY = Meter Theou: Mother of God (in the two upper comers of the icon). Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the few titles that calls Mary, mother (the only other titles that I can think of are Mother of God and Mother of Mercy). Other titles are mostly called our Lady of _______________ which is oftentimes connected to a particular place. Other times, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is also called Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Indeed, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is universal; it appeals to us all of our universal experience with our own mothers. Mother is a more universal title. While others are called by their local names, Our Mother of Perpetual Help transcends the local. Fr. Ulysses da Silva expounds,
It is not a title bound to a location (such as Aparecida, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, etc.), nor to a privilege or accolade of Mary (like Assumption, Mystical Rose, etc.), nor to the Passion event, as would be the original characterization of the Icon. It is an invocation that identifies the maternal attitude of Mary in relation to her Son and to all of us. It is a universal title in relation to time as well as space, whenever or wherever someone is found in need or in danger.
Similarly, Pope Francis in his homily on the celebration of the first feast of Mary, Mother of the Church on the 21st of May, 2018 in the Vatican, said that Mary is not referred to as “the lady” or “the widow of Joseph,” but is rather called “the mother of Jesus.” Mary’s motherhood is emphasized throughout the Gospels, from the Annunciation to the foot of the cross.
The adjective perpetual (laging) is always active rather than passive. The emphasis is not just on the help but on the active quality of help. This implies that God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is helping us now, as in the past and in the future, in all our predicaments.
Saklolo is almost a desperate cry for help in distress. This is the plea of many devotees: help me, saklolo! Many are desperate, they have no one to turn to; any help will do. Mary under the title of Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) appeals to the very situation that the thousands of devotees find themselves in real life.
We are all creatures in need as we sought the help of God and of one another through prayer and action. Those who have freely received blessings are called to freely give and those who have not yet received theirs petitions are encouraged to continue to ask. By expressing our devotion and praying the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we accept that the help we ask and receive should be perpetual never to be stopped and disconnected from each other.
Whenever we show the Icon and ask the people: Who is the perpetual help? Most of them immediately answer: Mary is the perpetual help. Most devotees think that the help and blessings comes from Mary. But Mary is the Mother of perpetual help; if Mary then is the mother of God—Jesus, Jesus then is the perpetual help.
The perpetual help of Our Mother of Perpetual Help ultimately originates from the perpetual generosity and unconditional love of God to everyone through the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Put differently, understanding the meaning of perpetual help in the context of the whole icon, means the perpetual showing of Mary to the devotees Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thus, the name, Our Mother of Perpetual Help can also be appropriately called, Our Lady of the Way as in the iconographic type of hodegetria.
Rediscovering the Icon
Since the Redemptorists introduced the icon to the Filipinos in 1906, the Redemptorist has been instructing the devotees about the meaning and nature of Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon. The missionaries also introduced the history and the meaning of the different parts of the icon. The earliest extant of Novena in 1926 explains and meditates on the different parts of the icon. The second earliest Novena in 1936 also includes an explanation and meditation of the different parts of the icon.
The instructions about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, focused mainly on the meaning of the parts of the icon and the history of the icon from its origin in Crete to its arrival in the Philippines.
The instructions, however, only mentions the Eastern theology, spirituality and background of the icon in passing. The division within Christianity between the East and the West may have contributed to a lack of appreciation of the Eastern tradition and theology let alone the Eastern background and spirituality of the icon. The return to Eastern spirituality of the icon was only given a boost after more than 100 years of the mandate of Pope Pius IX. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the greatest Marian gifts of the Eastern Church to the Western Church. Yet, it was overwhelmed by the explosion of the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
It is essential to understand the background and purpose of Eastern iconography in order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Instructing about the icon without an understanding of Eastern iconography will only scratch the tip of the iceberg, as Ferero explains,
To truly comprehend the richness of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help we must do more than give it a simply vague or even pious look. We need to tune in to the theological message it holds through an iconographic, aesthetic and spiritual ‘reading’ of the symbolic elements it employs.
Because it expresses a foreign culture–the Byzantine culture–it is not easy to decipher. As Ferrero admits,
[F]or those who belong to a different culture from that represented in such images, icons are works of art that are not easy to understand or appreciate. As with all works of symbolic character, they require an authentic introduction. It is not possible, in a spontaneous way, to capture the message of which they are bearers and which they set out to convey.
Moreover, because of the cultural and time gap, it is also one of those icons that have been most exposed to iconographic distortion. Without losing its fundamental symbolic elements, artists have adapted it to the aesthetics of each region, reducing it, in many cases, to a simple devotional image. Due to this localized adaptation, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor has acquired its own context (added to those of the past) in the Marian devotion that it now symbolizes. The sanctuary of Crete, in which it was so venerated as the Virgin of the Passion, has been replaced by altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that the devotion has created all over the world. In so doing, it’s rootedness to the iconographic elements–theological and artistic–have been lost in the process.
We will discuss more the Eastern spirituality of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in later chapters.
We have seen how the theological and iconographic elements help us retrieve the original meaning of the icon. Iconographic understanding of the icon, however, is only one side of the pole. The other side of the pole is the current concrete life-situation of the devotees.
Thus, each period need a re-reading and re-reception of the icon according to their context. We need to read the icon in the context of the burning issues of the day, the signs of the times, and the lights and shadows.
As we contemplate the icon, we experience a creative tension between our present situation and the future life in eternity with God which the icon represents. The icon is the encounter between heaven and earth, now and the fullness of time. This is represented in the icon by the interplay between the sad eyes of Mary upon seeing our situation and the golden background of the icon which symbolizes heaven as our future home. Likewise, this is represented in the expression of fear of Jesus as symbolized by his falling sandals upon seeing the cross and the promise of the victory of resurrection.
Icons are doorway, means of access into the age to come. It is a meeting point and a place of encounter with the communion of saints. It makes Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the icon present to us. We participate in the mystery that is depicted. More than an object, the icon is an event. An icon is a proclamation.
The shrine for the devotees has also become an icon. The shrine has become a channel of passage from the present world to the eternal where Our Mother of Perpetual Help dwell.
The icon that devotees, venerate, touch and kiss is a dynamic icon; a living icon, not a dead icon. It carries with it a rich history, spirituality, theology and sacramental efficacy. It is not a magical object which is inertly imbued with vast power and a miraculous object where we bring our petitions but rather a dynamic icon that enters into our life story. The icon is the story of our faith; the summary of our salvation. We are invited to participate in this story and journey. We are invited to enter into God’s story, into Mary’s story; to join our story with the story and journey of the icon.
Ultimately, the whole icon points to Christ. Jesus Christ is our way, truth and life. Christ is the Word who came down to us so that we can come up to God.
(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)
Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #12.
 “Give this message to your mother and to your grandfather: Holy Mary of Perpetual Help requires that you remove her from your house, if not, you will all soon die”. Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 133.
 Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #43.
Lex orandi, lex credendi
The law of praying is the law of believing.
(- An ancient saying of the Church.)
The praying and singing together of the novena by the thousands of devotees at the shrine conveys a special appeal drawing devotees and non-devotees alike. A thanksgiving letter written in January 3, 1951, barely two years after the introduction of the novena, narrates how a non-devotee was drawn to the shrine for the first time because of the novena,
[O]ne day, while I was travelling in a bus which was coming from Cavite City, it was caught in the traffic in the vicinity of Baclaran Church. The crowd of people pushed me along the pathway to the Church until I found myself inside the Church’s patio. I entered the Church and while inside, I heard those beautiful hymns that forced me to forget my loneliness. Then I found out that the people were making a novena in honor of you.
Novena is key to the explosion of devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran. Novena transformed the small wooden chapel in 1948 into a popular shrine and pilgrimage center. Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula asserts this in his dissertation:
The introduction of the Perpetual Novena devotion in 1948 was the single most significant development in the transformation of the shrine from a local chapel to a pilgrimage site of national proportions.
Thousands of devotees came in droves after the novena was introduced in 1948. Soon the small chapel couldn’t accommodate the crowd anymore. This paved the way to building a bigger shrine twice, first in 1949 and second in 1954.
The novena prayed in the shrine is not just an ordinary novena; it is called a perpetual novena. A novena is a series of prayers recited over nine days or nine weeks consecutively, usually in preparation for a major feast or to ask for a special favor. The ordinary novena stops after the nine occasions until resumed the next time around, often the following year when connected with feasts, or whenever a devotee decides to resume it privately. A perpetual novena, on the other hand, is a series of nine occasions of prayer but repeated continuously. When one series is finished, it begins again. In practice, it becomes an unending series of weekly sessions, usually associated with a particular day of the week, not necessarily Wednesday. Some stop after nine consecutive Wednesdays of novena but most devotees pray the perpetual novena. We can call them perpetual devotees or devotees for life.
A frequent question about the novena is: Why Wednesday? Hechanova explains that there was no definitive historical answer about the choice of Wednesday (Hechanova 1998). The choice of Wednesday seemed to be a practical choice. Wednesday was the only day vacant in a week where each day was devoted to a particular devotion or saint. For example, Tuesday is for San Antonio de Padua, Thursday is for St. Jude, Friday is Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturdays and so on.
As we have mentioned before, there were already various versions of the novena published even before the novena explosion in 1948. The first one was in 1926 and the second one was in 1936. Why did the 1948 novena become an instant hit whereas 1926 and 1936 did not? What was the difference of the 1948 novena from the 1926 and 1936 novena? To answer these questions, we need to examine each version of the novena.
Pre 1948 Novena
The novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help was first introduced by the Redemptorists to the country immediately after they settled at Opon, Cebu. The first reported recitation of the novena in the country was in the church of Opon in 1907. Novena were also recited during the hundreds of missions that the Redemptorist gave to the barrios in the Visayas and Luzon. We do not have a copy of the text and format of the novena used in Opon and in the barrio missions. These texts, however, most certainly have spread throughout the country.
The novena in 1926, is titled Maikling Pagsisiyam sa Mahal na Virgen sa Tawag na Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Short Novena to the Blessed Virgin under the Title of Mother of Perpetual Help), with an imprimi potest granted by Fr. O’Callaghan, C.Ss.R. and imprimatur given by Fr. Jose Bustamante. It was published by UST Press. Interestingly, this novena was published even before the Redemptorist settled in Baclaran in 1932. We do not know, how many of this novena were printed, but it certainly help in the propagation of the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Luzon.
The novena contained several interesting features. An introductory part contains the narration of the origins of the icon and a brief explanation of the icon. For the nine days novena, each day begins with a meditation focusing on a specific part of the icon and its meaning, then the common prayer for each day and a pagsasanay (exercise) which recommends some forms of call to action. The common prayer is very theocentric and centered on surrendering to the will of God. Clearly the format and text of the novena is intended for individual devotion.
The novena is written in rich and old Tagalog. The daily prayer (PANALANGIN SA ARAO ARAO) of the novena exemplifies this,
Kabanalbanalang Virgen, saklolo sa twitwina ng mga kaluluwang napaaampon sa iyong makainang pagibig: Marapatin mong idalangin ako sa iyong mahal na Anak at Panginoon naming Jesucristo upang kalugdan Niya ang lahat kong panimdim, wika at gawa sa araw na ito at habang ako’y nabubuhay.
Tangapin mo oh! mahal kong Ina ang munting handog ko sa iyo sa pagcisiyam na ito, at ipagkaloob mo sa akin ang biyayang hinihingi ko kung nauukol sa lalong ikalulualhati Niya sa kapurihan mo at ikagagaling ng kaluluwa ko. Siya Nawa.
The 1936 version of the novena is written in English titled Novena in Honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The Imprimatur was by Francis I. Cosgrave, CSsR. and nihil obstat by William E. Finnemann, Episcopus Auxiliaris. The publisher is not indicated. The format of the novena contains the history of the icon, explanation of the meaning of the parts of the icon, meditation and prayers for each day of the nine days novena
There is an added general remark in the instructions:
The person making the novena should go to confession and Holy Communion at least once during the nine days.
The prayers of the novena should be recited in a church in which the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour is publicly exposed or in your own home before the same picture.
The novena is made by each day reading the set meditation and then reciting the prayers which follow each meditation.
Common Elements between 1926 and 1936 Novena
Both the 1926 and 1936 novena had similar characteristics: Both consist of nine successive days and a meditation each day followed by a common prayer. The format of the novena clearly shows that they were meant for individual devotion not for collective prayer in the church. The theology of both 1926 and 1936 novena shows a high theology of Mary where Mary is shown closer, almost equal, to Jesus. Mary is apart from us bestowed with the highest honor in heaven.
The meditation on the different parts of the icon and its meaning was a strong point of the 1926 and 1936 novena over 1948. This remarkable part disappeared in the 1948, 1951 and 1973 versions of the novena. The most recent 2016 jubilee version of the novena brought back this essential feature.
1948 Novena: Perpetual Novena
The origins of the 1948 Our Mother of Perpetual Help novena in Baclaran can be traced to the United States. A novena in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was began in St. Alphonsus “Rock” Liguori Church, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in July 11, 1922. In 1924, in the same church, Father Henry Sutton began novenas in which people participated through singing, praying with the priest, rather than remaining silent while the priests prayed. This devotional style which was collective in nature spread throughout the congregation.
In 1928, the novena began by Father Henry Sutton grew to eleven services every Tuesday to accommodate 15,000 people. In 1928, the name “Perpetual Novena” for this new form of devotion was suggested: a Perpetual Novena was to be performed for nine consecutive days (hence novena), but the nine-day cycle can be repeated continuously (hence perpetual). This form is the most impressive Our Mother of Perpetual Help devotional form today. The Perpetual Novena flourished in Australia and United States as well as in India, the Philippines and Singapore. It suffered, however, a gradual decline in Australia, Europe and United States beginning in the 1970s.
The perpetual novena in the country, however, did not begin in Baclaran but in Iloilo. Hechanova recounts that in the year 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, American troops, some from the famous Battle of Guadalcanal, found themselves stationed in Iloilo. Among them were Irish-American Catholics from Boston who were delighted to find that St. Clement’s Church in La Paz, Iloilo City, was run by Irish Redemptorists. They were disappointed, however, that the Perpetual Novena then flourishing in the popular Mission Church of the Redemptorists in Boston was not part of church services. Thus, they requested the Redemptorist to start a novena in Ilo-ilo patterned after the novena in Boston.
The novena in Ilo-ilo was followed by Lipa in 1946 and Cebu in 1947. Both were well-attended novena. But they were not as phenomenal as Baclaran.
The first novena in Baclaran was presided by Father Leo English on June, 23, 1948. There were only seventy people present. The following week the number doubled to one hundred and fifty. Before the year ended, more novena sessions had to be added since the original chapel was good for only three hundred people. By the end of 1949, there were eight crowded sessions of the novena, and many others were following it from the parking area. The rest is history.
Sapitula noted that the text of the 1948 Perpetual Novena, contrary to expectations, did not begin as a fixed text but assumed its final form only after months of experimentation. A “core format” of the novena text was established around three months after it was begun, which in turn became the basis of the 1950, 1951 and 1953 editions of the novena booklet (Gornez 2003).
Even as the 1948 novena was public and collective, it’s theological and spiritual orientation bears much resemblance with the individually oriented 1926 and 1936 novena. Both novena emphasized life after death and salvation of the soul. The goal of life in this world is personal sanctification so as to be ready to enter into eternal life after death. Both novena also reflected the high Mariology of pre-Vatican II which promoted a maximalist theological view on Mary that saw Mary as an altogether special creature whose privileges paralleled those of Christ. By putting Mary on a pedestal with all her titles and glories, she becomes distant from the ordinary devotee and the whole church.
Two years after the inauguration of the Perpetual Novena in Baclaran, the prayers were already recited in parishes in Quezon City, Quiapo and Sampaloc in Manila, Taguig, and Marilao, Obando and Barasoain in Bulacan province (entry dated 1-7 April 1950; cited in Gornez 2003). This shows the rapid adoption of the novena by the different parishes in Manila and nearby provinces.
A Prayer for Peace was added to the Novena Prayers each Wednesday in 1951 at the request of Ramon Magsaysay who was then the Minister for defense.
1973 Revised Novena
Nothing changed in the official text of the Perpetual Novena for twenty-five years until Redemptorists and some devotees felt the need for reform. The need for revision emerged in the light of the reforms inspired by Vatican II and the social upheavals in the country and in the world. Hechanova recalls,
In the early 1970s, the Redemptorists of the Manila and Cebu Vice-Provinces set up a common Commission to study how the novena itself could be renewed along the Vatican II principles on liturgy and devotion.
The call for renewal of popular devotion, particularly the renewal of the Novena structure and prayers, was also echoed by Ang Mahal na Birhen: “Novenas will then be renewed by making them more scriptural, avoiding a verbosity present in some of them and a sentimentality less in consonance with today’s religious attitudes.”
One of the strongest points of the 1973 novena is the emphasis on the social dimension of the Christian faith. A closer reading of the 1973 Perpetual Novena reveals that social justice and peace dimensions are given more attention, perhaps as a corrective to the perceived overemphasis on personal needs in the 1948 Perpetual Novena text (Gornez 2003; Hechanova 1998). Ramon Echica claims that it is in the aspect of social justice that the 1973 novena stands out from other popular Marian devotions. Echica contrasted the prayers in the novena of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, for example, with that of the Santo Niňo devotion in Cebu City. Echica considers the Santo Niňo devotion as having an “apolitical nature” extremely lacking in social dimension. He adds that there is hardly any prayer that the Sto. Niňo would disturb and afflict the consciences of people whenever they have been unjust to their fellow men and women as these prayers “do not spell out the broader social and political context of one’s concern” for others. Moreover, prayers in this novena are “most explicitly other-worldly” (2010, 44-45).
On the other hand, Echica cites the prayers of the 1973 Our Mother of Perpetual Help novena as calling devotees to serve the community. Sins against justice, like usury, bribery, and perjury are also virtually condemned when devotees pray that they or others may never involve in them. There are also prayers for workers to take pride in their work and be given just compensation. Echica affirms that these prayers help the devotees to include questions of social justice in their examination of conscience. Echica also underscored the enumerations of petitions of a this-worldly character as one of the distinctive appeal of the 1973 novena:
There is no flight from the world spirituality in this devotion. Furthermore, there is no reference to some apparitions or some extraordinary celestial phenomena, or miracles which may be outside the realm of human causality. It is distinctive at least in terms of quantity of concrete occasion mentioned in the perpetual novena. There are prayers for scenarios that may occur in one’s daily life; worries about finances, misunderstanding with loved ones, choice of recreation, avoidance of prohibited drugs, and temptation to take revenge.
Indeed, concrete needs in concrete situations spur the faithful to their devotions, particularly to the Blessed Virgin. [M]any petitions are not actually for the individual self but for society at large or one’s country in particular.
2016 Jubilee Edition of the Novena
Despite the strong integration of social reality and devotion in 1973 novena, there were other areas that will need reform and improvement in the years to come. As early as the 90s, calls to revise the novena once again began to surface. Among the reasons for the proposed updating was the need to reflect ‘new’ signs of the times in the novena, for example, gender sensitivity, ecological awareness, migrants’ concerns and a more sound theology on Mary. The aims of the revised 2016 novena reflected these issues:
To help in the renewal towards an authentic devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help
To adopt the novena to the signs of the times particularly the new issues and challenges that our world is confronted today.
To express a more healthy and meaningful understanding and practice of devotion to our Blessed Mother.
To incorporate an inclusive language into the novena.
The Prayer for the Sick was also seen as needing some major revision. The 1973 novena seemed to romanticize sickness by projecting an image of the sick who have nothing else they can do about their sickness except to embrace it. God’s compassion and strong desire for the healing of the sick is not much evident. A more redemptive healing not only for that person, but for the whole family was desired.
Here’s a comparison between the 1973 and 2016 Prayer for the Sick:
Lord Jesus Christ * you bore our sufferings and carried our sorrows * in order to show us clearly * the value of human weakness and patience. * Graciously hear our prayers for the sick. * Grant that those who are weighed down * with pain and other afflictions of illness * may realize that they are among the chosen ones * whom you called blessed. * Help them to understand * that they are united with You in Your sufferings * for the salvation of the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ * you bore our sufferings and carried our sorrows * in order to show us clearly * the value of human weakness and patience; * graciously hear our prayer for the sick especially (pause and remember your sick loved ones). Grant that they who are weighed down * with pain and other affliction of illness * may experience God’s healing power and comfort*. Restore them to health* in body and soul* so that they can continue to serve you* and their brothers and sisters. Amen.
There was also the desire to reflect in the novena a more healthy theology about Mary. There was a strong desire to show that the real source of “saklolo” (help) is not Mary but Jesus. A major expression of this in the new novena is changing the response for every petition to Our Mother of Perpetual Help from Loving Mother, HELP US to Loving Mother, PRAY FOR US.
There were also suggestions to make the language of the novena direct the people more to Jesus and to the celebration of the Eucharist. There was also the longing to change the seeming economy outlook to a more healthy outlook of the novena. Other points suggested to include into the revision of the novena were:
a greater appreciation of the lay and avoiding clericalization,
a more healthy expression of solidarity with the poor,
clearer and consistent wording,
better wording about religious vocation,
omitting some repetitive petitions (particularly on death).
There were three new petitions to reflect the new signs of the times particularly on ecology, sanctity of life and peace in the world:
That we may care and protect God’s creation, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
That we may defend the human dignity and sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
That there will be genuine and lasting peace in the world, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
An interesting feature of the 2016 novena is the return of the contemplation of the meaning and spirituality of the icon and its parts as an essential part of praying the novena. As the 2016 revised novena states in its introduction,
The purpose of the novena is not just to bring our needs and aspirations to God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help but to let Mary bring us to Jesus in order to follow him—the true path to God. This is the main message of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It would be a great means, therefore, that in praying the novena for nine days, we contemplate on the meaning of the whole Icon and its parts. The whole purpose of this contemplation is to live our daily lives and experiences in the example of Mary— following the path of Jesus towards true happiness and peace.
The Redemptorist community of Baclaran saw the 150th Jubilee of the icon in 2016 as an opportune time to implement the revision. In the spirit of the 150th Jubilee of the Icon, a new version of the novena was published.
Novena: Prayer of the Communion of the Saints
One of the primary reasons for the explosion of the novena in 1948 was the fact that it was written for public and communal prayer. Whereas the 1926 and 1936 novena were meant to be prayed privately by individual devotees, the 1948 novena brought individual devotees together to pray to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and intercede with one another. The intercessory character of the novena is not just asking the intercession of Mary but of fellow devotees as well. Thus, communal devotion rather than individual devotion catapulted the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help to national prominence.
The intercessory prayer of the novena instilled a new consciousness upon the devotees. It inculcated the experience that prayer is not just personal but also a prayer for the other and with each other. Indeed, when each devotee goes to the novena, she/he brings her/his own petition but when he/she joins the thousand others who has his/her own individual petitions, each one is transformed that he/she not only pray for his/her own but for and with the others. The Novena helped transform the “I” to “We” consciousness. From a personalist and individualistic attitude, the devotees are not meant to pray only for their own needs but are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are not arranged for them as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole. As Karl Rahner states:
A congregation praying, singing, and listening to word of God, is not only an assembly of lonely, solitary people, not only a number of isolated individuals, who impelled by concern for their eternal salvation, gather here for merely practical convenience, in order to try to work out their own private salvation… We are a holy community praising God by praising the glory of the blessed Virgin precisely because in our very salvation we are dependent on this virgin mother of God.
Moreover, the novena experience brings out the essential fact of faith that as church we are a community of both living and dead, interceding for each other. Death does not sever the bonds of the body of Christ. Those who intercede for me are not just my living fellow devotee but even those who have died and are already with God–Mary and all the saints. In this way, the novena truly becomes an experience of the communion of saints. We have no direct route to God only through a relationship mediated and interceded with the communion of the saints, living here on earth and triumphant in heaven. Like Mary, devotees at the shrine are invited to be intercessors not just for one another but for the whole church and the world. As Francia Competente said in July 4, 2016, “I like going to Baclaran Church because I am with the people who are really in need of Mama Mary’s intercession and can feel God’s love thru Mama Mary.”
The novena experience and consciousness recalls for the devotees their indigenous heritage of veneration of the dead. Before Christianity arrived in the country, indigenous Filipinos venerated their deceased ancestors because they are considered still a part of the family and their spirits can have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living. The novena experience has tapped into this primordial worldview of the Filipinos and devotees appropriated it into their warm devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Mary is the role model of intercessory prayer through her intercessory role for us in heaven. We do not pray to Mary, Mary pray with us. Once again, Rahner reiterates,
[N]o doctrine concerning Mary could have importance and significance for us, if it were not true that each of us is responsible for the salvation of his brethren, and can and must intercede for them with prayer and sacrifice and aid. That is why Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but our mother too.
While novena is central to the devotional experience in the shrine, it is not all there is to the devotion. The experience of devotion is not only the praying of the novena but also the embarking of a faith journey. Devotion as a faith journey is quintessentially conveyed through pilgrimage to Baclaran. We will discuss the notion of devotion as a pilgrimage in the next chapter.
(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 Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1124.