Star of the new evangelization,
help us to bear radiant witness to communion,
service, ardent and generous faith,
justice and love of the poor,
that the joy of the Gospel
may reach to the ends of the earth,
illuminating even the fringes of our world.
Every now and then, we get reactions from devotees especially when our homilies touched on the social issues of the day in the light of the gospel. Some react by saying that they went to the shrine to seek spiritual solace and peace, not to be disturbed by the ugly reality of the country or the world. Some say they came to the shrine to pray, not to become socially aware. Sometimes they invoked the concept of separation between church and state, misinterpreting it by saying that the church should not talk about social issues because it is the domain exclusively of the state. They say that the church’s only domain is the spiritual and religious like sacraments, prayers and catechesis. Thus, according to them, preaching about issues of justice and peace is tantamount to meddling in politics.
The shrine has become well-known among the devotees as actively promoting justice and peace in preaching and social programs. The shrine has been very vocal about issues and advocacy towards transformation in Philippine church and society. This gave a unique identity to the shrine as Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula observes, “The Perpetual Help shrine’s emphasis on ‘engaged devotionalism’ sets it apart from other places of pilgrimage in the country.”
The shrine through the years has integrated social issues, justice and peace and integrity of creation in its mission and ministry. In the 60s and 70s, Redemptorists were influenced by values and ideas from Vatican II and liberation theology which emphasizes, among others, preferential option for the poor, liberation of the oppressed, aggiornamento or openness of the church to the signs of the times. During the political and social upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s the Redemptorist community of Baclaran stood in solidarity with those seeking justice and equality. Among the burning socio-political issues which confronted the missionaries were increasing militarization, rampant human rights violations, crony capitalism, widening gap between the rich and the poor, land reform, repression of workers, and other social issues. These issues significantly influenced the method and content of preaching at the shrine and the conduct of parish mission by the Redemptorists. Much of these endeavors were in line with the Redemptorist Vice Province of Manila’s thrust and directives: “Our main contribution lies in an explicit and prophetic proclamation of the gospel especially to the poor and the most abandoned.”
The involvement in justice and peace was particularly strong during the time of Marcos dictatorship. The shrine played an important part during the controversial 1986 Snap Elections at the time of Marcos dictatorship. The Shrine became the refuge of several computer engineers from the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). Thirty five technicians who were operating the COMELEC’s electronic quick count staged a walkout from their headquarters at the Philippine International Convention Center to protest the alleged electoral fraud by supporters of Marcos. This incident proved to be pivotal as it triggered the people power or EDSA revolution in 1986 that led to the toppling down of Marcos.
In recent years, the church has become a regular sanctuary for victims of violence and oppression—farmers, workers, fisher folks, migrant workers, battered women, indigenous people—seeking genuine justice and peace. In 2016, the shrine welcomed more than 700 Lumad (Indigenous Filipinos) from Mindanao who brought to the people’s attention the sad plight of their communities and the killings of their leaders. They camped in the shrine for 10 days. Many groups and sectors expressed and gave their support—moral and material—to the Lumad.
Oftentimes the shrine has invited speakers from organized groups of the poor to share their plight to the devotees within the novena and masses of the shrine. This occurs through special celebrations of the people’s calendar. Through the people’s calendar, people’s aspirations and concerns are integrated into the liturgical calendar throughout the year. The liturgical celebrations offered the opportunity for devotees to connect their devotion and faith with their daily life situation and contemporary signs of the times. This is also to promote the consciousness of the devotees towards their social and missionary responsibilities. The reaction of the devotees were mixed. Some felt discomfort while others showed empathy to them.
The pontifical document, “The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,” affirms the importance of prophetic ministry of the shrine: “Shrines [are] places of education in ethical values, particularly justice, solidarity, peace and the protection of creation, and thus contribute to the growth of quality of life for everyone.” On the other hand, the document reminds shrines when they lose their prophetic dimension by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
Who has asked you to trample through my courts? Bring no more futile cereal offerings, the smoke from them fills me with disgust. New moons, Sabbaths, assemblies – I cannot endure solemnity combined with guilt… Cease doing evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, discipline the violent, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow. (Is 1:12-17)
The novena also encouraged devotees to work towards justice and peace. Promotion of justice and peace is well integrated into the petitions of the novena.
That there will be genuine and lasting peace in the world,
Loving Mother pray for us.
That we may proclaim the dignity of work by doing our own work conscientiously,
Loving Mother pray for us.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor so that justice and peace may happily reign in the entire family of mankind. Amen.
The promotion of justice and peace is also inscribed in the building and compound of the shrine. The main upper hall of the National Shrine where the church volunteers usually gather for meals, meetings, and fellowship is called Romano Hall. It is named after Fr. Rudy Romano, a Redemptorist Priest from Samar who was forcibly abducted by armed men on July 11, 2005 in Cebu City. He was silenced and disappeared because of his defence of the poor and work for human rights. Since that fateful day, Fr. Rudy Romano has remained missing up to this day.
At a corner of the shrine lawn fronting Roxas Boulevard, is the monument called Bantayog ng Desaparecido (Memorial for the Disappeared) in memory of Fr. Rudy Romano and many other missing persons during the Marcos regime. The Bantayog lists the names of Fr. Rudy and hundreds of other missing people etched in granite panels. Unveiled in September 2004, the memorial is the refurbished “Flame of Courage Monument,” designed and created by sculptor Lito Mondejar. It features a mother carrying a torch, which symbolizes the courage of those left behind and continuing the struggle for justice. For families and friends of the disappeared, the Bantayog stands as a common ground for remembrance. The families come here every year in November 1 because they have no tomb to visit on All Souls’ Day.
Longing for Justice and Peace
The struggle for justice and peace in the country is a primary concern of the devotees. Justice in the country remains elusive especially for the poor. Justice is not blind in the country as the the rich can easily circumvent the law but the poor always bear the brunt of the law without much support from the justice system. On the other hand, people continue to long for genuine and lasting peace as war goes on in the countryside. The aspiration for justice and peace is expressed in a thanksgiving letter written by Miriam M. Pasetes on February 4, 2015
Grateful and Praising OUR FATHER GOD, JESUS OUR SAVIOR, THE HOLY SPIRIT OUR GUIDE for you having been given as our most loving Mother of Perpetual Help. Through You I lift my thanks to OUR TRIUNE GOD, for the past month of January of this year, one month passed with joyful events as the Holy Father Pope Francis came and visited as HE OUR FATHER willed. We were made stronger as a nation. Dear Mama, despite our life’s challenges as a country beset by difficulties, by the inspiration of Pope Francis in GOD’s mercy and compassion, love made more manifest. We are for now more strongly confronted with these virtues as our nation’s internal peace is rattled by the encounter between PNP SAF and the MILF/BIFF costing lives lost on both sides. May the souls of those who perished for the sake of peace, find peace in GOD’s Kingdom. Dear Mama please pray for them and for the fortitude of their grieving loved ones.
Two wars continue to rage in the country—the communist insurgency and the Muslim separatist movement. Despite repeated attempts at peace through dialogue and negotiations between the government and the NDF and MILF, no substantial agreement has been reached. Both sides remain recalcitrant regarding their position. NDF and MILF continue to defend their ideological principles. The government is content with maintaining the socio-political status quo and introducing cosmetic changes. Genuine and long-lasting peace continues to be a dream for all the people. In the midst of these wars, devotees continue to pray and long for justice and peace. This aspiration is expressed, for example, by Danna Zerrudo who wrote on May 3, 2017 to thank Our Mother of Perpetual Help for passing the bar exams:
I know that my passing the bar exams is just a beginning. So here I am, imploring you once again. Help me to help those who are truly in need. Help me to use my title “Attorney” for the right purposes… Teach us always the path to Jesus. Help me and all my countrymen and women to bring back justice to the legal system of our country. Many are saying that there is no more hope to repair this system, however, such a gargantuan system would never be mended if there is no one or only a few will try to reform it. May God bless the Philippines and every Filipino.
Sadly, however, one of the hindrances to achieving justice and peace is the lack of empathy and indifference of many people. We see this in the reaction of many devotees when we make a moral stance on social issues in the light of the gospel. Just recently on the issue of the rampant extra-judicial killing in the country as an offshoot of Duterte government’s war on drugs. After a year of Duterte’s war on drugs, more than 12,000 suspected addicts and pushers were killed by police and armed men. It is utterly distressing that in a Christian country like ours, the killings is tolerated, even supported by a majority of people who are mostly Catholic. And yet when we denounced the killings, we were called all sorts of names–bastard priests, demons from hell, members of the yellow cult, rapists and pedophiles, coddlers of drug lords, thieving hypocrites playing politics–many of them coming from the devotees.
Pope Francis laments about the indifference that has engulf many people around the world:
[A] globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
A devotion to Mary that is individualistic may reflect apathy and indifference. When devotion is indifferent to what is happening in society, it can stagnate to individualistic piety as Ang Mahal na Birhen asserts: “We rarely associate devotion to Mary with the social dimension of Christian living, and this is when devotion to her can tend to become pious individualism.” In this light, the pastoral letter challenges us:
Our devotion to Mary should never lose sight of the present plight of the vast majority of our Filipino, brethren who live lives unworthy of human beings. These poor and oppressed brethren of ours are devotees of Mary, too; and they call out to her, their Mother, to ease their sufferings and free them from their chains…Devotion to Mary shows itself in works, and the works which we needed in the Philippines today are the works of justice and freedom from oppression. As the Church points out to us, our mission is “to be present in the heart of the world proclaiming the Good News to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and joy to the afflicted.”
This is always a big challenge for the shrine–how to tackle and transform the indifference and individualism of the devotees’ piety. How do we cultivate the devotion towards a positive response to issues of justice and peace in the country and in the world? In addressing these challenges, the Icon and the Mary have actively inculcated among the devotees a missionary attitude and action for issues of justice and peace among the devotees.
Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon
Through the icon, Mary saw and heard the hunger and cries of the devotees for justice and peace. As devotees gaze on the icon, Mary invites them to contemplate the world where there is injustice and conflict and form a life of compassion and identification with the poor and the suffering.
Identification with the suffering is pervasive in the icon. Mary’s sorrowful gaze upon the devotees expresses Mary’s identification with their misery here on earth. Mary feels the pain and suffering that they undergo daily, exacerbated by the present order dominated by power, greed, and wealth. Thus, the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an Icon of compassion. While her gaze upon us is a gaze of mercy and compassion, it is also a gaze that brings hope to the struggling, the poor and the most abandoned.
Like Mary who gazed upon the devotees with compassion and sorrow because of the misery and suffering they experience every day, the devotees are invited to open their eyes and see the hardships of their fellow poor, deprived and oppressed. So that they may see the poor and needy in the same way that Our Mother of Perpetual Help see them—seeing them with compassion and sorrow at their miserable situation.
As the devotees allow Mary’s gaze to enter into their souls, they are drawn into her power—the power of tenderness. Pope Francis meditates on this:
“[E]very time we look to Mary, we believe again in the revolutionary power of tenderness and affection. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak, but of the strong, who do not need to abuse others in order to feel strong” (Evangelii gaudium, 288).
Mary’s gaze, however, is not meant to draw the devotees to herself only. It is ultimately directed towards Jesus. Mary invites the devotees to follow the path of her son Jesus. Mary showed the devotees that Jesus is the true path towards liberation, justice and peace.
In the icon, the eyes of Jesus is not looking at Mary but on the cross, even beyond the cross. The eyes of Jesus is looking at God the Father through the cross 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. The symbol of the instruments of the passion carried by the two angels also symbolized the passion of humanity and passion of the earth today. Jesus’ impending suffering evokes Jesus’ identification with our own suffering. But the instruments that the Angels hold are instruments not of death and failure but of life and victory. The most sacred event of our salvation is the passion and the offering of Jesus’ life for our redemption. Through the passion and death of Jesus, devotees are called to identify with the suffering and offer their lives for each other.
Missio: Following Jesus with Mary
Mary, in her life here on earth, identified with the poor, the oppressed and most abandoned because she herself was poor. Mary of Nazareth belonged to the anawim. The anawim or the “faithful remnant” of Israel are the poor of God. In the Old Testament, the anawim were the poor of every sort—materially and spiritually: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power. Robert A. Guelich summarizes the meaning of anawim as “those in desperate need (socio-economic element) whose helplessness drove them to a dependent relationship with God (religious element) for the supplying of their needs and vindication. Both elements are consistently present.”
Mary is the epitome of an anawim. Mary is the perfect reflection of God’s own humility, for she indeed is the poorest and lowliest of people in her society: the anawim. In this way, Pope Francis paints Mary as an inspiration for justice and peace.
As mother of all, she is a sign of hope for peoples suffering the birth pangs of justice. She is the missionary who draws near to us and accompanies us throughout life, opening our hearts to faith by her maternal love. As a true mother, she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love. Through her many titles, often linked to her shrines, Mary shares the history of each people which has received the Gospel and she becomes a part of their historic identity.
Likewise, Mary is an inspiration in the work for justice and peace because Mary was considered a prophetess. Scholars have noted that Luke’s portrait of Mary, particularly in Lk. 1.26-56, characterizes her as a prophetess, although, the evangelist refrains from explicitly calling Mary a prophetess. We seldom think of Mary as outspoken and bold for justice but as quiet, passive, gentle virgin, meek and mild. For centuries, we heard of the perception of Mary as submissive which is paradigmatic for female lives on earth. Yet in the Canticle of Mary in Luke 3:46-55, we see a totally different Mary. Here Mary sings a song of praise to God who overturns the status quo, who lifts up the humble like her, and chooses her, rather than a queen or princess, to be bearer of God’s Son. Mary was not timid
Like Mary, devotees are called to be prophets today. As prophet they are called to proclaim defiance and resiliency against all social structures and systems that is contrary to the Gospel. They are called to announce the liberation from all forms of oppression and domination, and at the same time, pronounce alternative path of service towards the coming of God’s reign. As prophet, however, they recognize that ultimately their final destiny is beyond this world. Prophecy expresses the experience of eternal discomfort with the world where there is the tension of the already-but-not-yet realisation of the reign of God. As the pontifical document The “Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God” states, “[S]hrines stimulate us to live as a critical and prophetic ferment in these present heavens and in this present earth and they renew the vocation of Christians to live in the world, while not being of the world (cf. Jn 17:16).”
The life of Mary inspires the devotees to open their eyes to the reality of poverty around them, in the society and the world. Like Mary they are called to participate in bringing justice, mercy, and lasting compassion to those most in need. Just as Mary identified with the anawim and was not timid, they also ought to be bold and daring in proclaiming God’s justice and peace.
They who experience and receive the perpetual help from God through the prayer of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, is called to be channels of perpetual help of God. Help becomes perpetual as it does not stop with them. Help becomes perpetual through service to their fellow human beings especially the poor and most abandoned. They are called to be servants in their home, community, church and society. Ultimately the fruit of our devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is to become like her through our unselfish and humble participation in the God’s work of building God’s kingdom.
Call to Action
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the life of Mary as a disciple and missionary has serve as an inspiration to the devotees in living out justice and peace today. Devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be enriched by the prophetic and transformative understanding and living out of Marian model amidst the signs of the times. Emphasis on the devotional aspect only is counterproductive.
Volunteer for mission to the poor whether in rural or urban area near you. For the more committed ones join missionary groups and organization who go to other countries or remote areas. Share whatever talent you have for the promotion of justice and peace both global and local.
(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)
 Evangelii Gaudium, #288.
 The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines declares: The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable. (Article II, Section 6), and, No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. (Article III, Section 5)…..
 Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 89.
 “The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God,” Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Vatican: 8 May 1999. Accessed at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/migrants/documents/rc_pc_migrants_doc_19990525_shrine_en.html
 The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God.
 Evangelii Gaudium #54
 Ang Mahal na Birhen, #94.
 Ang Mahal na Birhen, #96.
 Robert Guelich as quoted in Anna Wierzbicka, What Did Jesus Mean?: Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts. Oxford University Press, 2001.
 Mary the Archetype for Man’s Spiritual Perfection, 21.
 Evangelii Gaudium, #286, 213
 The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God.