What Does the Title ‘Mary, Help of Christians’ Mean, and Where Does It Come From?

Statue of Mary holding the Christ child
A statue of Mary and the Christ child are seen Nov. 12 at Our Lady of the Island Shrine in Eastport, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Mary, Help of Christians is one of the numerous names by which Catholics have come to know and love Mary. It refers specifically to the aid that Mary gives as intercessor, meaning one who prays with and for us to God.

The title of “Helper” has been applied to Mary at least as far back as the fourth century. Because of her closeness to Christ and her unique role in bringing about God’s plan, Catholics have traditionally viewed her as a particularly effective intercessor. The title as we know it now came into being in 1571, when the Ottoman Empire prepared to invade Europe. In the face of this threat, Pope Pius V called on Catholics to pray for Mary’s intercession. The Turks were defeated at the Battle of Lepanto, leading the pope to hail Mary as Our Lady, Help of Christians.

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A later pope, Pius VII, was imprisoned by Napoleon in 1808 and held captive for nearly six years. Following his release, he instituted May 24 as the feast day of Mary, Help of Christians, in gratitude for her intercession on his behalf.

In the latter half of the 19th century, St. John Bosco had a particular reverence for this title, and made Mary, Help of Christians the patroness of his religious order, the Salesians. Even today, many Catholics come to know this name for Mary through the influence of the Salesian fathers.

Originally published December 28, 2009.