The image known as Our Lady of Czestochowa is most likely familiar to all of you – it is attributed to St. Luke. In fact, over the centuries, many, many images of Our Lady have purportedly been painted by the evangelist himself, but the one we want to share with you today, in honor of his feast day, is the Salus Populi Romani (Health of the Roman People, or Protectress of the Roman People) to which our present holy father has a special devotion.
The icon is housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. St. Luke is said to have painted the image on a tabletop which belonged to the Holy Family, while listening to Our Lady herself recount stories of her Son’s life. St. Helena brought the icon from Jerusalem to Constantinople. In the painting, Mary’s eyes fall upon us, the viewer, and we are held in her gaze. Jesus, whose hand is raised in blessing, looks to her, blessing those whom His Mother looks upon with tender mercy.
Many miracles have been associated with the ancient image, particularly when it is honored in procession. Pope St. Gregory the great processed with the icon in the sixth century, imploring an end to the Black Plague. St. Pius V carried the image in procession in 1791 begging Our Lady for a victory in the naval battle of Lepanto. Victory was indeed granted through her intercession, and today that miraculous trouncing of the Turkish fleet is celebrated each year on October 7th as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, formerly known as Our Lady of Victory. In 1834 Pope Gregory XVI honored Our Lady’s icon with a procession, pleading for an end to a cholera epidemic.
Most recently, Pope Francis had the icon brought from St. Mary Major to the Vatican, to be venerated during the special prayer service for peace in Syria and the Middle East. The fact that Pope Francis brought the actual icon, not a copy, is quite telling – it speaks not only of his love for Our Lady, (about which friends from his past have already shared many stories), but also of his abiding trust in her maternal intercession. Our Lady, Protectress of the Roman People, is a mother who comes to her children in their need, meets them where they are, and brings healing and peace.
It isn’t hard to understand how the image of a mother and queen who assists her children, not from her throne, but side by side with them, would resonate with the heart of Pope Francis, who has the tender heart of a pastor, a “shepherd with the odor of sheep”. It seems to fit perfectly with the Holy Father’s emphasis on encounter, something which has shaped his life and mission since he experienced a life-changing encounter with God’s mercy in the confessional at age 17. It was at this time that he first recognized God calling him to the priesthood, though it would be several years before he would finally pursue his vocation by entering the Society of Jesus. That idea of an encounter with mercy is what lead him to choose the Episcopal motto miserando atque eligendo (more on that here) when he was made bishop.
The icon of Salus Populi Romani has long been associated with the Jesuits, who spread this devotion around the world, being the first to obtain permission from the pope to duplicate the image for their houses of study. In fact, it is sometimes called “the Jesuit Madonna”. Their founder, the great St. Ignatius of Loyola, also had a devotion to Our Lady’s icon, and it was at St. Mary Major that he celebrated his first Mass, on Christmas night in 1538.
There is also an interesting link between devotion to Salus Populi Romani among the Jesuits, and the devotion of Our Lady of the Knots, which a very famous Jesuit has recently popularized. But we’ll save that story for another time. Instead, we’ll leave you with the words of Pope Paul VI, who, the same day he proclaimed Mary Mother of the Church, (at the closing of the third session of Vatican Council II in 1964) offered this prayer to the Madonna at St. Mary Major.
With a spirit full of trust and filial love, we raise our glance to you, despite our unworthiness and our weakness. You who have given us Jesus, the source of grace, will not fail to help your Church, at this time when she is flowering because of the abundance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and is committing herself with renewed zeal to her mission of salvation.