The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke
(Don Juan of Austria is hidden in the smoke).
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
—G K Chesterton, ‘Lepanto’

In 1844, the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title ‘Help of Christians’, was chosen as the patroness of Australia at the First Provincial Synod of Sydney. Although that specific title goes back to 1571 and the Battle of Lepanto, Mary has been invoked as a help for Christians since the earliest centuries of the Church.

A papyrus dating to the third century records one of the oldest Marian prayers, the Sub tuum praesidium—‘beneath thy protection’. It reads:

We fly to thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God.
Despite not our petitions in our necessities,
But deliver us always from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

This ancient understanding of Mary as a help to Christians on their journey finds it rationale, at least in part, in the even more ancient Jewish understanding of Rachel, mother to the twelve tribes of Israel, as a comforting spiritual mother to Israelites in their troubles. Mary was seen as a ‘new Rachel’.

The Battle of Lepanto

The specific title ‘Help of Christians’ does not find its way into common usage, however, until the 16th century. With Europe facing the threat of approaching Ottoman naval forces, Pope Pius V called upon Catholics to pray the Rosary and invoke the Blessed Virgin with that title.

On 7 October 1571, the Turkish forces came up against a coalition of Catholic states called ‘the Holy League’, commanded by Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V and an able soldier (not the fictitious libertine made famous by Lord Byron). Lasting about five hours, the Battle of Lepanto would be the last major naval battle fought by rowing vessels.

The Holy League won, in part, because of their more able use of new gunpowder technology. Encountering the League’s forces off the shores of western Greece, the Turkish navy suffered the brutal loss of most of their galleys (having started out with around 210), while the League lost between 10 and 20 (having started with a similar number as the Ottomans).

The battle was significant not only because it was arguably the largest naval battle since the classical era, but also because the loss sustained by the Ottoman Empire was hailed as decisive in shifting the nature of Turkish expansion. While some historians argue the significance of the Turkish defeat has perhaps been overstated, it was the first time since the 15th century that the Ottoman Empire had lost a decisive battle. The Turks had been considered practically unstoppable, and as they raided Mediterranean shores, there had been a genuine fear that Italy would soon be vulnerable.

The coming together of such significant allied forces against a common enemy was a rare occurrence, and whatever damages the battle might have inflicted on the Holy League’s forces, the victory at Lepanto—widely attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary—proved the Ottoman Empire was not invincible, instilling a newfound confidence in Catholics throughout Europe.

As a result of the victory, Pope Pius V introduced a new feast: the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrated by the Church around the world on 7 October, the date of the victory at Lepanto. He also added the Marian title ‘Help of Christians’ to the Litany of Loreto, the famous litany to Mary.

The actual feast of Our Lady Help of Christians was instituted in 1815 by Pope Pius VII, who had been jailed by Napoleon Bonaparte. The story goes that Pope Pius promised God that he would institute a feast in honour of Our Lady if he was released, and on 24 May 1814 he was. Twelve months later, he included the feast in the Roman calendar.

Shrines around the world

There are several shrines around the world dedicated to Our Lady Help of Christians, but two of them are particularly well known.

Australia has a shrine of its own, called Marian Valley, just over an hour’s drive from Brisbane. Under the care of the monks of the Order of St Paul the First Hermit (the Pauline Fathers), the Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians was opened and blessed in 1995 and is a centre for spiritual retreat, drawing people from around the world.

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Our Lady Help of Christians statue at Marian Valley shrine With permission from Marian Valley Shrine

The Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in Turin, Italy, was commissioned by St John Bosco, founder of the Salesians. As the story goes, Our Lady revealed to John Bosco in a dream the site where the third-century Turinese martyrs Solutor, Adventor and Octavius had met their deaths. These men were part of the Theban legion, a famous Roman legion of more than 6,000 men who were said not only to have converted to Christianity but also to have refused an order of Emperor Maximian in AD 286 to slaughter local Christians.

It is said that as a result of their disobedience, the entire legion were put to death under Maximian’s orders.

Built on the site of their deaths, the basilica houses the relics of the three martyrs, along with the relics of thousands of other saints.

Santuario di Maria Ausiliatrice Torino
Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians, Turin