Our Lady Protects Youth and Challenges Them: ‘Arise and Go with Haste’

Popes John Paul II and Francis have echoed and amplified Our Lord’s call to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

Church of Soccorso in Forio, Italy
Church of Soccorso in Forio, Italy (photo: Ines Murzaku / NCRegister)

Artists of every age have sought to depict the profundity of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and there is a wellspring of sacred art to turn to in prayer.

Many are the representations of Mary in sacred art — from the first-ever portrait of Mary in the Dura-Europos Church in Syria (2nd century) to contemporary art. Art depicts the gentle, pure, beautiful, compassionate, suffering and sorrowful mother, the mediatrix sharing in the suffering of her son and uniquely and actively participating in the work of redemption.

But there are also some less common depictions of an actively engaged Mary — for example, Madonna del Soccorso (Our Lady Help of Christians), where Mary is represented with a stick in hand, beating the devil who threatens to capture a helpless child.

This spectacular image of Our Lady Help of Christians was promoted by the Augustinian order starting in 14th-century Sicily and then spreading in other areas of Italy and Europe. The story goes that in 1306, an angry mother, growing impatient with her son, cursing, went so far as to invoke the devil so that he would take away her son. The devil lost no time in showing up and taking away her helpless son, and the repentant mother called Mary for help. Mary intervened promptly, stick in hand, driving away the devil and saving the child from his snares.

The iconographic tradition of Madonna del Soccorso was spread by the Augustinians with a precise theological instruction: never speak to the devil or invoke him. Mary is the help for Christians and the safest refuge from the devil.

Recently, I visited the small Church of Soccorso, Forio, on the beautiful island of Ischia, Italy — an example of local architecture, standing on a promontory overlooking the sea. The Church of Soccorso was part of an ancient Augustinian convent founded in the 14th century and is dedicated to Mary. Its beautiful white façade makes it stand in contrast to the blue sea and sky. It has a large terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

It could not have been a better day to visit the church and feel Mary’s protection. When I visited the church, the sea was highly agitated, with waves up to 9 feet, which forced even the seagulls to abandon the sea. Weather lore describes them: “Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand, it’s never good weather when you’re on land.”

Mary’s protection was especially welcome not only because of the sea tempest hitting the island, but also in preparation for World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, from Aug. 1-6, which over 400,000 young people (including several of my Seton Hall University students) are attending.

On the main altar of the small church stands a wooden statue depicting the Madonna with a stick in her right hand, a demon crushed under her foot, and a child clinging to her. This representation recalls the miracle in which a woman invoked the Virgin to free her son from the devil, and Our Lady, not shying away from the task at hand, answered her mother’s prayer and appeared holding a stick.

At the entrance of the church, on ceramic tile, is a dedication commemorating Pope John Paul II’s May 5, 2002, visit with the youth of Ischia in preparation for the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto. It was around the Church of Soccorso, under the protection of Mary with the Stick/Our Lady Help of Christians, that the youth of the Island of Ischia gathered to meet Pope John Paul II. The supreme pontiff addressed the crowd on his WYD theme:

You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14). These words of Jesus, as you know, constitute the theme of the next World Youth Day. … Young people of Ischia, be rays of Christ’s light. He is the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12). Radiate this light everywhere, especially where Jesus is not known and loved, or even where he is rejected. With your lives, make people understand that the light which comes from on high does not destroy the human being — on the contrary, it exalts him, just like the sun, whose brilliance throws into bold relief shapes and colors. God is not man’s rival but his true friend, his most faithful ally.

This is a call to action with some urgency coming from Jesus to be both salt of the earth and light of the world. It was a call to the Ischitan youth, and the faithful, to be like leaven and light in the world, a call to be living witnesses so that others can see Christ in us. It is in our everydayness — performing simple tasks with dedication — that the faithful are sanctified and sanctify others, thus bringing about the sanctification of the whole world. Pope John Paul II’s 2002 speech to the youth of Ischia in preparation for WYD was a call to immediate action:

You must promote this message with the speed of light! Do not waste time — your youth is too precious to waste even the smallest part. God needs you and calls each one of you by name.

John Paul II concluded his speech at the Church of Soccorso to the youth of Ischia by invoking the protection of Mary:

May the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘Star of the Sea,’ guide you. She directs towards the safe haven those who sail on the great ocean of life, by shining like a bright star even in the darkest hours.

There is a strong connection between WYD 2002 and WYD 2023 — there is urgency, and haste to arise, following the example of and under the protection of Mary, who, after the Annunciation, did not waste time before visiting her cousin Elizabeth. “Mary arose and went with haste” to Elizabeth — this is the theme of WYD 2023, chosen by Pope Francis. Mary did not remain paralyzed by uncertainty in the face of a challenging situation; she went forth to bear and spread the good news. Inside her was the power of Resurrection and new life, to which she responded with a strong “yes” at the Annunciation. Pope Francis, as his predecessor Pope John Paul II did, is calling young Catholics to action, to arise with urgency and healthy haste. He warned young people about unhealthy haste, saying:

An unhealthy haste … can drive us to live superficially and to take everything lightly. Without commitment or concern, without investing ourselves in what we do. It is the haste of those who live, study, work and socialize without any real personal investment.

Consequently, Pope Francis urged not a rapid and uninformed haste but, instead, concrete encounters and concrete acceptance of those different from us, which comes as a response to experiencing God’s love and feeling an urgent need to arise and share it as Mary did:

The Mother of the Lord is a model for young people on the move, who refuse to stand in front of a mirror to contemplate themselves or to get caught up in the “net.” Mary’s focus is always directed outwards. She is the woman of Easter, in a permanent state of exodus, going forth from herself towards that great Other who is God and towards others, her brothers and sisters, especially those in greatest need, like her cousin Elizabeth.

Toronto in 2002 and Lisbon in 2023 — two WYDs, one strong call to hasten to arise, hasten to encounter anew, and hasten to spread the good news under the protection of Mary Help of Christians.

The small Church of Soccorso in Ischia helped me connect the dots of the message, by which young people are called to renew and apply anew the challenge to be salt and light of the world. They must arise in haste following the example of Mary and under Mary’s protection.

While in Portugal, Pope Francis will visit the Marian shrine at Fátima, and the image of Our Lady of Fátima will be on the altar on Aug. 6 for the final Mass presided over by Pope Francis during the worldwide gathering, which will conclude World Youth Day 2023.

While following the events of WYD in Lisbon, remember the image of Our Lady wielding a stick against the devil to protect an innocent child. The Blessed Mother herself, through the theme of WYD 2023 and through the location of this Catholic festival, is invoked as its patroness, and she most certainly will be present to protect our youth, emboldening them to arise and go with haste to fight evil and bring salt and light wherever they go.