IN HISTORY 3
We Fly to thy Patronage
The third part of our journey of learning about the incidence of the Mother of
God in human history: The miraculous apparitions from the fourth century to the
year one thousand, defending the people from violence and natural calamities.
A real presence that makes the glory of God visible in history
by Paola Bergamini
and Paola Ronconi
All begins from that yes, spoken by that girl of the house of David to
the angel Gabriel. From the first centuries, great kings and emperors, but also
and, above all, the people, common people, implore her aid. And the answer comes,
The Middle Ages, which honor the Blessed Virgin in all forms of art, are characterized
by recourse to Our Lady as the first among the saints to call upon. In the patristic
period, for example, we have to thank Gregory of Tours for having left an account
of the various miracles attributed to the intervention of the Mother of God.
Some of them may perhaps seem fruit of imagination and credulousness, but that
is not the case. They are the proof of how much Christians in all times trusted
in the power of Our Lady’s intercession.
At times, Our Lady’s intervention changes the course of history as men
had planned it, overcoming strategies and sufferings, defending the faith or
making visible the power and love of her Son, who is the only one who makes history.
These are the apparitions. Here we recall just a few of them that exemplify the
recourse to Mary that at times brings a whole people to conversion.
Cesarea, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), 363 AD. St Basil, son of the saints
Basil and Emmelia, is praying with joined hands. The great doctor of the Church
is worried. The emperor, Julian the Apostate, has sworn to kill him on his return
from battle against the Persians. He is not thinking of his life; that is in
the hands of the Lord. He is concerned for his people. It is known that the Emperor
has adopted a religious policy aimed at restoring paganism, and is particularly
intolerant of the Christians. The three edicts issued after the death of Constans
were proof of this. “Holy Virgin,” Basil prays, “come to our
aid.” A light spreads all around and a voice is heard: “Do not worry,
Basil. I promise that the Emperor’s rage will not touch you. Other battles
you will have to fight for my Son, to protect my people.” Some days later,
the news arrives that Julian the Apostate, after having conquered some fortresses,
had forced his enemy to close himself in Ctesifonte, but not having hope in the
siege, had gone up the Tigris and died in a battle, struck down by a spear. Basil,
elected Bishop in 370, precisely in Cesarea, fights the Arian heresy which arose
under the Emperor Valens.
Gualdo Tadino, 552 AD. Narses is in command of the Roman army of the East. The
Emperor Justinian had sent him to help General Belisarius in the war against
the Goths. The great warrior knows the crucial moment has arrived. With a purposeful
stride he goes to Belisarius’ tent. “General, tomorrow we shall win.” The
general looks at him, perplexed. “Let’s hope so, their forces are…” “No,
General. The Virgin appeared to me and told me that she will lead us to victory.
We’ve no need to fear.” The following day, in a ferocious battle
at Tagina (near Gualdo Tadino in Umbria), the Goths led by King Totila are defeated.
Narses will be Belisarius’ successor.
Rome, 590 AD. A terrible pestilence afflicts the city. St Gregory the Great,
elected Pope that same year, calls for a procession to implore God’s mercy
to put an end to the punishment that is decimating Rome. He clutches the image
of the Blessed Virgin fast in his hands as the procession of the faithful wends
its way through the city streets. When they reach Hadrian’s Wharf–which
from that moment will be called Castel Sant’Angelo–they cannot go
forward. An angel is blocking the way. The crowd falls to its knees, and sees
God’s messenger sheathe his sword, an unmistakable sign that the scourge
has come to an end. Then hordes of angels greet the Virgin intoning the antiphon: “Regina
coeli, laetare, alleluia.” It’s the first time the faithful hear
Constantinople, 626 AD. The city is under siege by the Persians. The Patriarch
Sergius gathers the people: “Let’s invoke the Queen of Heaven. Let’s
pray together. Let’s implore her help against the enemy.” On the
eleventh day of the siege, a sentry sees a beautiful lady, accompanied by two
servants, coming out of the church and walking towards the Persian camp. The
news spreads and everyone thinks that it is the Empress taking a message to the
enemy forces. Fear begins to take hold of the people. Has she gone to surrender?
In vain, they wait for her return. But the beautiful lady doesn’t come
back to the city; she disappears. A few hours later more news arrives. The enemy
camp is in total confusion. It’s not clear what’s happening, but
the fact is that after a few hours the Persians run away, ending the siege of
Constantinople. Only the people know the real reason: the beautiful lady was
the Virgin Mary.
Boulogne, (France), 636 AD. A group of people are on the seashore. A few hours
earlier a ship had been seen. Now the ship is there, but there is no sign of
a living soul. Eventually someone gets up the courage to go aboard. “There’s
nobody here,” he calls after a few minutes. “There isn’t even
a rudder! I only found this.” He climbs down carrying a statue of the Blessed
Virgin with child. They all crowd around it. “What a pretty face!” someone
says. Then a voice is heard, “I chose your city as a place of grace.” From
that moment, Boulogne becomes a place of pilgrimage. Centuries later, in fact,
on his return from the Crusades, Geoffrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, offered
his crown to the Mother of God.
Benevento, 663 AD. The city is besieged by troops of the Emperor Constans II,
who wants to win Italy from the Longobards and bring it under his power. He had
collected a strong army and, after setting sail from Constantinople, landed at
Taranto. From there he had begun his campaign, devastating the towns of Apulia.
Marching on, he had reached Benevento, under the command of Romuald, son of the
Longobard king, Grimoald. The city was on the point of collapse. Romuald, at
the end of his tether, had decided with the citizens to open the gates of the
city and to die fighting. Then Bishop Barbato came to him. He had tried many
times to convert the Longobards to Christianity, with many signs and much preaching,
but they were too attached to their pagan practices. “My sons,” the
Bishop warned them, “be converted to the Creator so that you may be saved.
For He destroys wars; He leads down to hell and back; He humbles and He exalts.
So abandon the vanity you have been following up to now, at the devil’s
suggestion, and sing together with a clear voice the praise of the only God–Father,
Son and Holy Spirit–and address your prayers to Him promising to serve
Him devoutly, and He will free you from those who want your souls.” “If
that is the case,” Romuald replied, “I will throw away the idols
I have worshipped according to the rites of my race, and I promise to serve the
one God.” The seed of conversion is planted. Immediately, St Barbato went
to the Church and begged the Mother of God that, as mediator with her Son, she
end the war. He is sure that the Virgin has listened to him, so, when he goes
back to the Duke, he says, “Take care, you and all those with you, who
have promised to serve Christ Jesus, that, once you are freed from your enemies,
you don’t go back on the promise you have made. Otherwise, abandoned by
God, worse things might happen to you. The Emperor and his army will not enter
Benevento, but will turn and go back to their own territory. So that you may
know I preach the truth, let’s go to the walls where I will show you the
Holy Mother of God, who will pour out to the Creator prayers of salvation for
you. He will listen and will come to help you at once.” As he finished
speaking, the Virgin Mary appeared on the walls of the city.
The following day, Constans II, who had threatened to burn the city to the ground
and had refused huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels, abandoned the siege
Valenciennes, (France), 1008 AD. “Fast and pray,” calls a man in
the middle of the square. “Listen to me. Pray and fast. Only in this way
will the plague that is afflicting our town be brought to an end.” A lot
of people gathered around him. “Who is he?” someone asks. “Don’t
you recognize him? It’s the old hermit. He hasn’t been seen for years.” Eventually,
a man goes up to him and asks, “How can you say that only prayer and fasting
will save us from the plague?” The old man looks into his eyes. “It
was the Blessed Virgin who told me, and she charged me to tell you. This is why
I left my silence and my prayers to come here to town.” The people are
appalled, but they believe him. They all begin a fast and pray fervently. The
following day, the Virgin appears to the inhabitants of Valenciennes, surrounded
by a great host of angels. As a sign of her protection she lays a rope all around
the city to stop the plague and asks that the following day, September 8th, Feast
of the Nativity of the Mother of God, they make a procession in her honor. And
so it happened. A long procession wound through the streets of the town the whole
day. At once the plague stopped spreading.
A Long Tradition 1500 Years
Dear Fr Giussani: Your Letter to the Fraternity really touched me. The first
point struck me and interested me particularly. The way you read the Hymn to
the Virgin makes me simply speechless with wonder, because you once again make
us discover and deepen what you had already told us: “Beautiful, stupendous”–but
immediately we see that, before you, no one had noted this beauty or this geniality.
After reading the Letter, I would have liked to tell you: “Dear Fr Giussani,
in a wonderful way you speak of Dante’s Hymn to the Virgin. What a pity
you have not read the Akathistos to the Holy Mother of God!” And I felt
the desire to read it “with you.”
It is impossible not to note the impressive consonance of these three hymns (I
say three, because your letter is a Hymn, a Hymn to Being in the figure of the
Mother of God). The paradoxical nature and the inconceivability of the category
of divine humanity–Virgin and Mother, God and Man–generate wonder
and joy! And then the joy of the Akathistos becomes your joy in an absolutely
natural way: “Rejoice, thou who bearest Him Who bears all!” (“Virgin
Mother, daughter of your Son”!), “Rejoice, thou who hast joined virginity
and motherhood! Rejoice, unwedded Bride! Rejoice… Rejoice… Rejoice…” It
is our joy for salvation, joy for God’s love for man, for you, Mother of
Thank you for your attention to the heart of man.
Here is an attempt at reading the Akathistos to the Holy Mother of God in the
light of recent meditations of Fr Luigi Giussani. The verses of the Akathistos
are in normal characters, the meditations of Fr Giussani in italics.
On coming in to her the Angel said,
Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you
Rejoice, height hard to climb for human thoughts! Rejoice, depth hard to contemplate
even for the eyes of Angels!
The Mystery (…) is Our Lady. For the first observation possible to man
in the Mystery, the first physical and spiritual observation of the fact of the
Mystery is Our Lady.
Rejoice, guide of the faithful to chastity!
The figure of Our Lady establishes the Christian personality.
Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!
Our Lady totally respected God’s freedom. She saved God’s freedom.
She obeyed God because she respected His freedom. She did not oppose it with
her own method. Here is God’s first revelation..
Rejoice, gate of salvation!
Our Lady is the method we need for familiarity with Christ.
Rejoice, prelude of Christ’s miracles!
The Being “coextends Itself” to Its total self-communication.
Rejoice, thou who hast joined virginity and motherhood!
For this reason virginity–“Virgin Mother”–coincides with
the nature of real being in the formula of the totality of its revelation...
The first characteristic in which the Being communicates itself is virginity.
It is the concept of absolute purity, which has as its consequence an absolute
vortex, namely motherhood.
Rejoice, ark made golden by the Spirit!
in Mary’s womb, the creator Spirit, the evidence of the Spirit, surfaced.
Rejoice, treasury of His Providence!
Counsel” is to perceive the infinite, unreachable, invincible dimension
of the Holy Spirit. This reveals the reason that justifies the method of Incarnation.
Without this passage the Mother of Christ cannot be understood.
Rejoice, bridge that conveys us from earth to heaven!
Our Lady is like a royal invitation.
Rejoice, unwedded Bride!
I tell you, I ask you always to start from the presence of Our Lady, this supreme
presence in the history of the universe. Imagine Our Lady’s days, Mary’s
days with that Mystery, which she feels, perceives, acknowledges, embraces with
all her being, inside her... We have to ask Our Lady for the grace to be a part
of her motherhood.
And the Word was made flesh,
and came to dwell among us.
Human “music” is the stage on which everything happens: and the Mystery
becomes the human people and the “choir” of the Infinite. Thus Christian
personality is emphasized: you get up in the morning to go to Mass, to go to
the doctor, to go to work, for your children... you get up in the morning for
an explosion inside you of the fact of Christ!
The Akathistos. The History of a Hymn
by Caterina Giojelli
Akathistos: the name of the wonderful Hymn to the Mother of God comes from the
Greek word akathizo, which means, literally, “I don’t sit.” It
comes from the practice of singing it while standing, to the rhythm of the Byzantine
hymnology and in the form of the kontakion (an introductory verse followed by
others up to the final verse of invocation). This particular hymn, the Akathistos,
is made up of 24 verses, numbered according to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
Each verse begins with the corresponding letter of the alphabet, thus producing
a grandiose acrostic, which the scholar Rosa Calzecchi Onesti has masterfully
interpreted in her Italian translation, substituting the 24 letters of the Greek
alphabet with the 24 letters that make up the phrase “Ave Maria Piena Di
The alternation of short and long verses permits us to distinguish 12 verses
of a narrative character and 12 meditative verses, which the expert defines as “a
kind of contemplatio of the heart aimed at letting oneself be molded by Mary’s
spirit so as to be able to imitate her in everyday life.”
The history of the celebrated hymn is even today a mystery that the scholars
have tried to unravel, choosing, in the end, to accept its anonymity. Its uncertain
date (in the 5th-6th century, perhaps) has seen it ascribed to various people,
the earliest being Romanus the Melodist (St Romanus of Emesa, 5th-6th century).
In fact, Romanus is certainly the inventor of the kontakion and of a whole range
of narrative and contemplative works on the Christian Mysteries and feasts–sung
and known all over the East–but the Akathistos is not among his works.
Later it was attributed to the Patriarch Sergius, above all because of his role
at the time of the siege of Constantinople by sea and by land. In 626, Persians,
Avars and Bulgars profited from the absence of the Emperor Heraclius to invade
the city. Sergius gathered the people to pray to the Virgin. It was then that
an unexpected storm sank the enemy ships, and the Greeks, though fewer in number,
managed to put the invaders to flight. On their return from the pursuit, in the
region of Blacherne, they found, intact, a small church, consecrated to the Mother
of God. The chronicle of the time narrates that the same night, in thanksgiving,
the faithful, led by the Patriarch, raised to heaven the Hymn to Most Holy Mary.