God’s presence and the need for ‘prompt succor’

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Pope Francis made international headlines on Pentecost Sunday when he decried “a culture of insult” (“una cultura dell’insulto”) where the adjective takes precedence of the noun, and our lives are too often defined by “repaying evil for evil and passing from victims to victimizers” (“carnefici”). These diagnoses of our contemporary age may have lasting resonance, as his famous “globalization of indifference” did when he uttered it near the watery graves of so many at Lampedusa.

In the United States, we may feel particularly familiar with the validity of this scathing indictment, and the division and rancor that seem to permeate our ecclesial, political and social lives. But there are also hidden gems in our American experience to which we can turn for inspiration and solace in our most troubled moments. For in the same homily, Pope Francis also made clear that “true peace does not give us freedom from problems, but rather freedom in them.”

Many of my closest friends and family know that New Orleans holds a special place in my heart, where the layers of immigrant history, the ties to Nueva España and the Old World, and the mixing of Caribbean, African and Latin American culture are unlike anywhere else in our country. I was happy to spend a few days in New Orleans recently with my wife while visiting the other Loyola there and to say a prayer before Our Lady of Prompt Succor, one of the most under-appreciated devotional currents in American history.

Since 1727, the Blessed Mother has been honored under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on the shores of this land, in connection with the French “Notre Dame du Prompt Secours.” Our Lady’s “quick help” was first recognized by the Ursuline nuns who originally cultivated the devotion, crediting her intercession for saving New Orleans from fires, the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and annual hurricanes and floods. She is today the principal patroness of Louisiana, and the ubiquitous image of Mary holding the infant on her shoulder, with their crowns elaborately decorated with donated jewelry from the women from the city, appears in everything from statues to murals to stained glass windows to cheap souvenirs. I have long held a personal devotion to Mary under this title, and support the National Shrine in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans with both my prayers and donations.

It is undeniable that our world is in need of “prompt succor” as we face unprecedented developments, unrest and social issues. (So as not to be overly pessimistic, it’s also important to note that we are as a globe actually trending toward peace and personal freedom when you consider the omnipresence of violence, conquest, exclusion and slavery in our ancestral human past. Our modern media just make us more aware of what’s happening in far-flung places than earlier generations could ever realize).

The post-Constantinian culture of Christendom, where church and state co-mingled as the unrivaled global force for an exported Hellenistic or Mediterranean vision of civilization, is undoubtedly in decline, and not likely to return to its position of dominance. But our own age presents us with new unexplored mission fields, incredible opportunities for co-learning from and with the forgotten, and unanticipated contexts for experiencing grace and God’s self-communicating presence in heretofore unimaginable ways. That is the ongoing history of our faith in this country and across the world, and so we can continue to seek to emulate the tireless fidelity, constant benevolence and counter-cultural fearlessness of the Virgin who intercedes for us in our moments of immediate need with “prompt succor.”

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.