Thought for the Day – 25 July – The Memorial of St Christopher (died c 251) One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers
The Fourteen “Auxiliary Saints” or “Holy Helpers” are a group of saints invoked because they have been efficacious in assisting in trials and sufferings. Each saint has a separate feast or memorial day and the group was collectively venerated on 8 August until the 1969 reform of the Roman calendar, when the feast was dropped. These saints were often represented together. Popular devotion to these saints often began in some monastery that held their relics. All of the saints except Giles were martyrs. Devotion to some of the saints, such as St George, St Margaret, St Christopher, St Barbara and St Catherine became so widespread that customs and festivals still are popular today.
The Fourteen Holy Helpers are invoked as a group mainly because of the Black Plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1349. Among its symptoms were the black tongue, a parched throat, violent headache, fever and boils on the abdomen. The victims were attacked without warning, robbing them of their reason and killed within a few hours; many died without the last Sacraments. No one was immune and the disease wreaked havoc in villages and family circles. The epidemic appeared incurable. The pious turned to Heaven, begging the intervention of the saints, praying to be spared or cured. Each of these fourteen saints had been efficacious in interceding in some aspect for the stricken during the Black Plague. The dates are the traditional feast days; not all the saints are on the Universal Roman Calendar.
The Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (also Basilika Vierzehnheiligen) is a church located near the town of Bad Staffelstein near Bamberg, in Bavaria, southern Germany. The late Baroque-Rococo basilica, designed by Balthasar Neumann, was constructed between 1743 and 1772.
The Legend of Building the Basilica
On 24 September 1445, Hermann Leicht, the young shepherd of a nearby Franciscan monastery, saw a crying child in a field that belonged to the nearby Cistercian monastery of Langheim . As he bent down to pick up the child, it abruptly disappeared. A short time later, the child reappeared in the same spot. This time, two candles were burning next to it. In June 1446, the Leicht saw the child a third time. This time, the child bore a red cross on its chest and was accompanied by thirteen other children. The child said: “We are the fourteen helpers and wish to erect a chapel here, where we can rest. If you will be our servant, we will be yours!” Shortly after, Leicht saw two burning candles descending to this spot. It is alleged that miraculous healings soon began, through the intervention of the fourteen saints.
The Cistercian brothers to whom the land belonged erected a chapel, which immediately attracted pilgrims. An altar was consecrated as early as 1448. Pilgrimages to the Vierzehnheiligen continue to the present day between May and October.
One of the most famous group depictions of the “Fourteen Saints” is a 1503 altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald for the monastery in Lichtenfels in Upper Franconia, unfortunately, I cannot find a complete image of this, below are Panels one and two.
The “fourteen angels” of the lost children’s prayer in the Composer, Engelbert Humperdinck’s (1854-1921) fairy opera, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, are the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The English words are familiar and very beautiful:
When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep,
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding;
Two upon my right hand,
Two upon my left hand.
Two who warmly cover
Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.
I will pray daily, to the Fourteen Holy Helpers, to Pray for us all, for the world is indeed suffering from a ‘Plague’ of a new kind!
Prayer to the Fourteen Holy Helpers
By St Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) Doctor of the Church
Great princes of heaven, Holy Helpers,
who sacrificed to God all your earthly possessions,
wealth, preferment and even life
and who now are crowned in heaven
in the secure enjoyment of eternal bliss and glory;
have compassion on me,
a poor sinner in this vale of tears
and obtain for me from God,
for Whom you gave up all things
and Who loves you as His servants,
the strength to bear patiently all the trials of this life,
to overcome all temptations
and to persevere in God’s service to the end,
that one day I too may be received into your company,
to praise and glorify Him, the supreme Lord,
Whose beatific vision you enjoy
and Whom you praise and glorify forever.