Rome: Our Lady Of The Wayside, part 1, By Monsignor J. T. McMahon, M.A., PH.D

"Madonna della strada" by Tetraktys
- Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Mary is the gateway to Heaven: there is no other entrance. The saints took Mary as their Mother, but each saint developed devotion to her in an individual and personal way. Devotion to Our Lady of the Wayside today is due to St. Ignatius Loyola. When St. Ignatius first came to Rome, in 1523, he saw the picture of Our Lady of the Wayside and there and then began his lifelong devotion to Our Lady under this title. He loved it intensely; in fact his destiny, and that of the Society of Jesus which he founded, seemed in some mysterious way to be connected with the picture. Fourteen years later, when with his companions he again returned to Rome, the saint led his followers beneath the picture he so loved, and before it the foundation members of the Society of Jesus prayed to Our Lady of the Wayside, seeking her aid, counsel, and consolation.
During many years after his ordination St. Ignatius celebrated his daily Mass at the altar of the picture he loved so well. On the completion of the first home of his newly-founded Order in Rome, such was the affection the saint bore this picture, that he resolved, if possible, to secure this picture for his church. He who cared so little for the things of earth had to do violence to himself to go and beg for this valuable picture. The picture was housed in a parochial church, which looked upon Our Lady of the Wayside as its most valued possession. The boldness of the request aroused the indignation of the parish priest, who refused to part with an object so venerated by his people. However, the wish of St. Ignatius seemed to have won the approval of Heaven, for suddenly and quite unexpectedly the parish priest, Don Pietro Codacio, changed his mind and consented to give the picture to the newly-formed Society, and not only the picture, but with it the Church in which it hung. Furthermore, he offered himself as a candidate to the newly-founded Order of St. Ignatius, was received into the Society, becoming the first Italian on its rolls. In recognition of his generous gift to the Society he was given the title “Founder” by St. Ignatius.

"Church of the Gesù, Rome" by Alessio Damato -
File:Chiesa gesu facade.jpg (cropped). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons -

The sanction and consent of Pope Paul III was obtained, also the approval of the Astalli family, who had built the church, and the Jesuits had their first public church in Rome—the sanctuary of the Madonna della Strada. Since then a tender devotion to the Madonna della Strada has been cherished by the members of the Society of Jesus. In the beginning of the Society, St. Francis Xavier prayed daily before this shrine, also Peter Faber, the first companions of St. Ignatius. At a later time came Fathers and Brothers to consecrate themselves at the feet of their beloved Queen, who had inspired them to join, the blessed Company of her Divine Son.
The promotion of devotion to Our Lady under the title of Madonna della Strada became a labour of untiring love amongst the first Fathers of the Society of Jesus. Her sanctuary became one of the most popular in Rome. So numerous were the people coming to her shrine, that soon the church notwithstanding many additions, was too small. The erection of a new church was necessary, but St. Ignatius in his prudence considered the Society too poor and .that the time had not yet come to face such a financial burden.


Cardinal Alexander Farnese was to be the builder of this longed-for church, for through his aid, the Gesu was built on the site of the old church. It began in 1568, took eight years to build, and then Our Lady of the Wayside was enthroned. Today in the beautiful side-chapel of the left transept hangs the picture of the Madonna della Strada. In this chapel the
Month of May devotion was begun by Father Muzzarelli, and since then it has spread throughout the Catholic world. In this chapel also the congregation of the “Bona Mors” had its cradle.


The chapel of the Madonna of the Wayside is closely connected with the first Jesuits. Before it prayed Stanislaus, Aloysius, and Berchmans-those chosen souls who from the sinlessness and devotion of their young lives were destined to become the models of youth through ages yet unborn. At the feet of Our Lady of the Wayside Jesuit missionaries knelt in farewell prayer before they went forth along the distant and difficult way of bringing the glad tidings of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Gesu was resplendent with lights, with a shaft beaming on the silver statue of St. Ignatius, who seems about to walk upwards out of his shrine towards Heaven. I knelt at the altar of Our Lady of the Wayside, and there surrounded by the scenes of her life in glorious frescoes, I asked many things for my friends and parishioners. I went across to the world centre of the Sacred Heart Messenger and its Apostleship of Prayer to kneel among a small group who keep vigil all day at the shrine. My favourite Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, beckoned me for a long, farewell chat.


Next door is one of the Jesuit Scholasticates in Rome, and a young man took me through the corridor with its wonderful frescoes of the life of St. Ignatius. Then up a few steps and he opened the actual door that led to the saint’s room, the room in which he died. There were the cupboards he used and the simple furniture of sheer utility. The atmosphere of absolute retirement from the things of the world still pervades that little room. One sensed the drastic self discipline of this man of iron will. The ceiling and panelling, blackened with the years, still roofs this cradle of the Jesuit Order. A window to the left is venerated, for from there the saint looked up to the starry heavens and made his meditations. But modern buildings now cut off the view of the skies. In a glass case is a model, made accurately of the saint from his dead body. He is small, thin, with large deep brown eyes, a sallow skin, a little black goatee, small hands, and big boots. On his feast day they open the glass doors and vest him in a rich chasuble, making him live again among them. The bed of St. Francis Borgia lines the wall. The robes of a Jesuit Cardinal, together with the belt of wire rings which he wore for penance are other indications of the Ignatian rule of self-discipline. The death-masks of several Jesuit saints were in the little chapel to preach to their brethren that life is short and that eternity alone is worth living for. What a helpful place to pray is this room sanctified by St. Ignatius, hallowed by so many relics of his spiritual sons, and now the home of the Real Presence! No wonder every Jesuit hopes that one day he will have the good fortune of kneeling in that holy room from which such a stream of spirituality has flowed throughout the years. I asked the saintly Founder to bless the apostolate of Youth which his sons were engaged upon in Australia, and to shield their past pupils from the disease of materialism.


As I prayed the lay-brothers came for their evening prayer. Old men stooped with years of work, middle-aged brothers, and young men learning from these old warriors that work is their price to pay for the glories that surround them in that little chapel.
On another day I visited the Curia which directs the Jesuit Order scattered throughout the world. The Procurator General was gracious in his welcome. The chapel was so inviting, so perfect, so devotional that it was hard to leave. There the members of the Jesuit headquarters seek guidance, inspiration, and light to direct, as an army headquarters does, its sons on the front line of the conquest of men for Christ.


Devotion to Our Lady of the Wayside inspired the missionary spirit and saintly life of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Father of the Society of Jesus. Like all the founders of religious orders, he was remarkable for devotion to our Blessed Mother. In those weary hours when Ignatius the soldier lay a wounded prisoner, the thoughts of God were inseparably entwined with the thoughts of God’s own tender Mother. It was before Our Lady’s shrine at Montserrat, in the first fervour of his conversion, when renouncing earthly warfare for the chivalry of the Cross, that he unbuckled his sword, and, placing it on her altar, vowed eternal fealty to Mary and to her Divine Son. It was on the Feast of her Assumption, before her image in the Church of Montmartre, Paris, surrounded by his companions, that Ignatius made his first religious vows. And it was, once again, kneeling before her altar in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls that his last solemn vows were pronounced. The image of Our Blessed Lady Ignatius ever bore upon his heart, and he died with his eyes lovingly fixed upon it.
During all the years Ignatius spent in Rome, his favourite shrine was the Madonna della Strada and in her power and intercession he developed an implicit trust.
Let St. Ignatius, the soldier saint, active, ardent, indefatigable, always meditating enterprises, battles, and campaigns to spread the greater glory of God, lead us to the Madonna of the Wayside and share with us his love of Our Lady of that title. We shall get the feel of this historical picture through this man of discipline, this soldier ever on the march, this man who could steel himself to send St. Francis Xavier away from his side, even though he loved his companionship and needed his help. The soldier saint had emptied himself of self and to his spiritual sons he has bequeathed the same soldierly obedience and strict discipline.


We can readily see why the picture of the Madonna della Strada captured the imagination of the soldier-saint. For many years the picture was on the walls of a house in a side street of Rome, exposed to weather and open to the jibes of the soured passer-by. It was a constant challenge to all who saw it. Its message was spoken in the open market-place. Those who saw it on their way could invite the Madonna to accompany them. Its shrine was no cloistered shelter, but right on the cobbled street along which man wearily went his pilgrim’s way of life in rain and shine. Its appeal was for activity, confident in the Madonna’s power and will to help.
An appeal to the saint who wrote a prayer or fostered a devotion will help us to say the prayer better and to enter into the spirit of the devotion. St. Francis of Assisi in his heroic renunciation of his fine feathers to don the coarse garments of the peasant farmhand, shows by his life all he meant by his prayer: “My God and my all!” The life of St. Bernard is lived again in his prayer, the “Memorare.” St. Ignatius Loyola puts the soldierly call to action in every line of his prayer of self-offering: “Accept, O Lord, my total liberty. Accept my memory, my intellect, and my will.” The “Anima Christi” is full of the eager aspirations of the soldier saint. This prayer leaves nothing out.


Similarly, historical associations help us to say a prayer better and to enter into the spirit of a devotion more intimately. The “Salve Regina” has meant much more to me since I learned that the crews of Columbus’s ships sang the “Salve Regina” when nothing but sea rewarded them for their perilous journey. And then, one evening, they saw land ahead and a light moving, the first thing seen on the American continent by European eyes. “And after this our exile, show unto us”- as sung with grateful hearts by the sailors of Columbus-sends its echoes charged with a new hope across the seas of time. Uncertain and anxious, Ignatius the soldier walked the streets of Rome, worrying out what he should and could do with his life and with his companions. In those moods, the lot of every pilgrim, and’ of every active soldier, he went daily to the picture of the Madonna della Strada to point out the way for him.

"Madonna della strada" by Tetraktys -
Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The picture of Our Lady of the Wayside, believed to be the work of an unknown artist in the fifth century, is one of the earliest pictures remaining of the Mother of God. It was a fresco painted on the walls of a house whose foundations dated back to the days of Imperial Rome. It most likely was one of the earliest public recognitions of Mary when the Church emerged from the catacombs. It lays claim, therefore, to be one of the oldest pictures of the Blessed Mother in existence. It is a link between the Church of the Catacombs and that of the Basilicas. For centuries the picture looked down upon one of the streets of Rome and the wayfarers venerated this little wayside shrine. The artist paints Our Lady with the Holy Child. in her arms. The Child is carrying a closed book in His left hand and raises His right hand in blessing.
The extraordinary reverence in which the picture was held in Rome inspired a member of the noble family of Astalli to build a church in its honour in the twelfth century. Hither a portion of the wall on which the picture was painted was transferred, and the church itself became known as that of Our Lady of the Wayside, “Madonna della Strada.” This church was one of the first into which St. Ignatius Loyola entered when he arrived in Rome. From that day, until his death, the saint loved to pray before this venerated image of the Mother of God, and frequently said his daily Mass on the altar of Our Lady of the Wayside.


His love of the picture and his desire to possess it for his infant Society urged him to boldly ask for it. I have already told you how that request was answered in an extraordinary way, so that his Society became the owners, not only of the picture, but of the church, also.
The devotion of the Roman people to their Madonna della Strada increased and the church became too small to accommodate them. Once again Our Lady of the Wayside showed her gratitude for the love and respect of St. Ignatius and his sons, by inspiring Cardinal Alexander Farnese to build the long-wished-for church of the Gesu on the site of the older shrine. From that year, 1568, to this, shrines of Our Lady of the Wayside have been multiplied throughout the world, and in each of them she has been generous with her favours.
In the Jesuit church of St. Mary’s, North Sydney, there is a beautiful shrine of Our Lady of the Wayside. In the dim light from the stained glass windows of this Australian shrine the picture of Our Lady of the Wayside is of unforgettable beauty.


The picture of Our Lady of the Wayside was one of the first to be crowned by the Pope, in recognition of the great things done through her intercession. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the shrine was rifled of its treasures by the sacrilegious robbers then in possession of Rome. But Mary’s loving children soon repaired these ravages, and on the third centenary of its removal from St. Mary’s to the new church of the Gesu it was again solemnly crowned in the name of the Holy Father by Cardinal Howard. During the epidemic of cholera in 1837 Pope Gregory XVI, accompanied by the Roman Curia, went in solemn procession to the shrine to implore Our Lady’s protection against the pestilence, the Pope afterwards celebrating Mass in the Gesu. When the epidemic ceased, the Roman Senate presented the Jesuits with a golden chalice in gratitude for their zeal and charity in ministering to those stricken with the disease. At the same time some of the noblest families in Rome made an offering of six magnificent bronze candlesticks to the altar of St. Ignatius.


St. Ignatius, the soldier-saint, is eager to be on the march-he is a man of action and wants to get going. Daily he kneels before the picture, seeking his marching orders. Let us often invite St. Ignatius to kneel with us before the picture of the Madonna della Strada and keep her image before us along the wayside of life’s journey. The guide book the Divine Child holds in His hand is closed. We may not read it, but “He knoweth my way.” (Job xxiii, 10.) Only step by step will He disclose it to us, for He would have us walk by faith and not by sight. The Child gives His blessing to the travellers who walk in faith.