The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Santa Maria Maggiore

Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Snows, or the Dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (St. Mary Major), perhaps my favorite of all Roman churches. It's a marvelous church, the first and largest Roman church dedicated to Mary, hence its name, Mary Major. It is certainly a church you should visit if you ever have the opportunity.

The story of its founding is as beautiful as the church itself. Back in the fourth century Our Blessed Mother appeared at the same time in the dreams of three people: Pope Liberius and a wealthy Roman patrician named John and his wife. It seems John and his wife wanted to use their wealth in some positive way and so they prayed to Our Lady asking her to show them how best to dispose of their property. On the night of August 4-5, 352, she appeared in a dream not only to the pope, but also to John and his wife. In the dream she commanded that they build a basilica on the Esquiline Hill. The particular site would be covered with snow the next day. Keep in mind we're talking about Rome in early August. The next morning the snow was there, on the peak of the hill, indicating where the church would be built. And so, the basilica is still called by many, "Our Lady of the Snow."

Another tradition indicates that it was built by Pope Sixtus II (432-440) to celebrate the conclusion of the Council of Ephesus (431) at which Mary was formally proclaimed Theotokos, or Mother of God. I like both traditions, but I prefer the former and like to think it was originally built  by Pope Liberius and then added to by Pope Sixtus.

I've never visited the basilica on August 5, its day of dedication. Rome is not a particularly pleasant city during August. Not only is it too hot and too full of tourists, but many places are closed since the Romans tend to take off on vacation to cooler venues. But on this day, in commemoration of that August snowfall in 352, thousands of white petals are released from the basilica's ceiling and fall into the sanctuary. Perhaps someday I'll have the opportunity to see it.

The basilica has a rich history, and perhaps its most cherished relic is the sacra culla, an ornate crib that holds wood from the manger in which the infant Jesus was placed by His Mother in Bethlehem. The sacra culla is in the center of the photo below.
Sacra Culla in St. Mary Major
Another relic is the ancient icon of the Virgin which tradition says was painted from life by St. Luke himself. Called Salus Populi Romani (the salvation of the Roman people), this image has been venerated by the faithful for well over 1,000 years. The photo below is of the chapel in which the icon is displayed.
Pauline Chapel with Madonna icon above the altar
Above the icon is a relief showing Pope Liberius tracing the footprint of the basilica in the snow that fell on August 5, 352.

Tradition also tells us that Pope St. Pius V, accompanied by a many Romans, went to the basilica and prayed the Rosary, asking for Our Blessed Mother's intercession in the conflict with the Ottomans. What the pope couldn't have known was that the Catholic and Muslim fleets were facing each other that very day in the Gulf of Lepanto (October 7, 1571). And yet later that day Pope Pius suddenly interrupted a meeting he was having with several cardinals. He looked up to heaven and said,
"A truce to business! Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given the Catholic army."  
I suppose revelations like that are part of the reason he's a saint and I'm not. And there are many other wonderful traditions relating to this beautiful old church. I've included a few photos in this post that I've taken on my visits in recent years.
Basilica of St. Mary Major Exterior
Basilica of St. Mary Major Interior
Basilica of St. Mary Major (exterior detail)
Makes me want to return to Rome.


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