Friday, August 5, 2016

Salus Populi Romani

50 years ago, at a very difficult time in my life, I occasionally attended Mass at a church in Queens called Our Lady of the Snows. The apocryphal legend of the miraculous snowfall on Rome's Esquiline Hill on August 5, sometime during the reign of Pope Liberius (352-356), is still commemorated by the white rose petals which fall from the dome during the celebration of the Mass on this day in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, whose dedication feast the Church celebrates today - a really nice touch during the rigors of summer!

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major, on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, one of the 4 Papal Basilicas (the smallest) and one of the 7 traditional pilgrimage churches of Rome, was one of the first churches built in honor or Mary after the Council of Ephesus (431) acknowledged her title as "Mother of God." It was the traditional stational church for the principal Mass on Christmas and Easter, as well as on the 4 Ember Wednesdays and other occasions. 

Under the high altar of the basilica is the Altar of the Crib (Sancta Maria ad Praesepe) with a reliquary said to contain four boards of sycamore wood from the original Crib of Bethlehem. It was the traditional station for the Christmas Midnight Mass. Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass there on December 25, 1538. (It is said that Saint Ignatius had wanted to celebrate his first Mass in the Holy Land. So the Altar of the Crib at Saint Mary Major, with its relic from Bethlehem, seemed the next best place!) Also, Saint Jerome, the 4th-century Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate) is buried there. 

Saint Mary Major is often said to be the most popular of the papal basilicas among Romans themselves. Enshrined in the Basilica's Borghese Chapel of the Basilica is the famous image of the Virgin Mary - Salus Populi Romani ("Salvation of the Roman People"), which may be the oldest Marian image in Rome. Servant of God Isaac Hecker prayed before that image after his expulsion from the Redemptorists, which is why a copy of that image is displayed in my church where people are encouraged to pray for Hecker's canonization cause. 

Pope Francis has regularly visited the Salus Populi Romani image to pray there in connection with his apostolic journeys. Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII celebrated his first Mass in the Borghese chapel in 1899. In 1953, the image was carried through Rome to begin the first Marian year in Church history. The next year, Pope Pius XII crowned it when he established the new feast of the Queenship of Mary. (For that event, see: Mary under the title of Salvation fo the Roman People continue to bestow her protection on the entire Roman Church throughout the world in these challenging and difficult days!

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