In the midst of yet another horrendously hot summer, the charming medieval legend of the miraculous snowfall that supposedly fell on Rome’s Esquiline Hill on this date in the mid-4th-century seems especially appealing.
Even before global warming, August in Rome has always been hot. Hence, the manifestly miraculous character of that legendary August 5 snowfall. The story itself, commemorated annually with a shower of white rose petals from the dome of the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major, was first reported several centuries after the supposed event and so may well have no serious historical basis. The event which does have real history, of course, is the actual dedication on that site and on this date of the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). From 1568 to 1969, the legend of the miraculous snowfall was incorporated into the official title of today’s feast as Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives.
Built to commemorate the Council of Ephesus (431) which affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (a manageable walk from the Rome’s Termini railroad station) is one of the four principal papal basilicas (along with Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls) and one of my personal favorites.
The smallest of the four principal papal basilicas, Saint Mary Major is, of course, quite large in comparison with most ordinary churches in Rome or elsewhere. Its design is classical basilica style with a wide nave, two side aisles, and a semicircular apse at one end of the nave (the basic model Isaac Hecker was attracted to in planning his design for the Paulist Mother Church in New York). Its 14th-century bell tower is Rome’s highest. Its 16th-century ceiling is gilded with gold, supposedly brought back from Spain’s newly conquered American empire. Under the papal altar is a crystal reliquary which supposedly contains wood from the original crib of Jesus in Bethlehem (photo). Back in the glory days of the Roman “stational churches,” this was the site of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Midnight Stational Mass. (In fact, Saint Mary Major served as the "Stational Church" on 12 occasions during the year - including the 1st and 3rd Masses of Christmas, the 4 Ember Wednesdays, and the main Mass on Easter Sunday). The Bethlehem connection is augmented by the tomb there of Saint Jerome. Saint Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass in that crypt on Christmas Day in 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!)
And then there is the basilica’s beautiful Borghese Chapel, which houses the famous image of Mary Salus Populi Romani (“Safety 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 present parish church, and people are encouraged to pray there for Hecker's canonization cause.. In 1953, the image was carried through Rome to begin the first Marian year in the Church's history. The next year, Pope Pius XII (who had celebrated his First Mass in the Borghese Chapel) crowned it when he established the new feast of the Queenship of Mary. Pope Francis has regularly visited Saint Mary Major to pray before the Salus Populi Romani image in connection with his apostolic journeys
All in all, it’s a wonderful old church - a Roman treasure for the whole Church!
The 1st reading for today’s Mass is taken from Revelation 21 - John’s vision of a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Then, John heard a loud voice saying: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.” God’s "dwelling with the human race" is first and foremost his Son, the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and then the Church, the Body of Christ extended in space and time, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. We build church buildings as places for the Body of Christ to assemble. As such, a church building becomes an icon of the Church community itself. Hence, churches are true treasures. They are treasures not just of beauty and art – although the best of them certainly are that – but privileged places treasured above all as effective signs of God’s presence in people’s lives and of his continuing action in our world here and now.
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