Friday, August 5, 2022

Snow in August

It is a safe expectation that one political party will vote in favor of the new Reconciliation Bill with its positive climate provisions and that the other party will vote against it, stubbornly persisting in refusing to respond adequately the reality of climate change, even while the “facts on the ground” (heatwaves, fires, floods, etc.) seem to mock such ideological intransigence. In the midst of yet another horrendous heat wave, which is oppressing so much of the U.S. right now, the Church gives us the edifying image of snow during the worst heat of summer. 


55 years ago, at an extremely difficult time in my life, I had occasion to attend 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. 

Even before global warming, August in Rome has always been hot. Hence, the manifestly miraculous character of that legendary August snowfall. The story itself was first reported several centuries after the supposed event and so may well lack a 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 Basilica by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Built to commemorate the Council of Ephesus (431) which affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” the Basilica of St. Mary Major is one of the four principal papal basilicas (along with St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) and one of the seven traditional pilgrimage churches of Rome (the four papal basilicas plus the basilicas of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and Saint Sebastian outside the Walls).


It is a classical basilica with a wide nave, two side aisles, and a semicircular apse at one end of the nave. Its 14th-century bell tower is Rome’s highest. Its 16th-century ceiling is gilded with gold brought back from Spain’s newly conquered American empire. 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. Back in the glory days of the Roman “stational churches,” this was the site of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Midnight Stational Mass. (By my count, St. Mary Major served as the stational church on 12 occasions during the year in the old Missal - including the 1st and 3rd Masses of Christmas and the main Mass on Easter Sunday).  Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass there on December 25, 1538. (It is said that he 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.) The Bethlehem connection is augmented by the tomb there of St. Jerome, the 4th-century Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate). 


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. In 1857, Servant of God Isaac Hecker prayed before that image after his expulsion from the Redemptorists. Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) celebrated his first Mass in the Borghese chapel in 1899. In 1953, the Salus Populi Romani image was carried through Rome to begin the first Marian year in the Church's history. The following year, Pope Pius XII crowned it when he established the new feast of the Queenship of Mary. Pope Francis has regularly visited the Salus Populi Romani image to pray there in connection with his apostolic journeys, and he invoked Our Lady under that title in the prayer he composed at the beginning of the covid pandemic. 


In light of Saint Mary Major's legendary origin in a miraculous summer snowfall, perhaps she might also be more widely invoked under that title in response to climate change.

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