St. Mary Major: A Visible Sign of the Universal Church
August 5th Readings Reflection: Optional Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome
Today is the feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major, one of the four major papal basilicas in Rome. It is the largest church in Rome to be dedicated to Our Lady. The history of this beautiful basilica is very fascinating, beginning with an ancient legend.
The legend holds that around the year 350 A.D., a wealthy Roman couple prayed for a way to honour the Blessed Virgin with their wealth. The couple had no children, so they wanted to give everything to Our Lady instead of an earthly heir. On the night of August 5 of that year, snow fell on a certain hill in Rome despite the heat of summer. The couple recognized this as their sign from heaven and built a basilica dedicated to Our Lady on the spot. Every year on this feast, a shower of white roses is thrown from the dome of St. Mary Major in memory of the miraculous snow. It is from this miracle that we honour Mary with the title Our Lady of the Snows.
The basilica has undergone some architectural developments since 350 A.D., most notably in the fifth century, after the Counsel of Ephesus solemnly declared Mary to be the Mother of God. Many of the beautiful mosaics that still adorn the basilica walls today date back to the fifth century. The mosaics visually recount the events of the Old Testament, showing how these events found their fulfillment in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection.
St. Mary Major houses a very precious relic: the wood from the manger in Bethlehem that became Jesus’ Crib. The basilica is also home to the famous Marian icon Salus Populi Romani, or Health/Salvation of the Rome People. According to tradition, St. Luke painted this icon, and it is interesting to note that he knew Our Lady personally, so his artistic depictions of her would be very accurate. Pope St. Gregory the Great carried this icon in a procession through Rome during a plague, earning its title Health of the Rome People. St. Jerome and Pope St. Pius V, along with several other popes, are buried in the basilica.
The final line of the reading for today’s feast, observed as an optional Memorial, is particularly appropriate for the history of St. Mary Major: “The One [W]ho sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” The fourth century basilica of St. Mary Major allows us to experience a glimpse of eternity while still on earth. The basilica and its ancient mosaics remind us that the Catholic Church will endure until Christ’s Second Coming. Ours is truly the Faith of our fathers, the same Faith that has been passed down unchanged from the Apostles. The Basilica of St. Mary Major stands as a reminder that the Catholic Church is the one true church founded by Christ Himself, with traditions that have endured for millennia and that will continue to endure until Christ comes again.