5 August – Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major: Our Lady of the Snows – Patronage – Italy, Reno, Nevada, diocese of, Conco, Italy, Rovereto, Italy, San Marco in Lamis, Italy, Susa, Italy, Torre Annunziata, Italy, Utah.
Today, 5 August, we celebrate the feast (optional memorial) of the Dedication of the Papal Basilica of Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome. This grand basilica is also known as the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Snow (Santa Maria ad Nives ) due to a miraculous snowfall occurring there during the hot summer months and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Crib (Santa Maria ad Præsepe), from the relics of the holy crib or manger of Bethlehem, in which Christ was laid at His birth, housed within.
Saint Mary Major takes it’s name from two references to greatness (“major”): first, it is the largest church in the world dedicated to Our Blessed Mother; second, that it is one of four Papal (or major) basilicas. Together with Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, these four basilicas were formerly referred to as the five “patriarchal basilicas” of Rome, associated with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom.
Saint John Lateran: represents Rome, the See of Peter
Saint Paul outside the Walls: represents the See of Alexandria
Saint Peter: represents the See of Constantinople
Saint Lawrence outside the Walls: represents the See of Jerusalem
Saint Mary Major: represents the See of Antioch, where Mary spent the majority of her life.
Also known as the Liberian Basilica, as it was presided over by Pope Liberius, this Basilica housed one of the earliest Christian congregations of Rome. It is also the only Roman basilica that retained the core of its original structure(432-440), left intact despite several construction projects and damage from the great earthquake of 1348.
The beginnings of Saint Mary Major date to the Constantinian period (300s AD), under the direction of Pope Liberius. According to Holy Legend, as recounted in the Breviary:
“Liberius was on the chair of Peter (352-366) when the Roman patrician John and his wife, who was of like nobility, vowed to bequeath their estate to the most Holy Virgin and Mother of God, for they had no children to whom their property could go. The couple gave themselves to assiduous prayer, beseeching Mary to make known to them in some way what pious work they should subsidizse in her honour.
Mary answered their petition and confirmed her reply by means of the following miracle. On the fifth of August — a time when it is unbearably hot in the city of Rome — a portion of the Esquiline would be covered with snow during the night. During that same night the Mother of God directed John and his wife in separate dreams to build a church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the site where they would see snow lying. For it was in this manner that she wanted her inheritance to be used. John immediately reported the whole matter to Pope Liberius and he declared that a similar dream had come to him. Accompanied by clergy and people, Liberius proceeded on the following morning in solemn procession to the snow-covered hill and there marked off the area on which the church in Mary’s honour was to be constructed.”
Each year on August fifth, a solemn Mass is offered to celebrate the Miracle of the Snows. During the Mass, white rose petals are dropped from the coffered ceiling, covering the floor, celebrating and re-creating the miraculous snowfall of the fourth century. At sunset on the same day, an artificial “snowfall” is staged as a tourist attraction in the square outside the basilica.
Following construction of the grand basilica, Pope Liberius presided over Masses for the congregation. Under Pope Sixtus III (432-440) the basilica was rebuilt. Following the Council of Ephesus, led by St Cyril of Alexandria, Mary was definitively declared the Theotokos —the Divine Mother of God—and the basilica was consecrated in her honour. The basilica was decorated with mosaics from the lives of Christ and Our Blessed Mother, which have survived until today. Also present is the oldest surviving image of the Blessed Virgin. Known as the Salus Populi Romani, (The Health of the Roman People), this icon is credited with saving Rome from the plague. Thought to have been painted by John the Evangelist, radiocarbon dating has placed the age of this icon at approximately two thousand years old.
As early as the end of the fourth century a replica of the Bethlehem nativity grotto had been added, including relics of the manger of Christ. On this account the edifice became known as “St. Mary of the Crib.” The crib resembles an ordinary manger but is kept in a case of silver and in it lies an image of a little child, also of silver. On Christmas day the holy manger is taken out of the case and exposed. It is kept in a subterraneous chapel in this church and throughout history, saints, including Saint Jerome, have written about this holy relic—both when it resided in Bethlehem and after its relocation to Rome.
The Basilica of Saint Mary Major – (no Catholic church can be honoured with the title of “basilica” unless by apostolic grant or from immemorial custom. St Mary Major is one of the only four that hold the title of “major basilica) is important to Christendom for three important reasons:
1) The basilica stands as a venerable monument to the Council of Ephesus (431), during which the dogma of Mary’s divine Motherhood was solemnly defined. The definition of the Council occasioned a most notable increase in the veneration paid to Mary.
2) The basilica is Rome’s “church of the crib,” a Bethlehem within the Eternal City. It also is a celebrated station church, serving, for instance, as the center for Rome’s liturgy for the first Mass on Christmas. In some measure every picture of Mary with the divine Child is traceable to this church due to the surviving Salus Populi Romani.
3) Saint Mary Major is Christendom’s first Marian shrine for pilgrims. It set the precedent for the countless shrines where pilgrims gather to honour Our Blessed Mother throughout the world. Here was introduced an authentic expression of popular piety that has been the source of untold blessings and graces for Christianity in the past as in the present.