Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dedication of Mary Major Basilica

Altar of the Icon

Having lived in Rome for over a year, St. Mary Major Basilica was certainly one of my favorite places to attend Mass, especially on a major feast day.

Those who attend the Vespers Service on August 5th are given a grand surprise.  Two of our Sisters were able to be present last year and recounted the occasion:

The evening ceremonies began with the recitation of the Rosary, followed by the chanting of Evening Prayer presided by Cardinal Law and ended with the celebration of the feast day Mass. The Basilica was crowded with pilgrims and the "locals." We managed to find seats in the side section in front of the chapel of Our Lady of the Snows. This positioned us for the perfect view of the "snow shower" during the Evening Prayer Magnificat. Throughout the entire chanting of this hymn white flower petals gently fell from an opening in the ceiling of the basilica. Truly it was magnificent and the Italians clapped enthusiastically. Afterward they pushed their way into the area where they could gather flower petals. It was delightful to watch these dear Italian ladies walk back with arms loaded with flower petals, stuffing them in their purses and handing them out to others. Our Lady must have smiled...

This particular display represents the snow fall on August 5th, which marked the spot for the Basilica. If you have ever been in Rome during August, you would understand why this event was such a great miracle. The local Italians leave the city every August due to the unbearable heat. So a snowfall that time of the year was a sure sign of a heavenly visitation.

According to tradition, a Roman patrician named John owned some property on the Esquiline hill, one of the 7 main hills in Rome. After marriage, this pious couple decided to dedicate their wealth to Mary and ask Our Lady what she would like done with the property. She appeared in a dream to each separately expressing her wish for a Church and said they would know the spot the next morning. During the same night, Pope Liberius, was also informed in a dream of Our Lady's wishes. The next morning, the Holy Father, met the pious couple on the Esquiline hill and there in snow lay the outline of the Church. Wishing to comply with Our Lady's desires, the basilica was begun and complete in the year 360. The “Liberian basilica” was rebuilt by Pope Sixtus III shortly after the Council of Ephesus affirmed Mary’s title as Mother of God in 431. Then the Basilica was rededicated to her under that title.

Whether legend or fact, the important point is that this Basilica is the Mother of all Churches. The largest Church dedicated to the Mother of God. It celebrates the famous icon of the Virgin Mary, sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Snows, but better known as Salus Populi Romani, or Health of the Roman People because through her intercession a miracle stopped a plague from reaching the city. In the Crypt of the Nativity, below the main altar, the Basilica houses the relic of the Holy Crib of the Nativity of Our Lord. If you are ever able to travel to Rome, I would suggest that you go during the Christmas season. Christmas in Rome is absolutely fantastic!

From the Homily of Pope Benedict, Feast of Mary, Mother of God, 2010

“Among the many typologies of icons of the Virgin Mary in the Byzantine tradition is the one called "of tenderness" that portrays the Child Jesus with his face resting, cheek to cheek, against his Mother's. The Child gazes at the Mother and she is looking at us, almost as if to mirror for those who are observing and praying the tenderness of God who came down to her from Heaven and was incarnate in the Son of man, whom she holds in her arms. We can contemplate in this Marian image something of God himself: a sign of the ineffable love that impelled him "to give his Only Son" (cf. Jn 3: 16). But that same icon also shows us, in Mary, the face of the Church which reflects Christ's light upon us and upon the whole world, the Church through which the Good News reaches every person: "You are no longer a slave but a son" (Gal 4: 7), as once again we read in St Paul.”

Basilica at Christmas.


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