Since his election as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has made many trips to the Basilica of St. Mary Major where he has prayed before the icon of Our Lady, the Help of Rome. Today the Church remembers the dedication of that basilica.
St. Mary Major is one of four basilicas in Rome. Even though it is located outside the Vatican itself, it is owned by the Holy See and enjoys the privilege accorded to an embassy of a foreign state. Its staff, including the protective detail, comes from the Vatican itself. It is called "Major" because it is the largest Marian Shrine in Rome. Like the other three major basilicas of Rome, it can be entered through a "holy door" which is opened only in Jubilee years. Housed below the main altar are what are reputed to be the remains of the manger in which Our Lady laid the new-born Christ child.
The basilica is also known as Our Lady of the Snows. This name comes from an ancient legend involving a wealthy Roman childless couple who decided to leave their earthly possessions to the Church. In prayer they asked the Blessed Mother for guidance as to how they were to distribute their wealth. At the height of the Roman summer, on August 5, an unexplained phenomenon occurred during which the Esquiline Hill was covered with snow. On this site, the couple resolved to build a shrine to the Blessed Mother in obedience to a vision of the Blessed Mother that they had that very night. In commemoration of that legend, a shower of white rose petals descends from the dome of the basilica at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy on the Feast of Dedication.
Though the name of the basilica was changed in 1969 to St. Mary Maggiore (Major), the legend and the couple who commissioned the basilica remind us that devotion to our Blessed Mother has always been an integral part of the life of the Church. Our present Holy Father continues that long tradition through his obvious love of Mary.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator