St. Mary Major

Today is one of those peculiarly Catholic feast days where we celebrate not a person, but an event: the Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, the smallest of the four great patriarchal basilicas in the Eternal City.

The roots of the Basilica (the oldest Church dedicated to Mary in Rome) were formed by a miraculous snowfall in Rome which outlined the shape of the Basilica which Mary wanted built in her honor.  (The snowfall is commemorated on August 5’s Feast of Our Lady of Snows.)  Built in the 350’s by Pope Liberius, it still stand much the same, although it has been renovated and restored several times.

It is an intimate setting for Rome, and as is usual, the Basilica erupts after rounding the corner.  The gilded ceiling ( The gold used here is said to be the first gold brought from the New World, given by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.) seems to glow no matter the light, and the various chapels and crypts contain the remains of many famous Romans who wanted to give their life to Mary, most notably the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famed Renaissance architect of Rome, whose fingerprints are all over the city.  (He is the master craftsman of the Baldachino in St. Peter’s and of the great Piazza San Pietro, perhaps the most enduring image of Rome in most people’s mind, even though the Piazza is technically not even in Rome, but the Vatican City.)  His tomb is marked by a small engraving just to the right of the High Altar as you look from the Nave of the Church, usually marked by a set of theatre ropes.  For more information, see the Churches of Rome Wiki site, with all the usual caveats about user contributed wiki pages.

Two personal stories: When I visited Rome in February with my parents, we were staying in a small B&B near this Basilica.  After the long plane flight and cab ride into the city, we needed to stretch the legs and decided to take the quick jaunt over to the basilica.  As mom, especially, walked in, her mouth was agape: “This place is HUGE!”  “Umm,” I replied, “this is the small one (of the four).”  She didn’t really believe me until we visited St. Peter’s two days later, then even dad was agape at the size. 

A few days later, we had the privelige of celebrating Mass together in St. Mary Major, in one of the crypt chapels in the Pauline Chapel.  It was quite the experience, for me and mom and dad.  This was also the Church where the sacristan gave me the roughest time about celebrating Mass.  Go in to St. Peter’s, no problem; St. John Lateran, no big deal; here: “You are priest?” ‘Yes’ “You are good priest?” ‘I try.’ “You pray hard?” ‘again, I try’ He smiled, and said “Yes, Father, you say Mass here.”

For the pilgrim to Rome, a stop at Mary Major is a must.

(Why ‘Mary Major’ you ask?  Simply, every other Church in Rome, it seems, is dedicated to Our Lady, so they are distinguished by either the area of town or some particular title of Mary.  ‘Major’ here refers to both its antiquity and its size as the largest of the Marian Churches.)

Fr. Schnippel


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