Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore (Pic Source)

In this column, we continue our series on the Papal Basilicas with a church that is dear to the heart of Pope Francis: Santa Maria Maggiore. Before and after each apostolic journey, our Holy Father arrives at this Basilica to lay a bouquet of flowers before an image of Our Lady, asking her intercession for a safe journey and a successful mission. Although various modifications have been made to the Basilica over the years, the core of the structure dates back to the early 5th c., making Santa Maria Maggiore perhaps the oldest church in the world that is dedicated to Our Lady.
Another title given to this Basilica is “Our Lady of the Snows”. This name derives from a legend that surrounds the initial building of the Church. In one version of the story, the Basilica was built on the site upon which snow miraculously fell during the height of the Roman summer, on August 5th. On this date, the Universal Church continues to celebrate the dedication of this ancient Church. During the ceremony each year that occurs in the Basilica itself, there is a very interesting custom. In the special Mass, during the Gloria, one of the ceiling panels above the altar is opened and white flower petals are released, cascading upon the congregants below. This is done to call to mind the snow that was reported to have fallen when construction on the Basilica began some 1500 years ago. After the Mass is completed, those who were at the Mass hurry to try to take some of the flower petals as a special souvenir! Another special, annual celebration that occurs at Santa Maria Maggiore is the Eucharistic Procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi. This procession begins at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. From there, the Holy Father accompanies a Monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament along Via Merulana as far as Santa Maria Maggiore. There, the Pope gives the people a Benediction from the porch of the Basilica.
In addition to its long history, the Basilica is significant because of the art and relics found within. The Church is covered with many beautiful mosaics, some of which date from the 5th c. and were probably commissioned to celebrate Mary having been officially recognized with the title “Theotokos” or “God Bearer” at the Council of Ephesus in 431. At this Council, Mary was given this appellation in order to defend our belief in Jesus. Since we believe that Jesus was, from his conception, true God and true man, the child that Mary of Nazareth gave birth to was indeed God, making her the bearer of the Divine. In one of the side chapels is found the image of Our Lady called  Salus Populi Romani”. It is this image which Pope Francis normally visits before each major trip and is a particular object of devotion for the people of Rome. Finally, under the main altar is found a reliquary which contains wood that is believed to be from the crib in which Jesus was laid after his birth. This relic was brought to the Basilica sometime in the 6th c.
Each year, on August 5th, the entire Church celebrates the Feast of this great and important Basilica.