By Larry Peterson
This is about the first church ever built for Our Lady. Today it is called the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Latin: Basilica Sanctae Mariae Maioris). It did not start out that way.
I have a pre-Vatican II, St. Joseph Daily Missal which I use for reference. Its Liturgical Calendar lists August 5, as the Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows. If you look in the current 2019 Missalette, you will note that August 5 has the optional memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The name change occurred in 1969 when the General Roman Calendar was revised. It is actually the same feast with a different name.
Historically, (part of which is considered legend) the story goes like this:
There was a patrician man named John, and he and his wife were a devout Christian couple but had not been blessed with children. They did, however, possess a large tract of land. They went to see the Pope, whose name was Liberius. He was the 29th successor to St. Peter and had just been elevated to the Papacy. They told the Pope that they had decided to donate their worldly goods to the Mother of God. They asked him what he thought about that idea. The Holy Father told them to pray and ask the Blessed Mother for a sign to help them decide.
The couple did as the Pope suggested and during the night of August 4th and into the morning of August 5th, 352 A.D., snow fell on the largest of the Seven Hills of Rome; the one known as the Esquiline Hill. This is where John’s land was located. Even though it was during the stifling heat of summer, the snow did not melt.
The snow landed, making an outline on the ground. The same night Our Lady appeared to John and his wife and also to Pope Liberius. She told them she wanted a church built in her honor on the property. The church would be built on the outline laid out by the snow. The land was owned by John. He and his wife happily donated the land to be used for the church as requested by the Mother of God. The Holy Father joyfully accepted.
It is a rare occurrence for snow to fall in Rome in winter, no less in mid-summer. The Pope, along with John and his wife, explained to the gathering crowds what had happened. The news spread like wildfire, and soon the people were chanting, over and over, “Our Lady of the Snows!” “Our Lady of the Snows!”
Pope Liberius ordered that a church be built in Mary’s honor on the site. Work began but was not completed until a century later, under Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Its dedication coincided with the ending of the Council of Ephesus of 431 when Mary was officially declared to be the Mother of God. The finished church was called the Church of Our Lady of the Snows. It was also called the Church of St. Mary of the Crib because it was said that pieces from the crib Our Lord was placed in when he was born were kept in the church.
History tells us that Pope Gregory the Great led the first procession carrying an image of Our Lady from the Church of Our Lady of the Snows to the Church of St. Peter in the year 597 to ask for prayers for the people of Rome who were being decimated by the Black Plague. It is written that St. Michael the Archangel appeared and the plague ended. Over the centuries many other miracles have been attributed to interactions with the church.
It was Pope St. Pius V who inserted the feast day of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Snows into the General Roman Calendar in 1568. It remained there until 1969 when, because of ambiguities in the 4th-century historical accounts of the “summer snowfall,” the feast day was officially changed to the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
Over the centuries many churches have been dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows. There are over 152 in Italy alone. There is the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois and other places in the United States and around the world.
Lastly, on August 5 of each year, upon the conclusion of the Solemn Mass celebrated at the Basilica in Rome, the people commemorate the miraculous snowfall of 352.A.D. by having a shower of white rose petals dropped from the dome of the Chapel of Our Lady. It must be a beautiful sight to behold.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2019