Each year on Aug. 5 the Church liturgical calendar commemorates the dedication of St. Mary Major (in Italian, Santa Maria Maggiore), one of the five great ancient basilicas in Rome. Why would that event be a feast day for the universal Church? What is our connection to the dedication of a building that took place in Italy over 1,500 years ago?
The history of this church is rooted in the role of Mary as the Mother of God. Its story begins with a fourth-century legend.
According to this legend, living in Rome around the year A.D. 350 was a wealthy and childless couple who, upon their death, wanted their earthly possessions used in a way that would honor the Virgin Mother. They prayed earnestly for divine guidance. Mary appeared to the husband in a dream, requesting that a church be built for her on a site where snow would fall in midsummer.
The couple quickly reported Mary’s request to Pope Liberius (reigned 352-366), who claimed to have had a similar dream. On Aug. 5, at the height of the summer heat, snow miraculously fell on an area of Rome called Esquiline Hill, defining the floor plan of the church.
Here, the legend concludes, the first Christian church in honor of the Virgin Mary was built. It was called the Liberian Basilica after Pope Liberius.
Archaeological and other evidence suggests that the legend has no historical basis. No mention whatsoever is made of the story until several hundred years later; even the dedicatory inscription of St. Sixtus III, placed on the church in the fifth century, says nothing about it.
Nevertheless, this basilica, rebuilt and magnificently adorned over the centuries, has been a rallying point for popes and laypeople, for Romans and pilgrims alike, to venerate the maternity and life of the Blessed Mother.
The Mother of God
Extensive reconstruction and expansion of the original basilica took place following the ecumenical Council of Ephesus held in 431. That assembly was called specifically to settle a controversy regarding Mary’s title as the Mother of God.
Nestorius, who had become the patriarch (archbishop) of Constantinople in 428, had used his prominent position to preach the heretical doctrine that Mary was only the Mother of Christ (Christotokos), not the Mother of God (Theotokos; literally, “God-bearer”).
He and others claimed that there were two separate persons, one human and one divine, within Jesus Christ; and that the human person born of Mary, who was crucified, died, buried and resurrected was not divine.
Consequently, Nestorius and his followers argued that Mary could not be called “Mother of God,” because she was the mother only of the human person in Jesus, not the divine Person.
Leading the opposition to the Nestorian heresy was St. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt. Cyril helped to clarify the Church’s understanding that Jesus is not two persons. Rather, he was born one Person in whom are united two natures, one fully human and one fully divine. That one Person is the divine, eternal Son of God.
When Mary gave birth to the Word made flesh, she was giving birth to that one divine Person in two natures. Accordingly, Mary is rightfully called the Mother of God.
This controversy was brought to a head at the council in Ephesus during June and July 431. Nearly 200 bishops gathered there. They deposed Nestorius and declared that Mary is truly the Mother of God.
The decision of the council was widely acclaimed and increased the veneration of Mary throughout Christendom. In her Magnificat, Mary had said, “All generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48, RSV). Now, and for all eternity, not only would she be called blessed, but she would be duly known by the name of highest dignity, Mother of God.
Though the Council of Ephesus officially condemned Nestorius and the heresy he promoted, the controversy continued to fester. Accordingly, Pope St. Sixtus III (d. 440), who became pope one year after the council ended, immediately began to rebuild the Liberian Basilica. Upon completion of the renovations, he dedicated it to Mary, the Mother of God.
This action by Pope Sixtus further affirmed the Holy See’s approval of the council’s dogmatic declaration in Ephesus. It also linked forever this Roman basilica to Our Lady’s divine motherhood.
For awhile the basilica was known as St. Mary of the Crib after it obtained a relic of the Holy Crib, believed to be the one in which Jesus was laid at His nativity. This relic was carried to Rome by Christian refugees from the Holy Land fleeing the Muslim invasion of the seventh century. The basilica still hosts a procession of the Holy Crib every year on Christmas Day.
Upon his election in 1566, Pope St. Pius V had the responsibility to implement and enforce the decisions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which included condemnation of Protestant errors and affirmation of Mary as the Mother of God. In response to the Protestant reformation, renewed and increased Marian devotion began to spread among the Catholic faithful.
Seeking to perpetuate this renewal, Pope Pius introduced the feast of the Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snow onto the Church liturgical calendar, which further emphasized and continually honored the divine motherhood of Mary. While such a feast day had long been observed locally in Rome, it was not part of the universal calendar until 1568.
To commemorate this event, each year on Aug. 5 white rose petals are dropped from the dome during the festal Mass.
The basilica was fully restored and renovated in the 18th century. Its present façade and most of its interior decorations date from this period. Even so, it still contains elements from its ancient beginnings, including a number of marble columns and several fifth-century mosaics. It also features a 240-foot medieval bell tower, the highest in Rome.
The church finally was named St. Mary Major because it is the largest and most eminent of all the 26 churches now in Rome named in honor of the Blessed Mother. In 1969, following the Second Vatican Council, the name of the Aug. 5 celebration was revised to “The Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.”
Simultaneously, the feast was identified as an optional memorial, meaning the celebration is not obligatory but at the discretion of the priest offering Mass. The feast day is always proclaimed in Rome.
Since St. Mary Major is a patriarchal basilica, it contains a papal altar used only by the pope himself or a priest to whom he has given special permission. Customarily, the Pope celebrates Mass here each year on the feast of the Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15).
Some relics of the True Cross are preserved in the church, housed in a 14th-century cross-shaped reliquary. An urn on the altar contains the relics of St. Matthew and other martyrs of ancient times.
St. Jerome (c. 341-420), a Doctor of the Church who first translated the entire Bible into Latin, is buried here. Several popes are buried here as well.
The basilica is also home to the celebrated icon of the Blessed Virgin known as Salus Populi Romani (“Health of the Roman People”). This name comes from a miracle in which the icon helped shield the city from the approach of the plague. Legend claims that it was painted from life by St. Luke the Evangelist, but most scholars agree that it dates from the 13th century.
A museum beneath the church features ancient Roman ruins discovered there: two wells, a section of a Roman road, a mosaic pavement, and a series of arches and passageways cut into the bedrock.
Witness to Our Lady
The feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major is not intended simply to call our attention to a legend or dedication of a beautiful church. Rather, it reminds us that Catholic Christians throughout history have believed and continue to believe that the young Jewish girl named Mary, chosen among all women to be the fleshly tabernacle of Jesus, is indeed the Mother of God.
This belief is an established truth, a dogma of the Catholic faith. St. Mary Major Basilica stands as an earthly symbol of that important reality.