The site of today’s Marian celebration is a must-visit for any world-traveling Catholics. Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is not only a papal basilica (alongside its neighbor, St. John Lateran, and St. Peter in Vatican City), it’s the largest church dedicated to Mary in Rome. It attracts millions of visitors annually with its spectacular artwork, famous burials, and historic architecture… as well as its utterly unique summer miracle.
A Roman patrician named John and his wife consulted with Pope Liberius in 352 A.D. in regards to the legacy of their wealth. Having no children, the pontiff encouraged the couple to use their blessings to honor God and His Mother. So John and his wife earnestly prayed for Mary’s guidance, and on August 4th the same year, she appeared to John in a dream and clearly articulated her direction.
A church was to be built in her honor in a location of her choosing, she revealed to John – and to Pope Liberius, who had a very similar dream. In it, she promised to reveal the church’s spot with an undeniable sign of her guiding hand: a late summer snowfall.
When morning came on August 5th, John and his wife found pristine, clear snow on Esquiline Hill (one of seven notable hills which comprised Rome). The glittering outline of this miracle became the floor plan for the Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, funded entirely by the astounded Roman couple.
The basilica was dedicated on August 5th, 435 A.D. – the feast of Our Lady of the Snows (or, in Latin, Saint Mary ad Nives) – by Pope Sixtus III. It is one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, and although the validity of its founding legend has been questioned by historians, Our Lady of Snows is still frequently celebrated by tourists and locals alike; at the conclusion of the annual Solemn High Mass commemorating its dedication, white rose petals drop like snowflakes from Santa Maria Maggiore’s high dome.
The oldest Marian work inside is Salus Populi Romani (“Protectress of the Roman People”), traditionally believed to have been created by Saint Luke (similar to one origin story of Our Lady of Perpetual Help) and is a simple yet powerful design of Madonna and Child; one of the more recent works, added to the collection shortly after its creation, is Guido Galli’s Ave Regina Pacis.
Also known as the Liberian basilica after its dedicating pope, Saint Mary of the Crib, or its patronal feast name, of Our Lady of the Snows, this Patriarchal Basilica is famous worldwide for the marvelous artwork and the spectacular legend, which has inspired over 150 churches to be named for the miracle in Italy alone. It serves as an immense reminder that Mary’s intercession is incredibly powerful, and that her guidance is certainly varied – devotionals, dreams, and even snowfall in summer!
Our Lady is celebrated under many names, from popular apparitions to small-town titles. Each reveal something different about the Blessed Mother to us – and affirms what we already know of her love and intercessory power! Deepen your devotion to Our Lady with Miracles, Mysteries, & Mary, a monthly collection of stories, Church teaching, reflections, and so much more – guaranteed to expand your knowledge of Our Blessed Mother. Sign up today to receive this Marian content, right to your inbox, and check out our archive page to catch up on our year of Our Lady!