05 Aug Our Lady of the Snow
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
The Catholic Church celebrates today the annual feast of the dedication of a very remarkable church at Rome, called St. Mary Ad Nives–” St. Mary of the Snow,” or ” St. Mary Major.” The origin of this church is as follows: In the middle of the fourth century, at the time of Pope Liberius, there resided at Rome a nobleman named John. Although rich in temporal goods, he was still wealthier in those which are not of this world, and his wife was his equal in birth, riches and virtue. They had been married many years without having been blessed with children, although they had often prayed to God for them. At last, they resigned themselves to the will of Providence, and resolved to employ all their wealth in honor of the Blessed Virgin, and make her heir to it, as they had always entertained great devotion for her. They were, as yet, uncertain as to the manner in which they should carry out their intention. They both sought refuge in prayer and alms, begging the Blessed Virgin to teach them how they might best appropriate their possessions to her honor.
Mary, the Divine Mother, deigned to make her wishes known to them. Appearing to them both in the night, she told them to go, on the following day, which was the fifth of this month, to the Aesquiline mount, in Rome, and to build a church in her honor on the spot which they would find covered with snow. This, she added, would be more agreeable to her than anything else they could do. When they awoke next morning and told each other their dream or rather their vision, they were filled with inexpressible joy, and immediately repaired to Pope Liberius to hear his opinion on the subject. As the Pope had had the same vision the same night, there was no longer reason to doubt the truth of the revelation. Assembling the clergy and people without delay, the Pontiff formed a procession to go to the appointed spot.
When they arrived there, they saw, in truth, a place large enough for a church, covered with snow. All were greatly surprised at this, which they could not but consider a miracle, since it was in the midst of summer, on the fifth of August, when neither in Rome nor within many miles of it, any snow could naturally have fallen. The pious couple drew from this fact the greatest comfort, as it was an indication that the Almighty and the Blessed Virgin were pleased with their intention. Therefore, hesitating no longer, they forthwith made all the necessary preparations for building a magnificent temple. The building was begun and very soon completed. All that was needed for its erection, as well as for its maintenance, was joyfully furnished. Pope Liberius most solemnly consecrated the new temple; and all the faithful went to it to venerate the Queen of Heaven. At first, this church was called the Basilica, signifying a palace, or the Liberian Basilica, on account of its royal magnificence. It was also called St. Mary ad Nives, for the reason mentioned above. Today it is known as the St. Mary Major, or the Great, as it is the greatest of all the churches of Rome built in honor of the Blessed Virgin, on account of its origin, magnificence and rich endowment. It is also called St. Mary ad Praesepe–St. Mary of the Manger–because in one of its chapels, the crib or manger, in which the new-born Saviour was placed by His virgin mother, is kept.
Pope Gregory the Great, in 509, formed and led the great precession, celebrated in the annals of the church, to implore God, through the intercession of Mary, to avert the dreadful pestilence which ravaged Rome. Its fury somewhat abated, but as it was still in the city, the Pope, in the following year, formed a second precession, headed by the picture of the Blessed Virgin painted by St. Luke, which is kept in the church of St. Mary ad Nives. During the procession, the pestilence left all those houses by which the picture passed, until, at last, when the faithful dispersed, the whole city was free from the terrible scourge. Another miraculous event occurred during the procession, which must not be omitted. Angels were heard singing: “Rejoice, O Queen of Heaven, Alleluia. He whom thou didst deserve to bear, Alleluia! is risen as He said, Alleluia!” The holy Pope, prostrating himself with all the people, finished the angels' hymn of praise with the words: “Pray for us to God, Alleluia!” When the procession had reached the Mausoleum, or tomb of the Emperor Adrian, the Pope saw upon its summit an angel sheathing his sword, as a sign that the wrath of the Almighty was appeased by the intercession of Mary, and that the pestilence which had so long ravaged the city, would disappear. The rejoicing of the people, and the devotion which was from that time shown to the miraculous picture of the Blessed Virgin, cannot be worthily described. (2)
Improbable as it is for snow to fall during August in Rome, history tells of a snowfall that seemed more impossible. August 5, 352, snow fell during that night.
Legend has it that there lived in the Eternal City a nobleman, John and his childless wife, who had been blessed with much of this world’s goods. They chose the Mother of God as the heir to their fortune, and at the suggestion of Pope Liberius, prayed that she might make known to them how to do this by a particular sign.
In answer, the Virgin Mother during the night of August 5, appeared to John and his wife and also to the Holy Father, Pope Liberius, directing them to build a church in her honor on the crown of the Esquiline Hill. And what would be the sign that John and his wife had requested?
“Snow will cover the crest of the hill.”
Snow rarely falls in Rome, but the flakes fell silently during that night, blanketing the peak of the historic hill. In the morning the news quickly spread and crowds gathered to throng up the hill and behold the white splendor. The snow had fallen in a particular pattern, showing the outline of the future church. When it became known that the snow was a sign from Mary, the people spontaneously added another to her long list of titles, Our Lady of the Snows.
Since the 7th century the Church was known also as Maria ad Præsepe because the Basilica has some pieces of wood from the Manger in which Our Lord was born. The ceiling of the Basilica is gilded with the first gold that came from the Americas. This was the first church in Rome to be dedicated to Our Lady. In the 4th century Pope Liberius added a lateral hall to a large existing hall of a Roman patrician palace and dedicated it to the cult; for this reason it was called the Basilica Liberii [Liberian Basilica]. Pope Sixtus III (432-440) restored it almost a century later and dedicated it to the Virgin, who the Council of Ephesus had defined as Theotokos, that is, the Mother of God. It was then that the Basilica received the name of Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria Mayor.
To commemorate the Miracle of the Snow, every August 5th a cascade of white petals descends from the coffered ceiling onto the altar place during the religious festivities.
It was in this church that one Christmas night Our Lady placed the Divine Infant into the arms of St Cajetan of Thiene. It was here on another Christmas night that St Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass. In this church, St Pius V prayed the Rosary that obtained for the Catholic warriors the victory of Lepanto. There is a chapel in the Basilica that has a picture of Our Lady that, according to tradition, was painted by St Luke. St Charles Borromeo used to pray often in front of this Madonna, and in testimony of his gratitude to her, he wrote the Rule of the Canons of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Originally the feast was celebrated only at St Maria Maggiore; in the fourteenth century it was extended to all the churches of Rome and finally it was made a universal feast by Pius V. Clement VIII raised it from a feast of double rite to double major. The mass is the common one for feasts of the Blessed Virgin; the office is also the common one of the Bl. Virgin, with the exception of the second Nocturn, which is an account of the alleged miracle. The congregation, which Benedict XIV instituted for the reform of the Breviary in 1741, proposed that the reading of the legend be struck from the Office and that the feast should again receive its original name, “Dedicatio Sanctæ Mariæ”. (4)
You tube: Uploaded on Aug 5, 2010
Rome, August 5, 2010: Feast of the Dedication of the Liberian Basilica. Solemn Pontifical Mass sung by the Cardinal Archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major. At the intonation of the Gloria, white petals begin to fall from an opening in the ceiling and rain down as snow for the duration of the hymn.
Image: cropped Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. Artist: Masolino de Panicale, circa: 1st third of 15th century
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff