Fr. Scott A. Haynes
The story of Our Lady of the Snows dates back to the city of Rome in 352 A.D. A generous nobleman and his wife, blessed with much wealth but childless, chose to leave their wealth to the Mother of God. Though the sentiment of their heart was lively, their desire was difficult to achieve. How would they do such a thing? They prayed to the Blessed Mother asking for her to make known to them some means by which they could leave their wealth to her.
They even asked her for a sign so they could be certain she had heard their prayers. In answer to their petition, during the night of August 5, Our Lady appeared to the nobleman, his wife, and also to the Holy Father, Pope Liberius. She had a solution for their dilemma. She instructed them to build a church in her honor on the top of Esquiline Hill. As an extra means of confirmation, she told them snow would cover the hill’s crest. And snow it did! Snow in Rome in August!
Flakes fell steadily through the night covering the hill in a blanket of white. When the townspeople found out that the snow was a sign from the Blessed Mother, they named her “Our Lady of the Snows.” Per Our Lady’s instructions, the nobleman and his wife built the Church and it became known as the Basilica of Liberius as well as Our Lady of the Snows.
In time, the basilica was given another name to distinguish it from the many other churches in Rome dedicated to the Mother of God which had been established. It became known as St. Mary Major, the first and greatest of all church’s under the patronage of Our Lady.
Queen St. Helena and her son, Emperor St. Constantine, brought to the Basilica from the Holy Land a great Marian treasure – an image of the Madonna and Child known as the “Salus Populi, Romani” (The Protectress of the People of Rome). It is attributed to St. Luke, the apostle and evangelist. Many healings and deliverances from oppressors have been credited to its miraculous intervention.
The Basilica of St. Mary Major has celebrated the Divine Motherhood of Mary since the Council of Ephesus in 432 A.D. when Mary was first proclaimed “Theotokos,” Mother of God. On the Feast Day, August 5, beautiful white roses are released from the ceiling in the Basilica showering the sanctuary in remembrance of the snowfall that led to the building of Our Lady’s first church.
A house is more than a building. When it personifies the family within, it is a home. Or at least it should be. That an office building contains businesses, a house—a family, a barracks—soldiers, and a hotel—guests is merely to cite particular instances of the architectural credo that “form follows function.” Buildings look like what they do. When they don’t, everyone suffers from the incongruities.
A modern sports stadium doesn’t look like a medieval gothic cathedral, because the two architectural forms have two different functions: to entertain and to worship God. Today’s feast commemorates a building, not a person. It is a memorial to the “baptism,” or dedication, of one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Basilica of St. Mary Major (meaning the “greater” or “larger” church of St. Mary) was first built in the 350s, in the decades after the legalization of Christianity in 313, when the Church could finally build big. After the Council of Ephesus’ dogmatic definitions on Mary as the God-bearer in 431, the Basilica was restored and rededicated.
Of the four major basilicas in Rome, St. Mary Major most retains the atmosphere, the “feel,” of antiquity. The sites of the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. John Lateran are ancient, but the present baroque structures date from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. And the ancient, Paleo-Christian Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls burned almost entirely to the ground in 1823.
The present structure is an impressive replica, but relatively modern. The fourth century core of St. Mary Major is, however, intact. It has been embellished, added to, and redecorated over the centuries. Nevertheless, it is to Christian Rome what the Pantheon is to pagan Rome—a complete, entire, and unscathed survivor from a built environment which has otherwise disappeared.
For Catholics, every church is a Domus Dei, a house of God. Whether it is full of one thousand souls, or silent and empty, it is a house of God. A church does not just keep one warm when it is cold, or dry when it is wet. A church does not become such only on Sunday. A church is more than a shelter, just like a home is more than a house. A good church is theology in stone.
It reflects the truths it teaches in its very shape, in its steps, in its arches, windows, doors, lighting, marble, statues, mosaics, floors, and altars. Every Catholic church should be able to pass the “deaf test.” That is, when a hearing-impaired person enters a church, he or she should be able to easily understand what that church is teaching without hearing a single word from the pulpit or one verse sung from the choir.
A religion’s hierarchy of truths should be expressed, in a confident and certain manner, by the structure where that religion’s faithful gather to worship God. One should understand with the eyes. It is not for the Catholic to “shiver in the barn of the Reformation,” as one theologian wrote, and to guess what the building is trying to say.
If God himself were to pull open the immense doors of St. Mary Major, one imagines He would walk down the central nave, look to his His right and to His left, smile, and slowly nod His head in pleasure and agreement. There, in an ornate chapel to the right, is Pope Saint Pius V.
“How well he guided the rudder of my ship on earth.”
There, under the altar, are the bones of Saint Jerome.
“O cantankerous Jerome, you gave my Church the definitive text of my Word.”
There, below the high altar, is a relic of the manger of Christ.
“And there it all started. Resting in that wood, My Son brought the Old Testament to an end.”