Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stational Church: Santa Maria Maggiore

Today's stational church is the Patriarchal Basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Snows for the miraculous snow in summer.

The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a fourth century Roman couple that was childless and had decided to leave their fortune to the Mother of God. She appeared to them in a dream and told them to build a church in her honor on the Esquiline Hill, promising a miracle to confirm her desire. The miracle came in a bizarre snowfall on August 5, 353 – the hottest month in Rome – that outlined the plan for her church on the Esquiline Hill. The Virgin has been invoked, since that time, as Our Lady of the Snow. After the Council of Ephesus in 431, which affirmed the title of Our Lady as Mother of God, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) erected the present basilica and dedicated it to the holy Mother of God. It was later called Saint Mary Major because it is the oldest church in the West dedicated to her honor.

As early as the seventh century, the crypt beneath the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was arranged as a reproduction of the cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The Christmas crib here is one of the finest in the world, dating to the thirteenth century. St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church and translator of the Bible into Latin in the fourth century, is buried in the crypt. Since he lived as a hermit next to the cave in Bethlehem, it was thought fitting to preserve his relics here, in the “Bethlehem of Rome.” St. Ignatius of Loyola offered his first Mass at the Cosmatesque altar in the crypt. The statue opposite the altar is by Bernini, depicting St. Cajetan holding the Holy Child. In a letter the saint wrote to a nun in Brescia, he explained that when he was once lost in prayer at this spot, the Holy Child climbed into his arms. Bernini himself is buried here in his family’s tomb, in the floor of the 13th-century chapel on the right-side of the church, near the door leading out of the church.

In the confessio, St. Matthias the Apostle is buried. He was the thirteenth Apostle, elected after Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. Above the altar in the confessio is a reliquary which holds five pieces of wood, said to be from the Santa Culla, the Holy Manger that held Christ in Bethlehem. The relics are displayed on the 25th of each month – but a group of pilgrims can always ask the sacristan to see them at other times. Also contained in this church is the famous icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, in the seventeenth-century Pauline Chapel., and one of the oldest Christian mosaics in a church in Rome (432-440) above the ancient nave columns made from Athenian marble. Finally, the relics of Pope St. Pius V are in the large chapel to the right.

In August, white rose petals are dropped from the ceiling to commemorate the miracle of snows. The obelisk behind the apse is in the same axis as the obelisk at St. John Lateran. The facade contains a large mosaic above the portico which simulates an outdoor apse and turns the piazza into an open air church during the pilgrim procession of the Feast of the Assumption.

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