Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome
The history of the Basilica is a charming tale of a popular tradition, of an assured theology and of a healthy devotion.
On the night of August 4-5, 358, snow fell on the Esquiline, one of the seven Hills of Rome. Advised in a dream to build a church in that place in honor of the Virgin Mary, Pope Liberius and a rich and pious layman devoted themselves to this mission. In memory of that, in the course of Vespers of the feast, petals of white roses fall from the vault, to the great joy of the faithful who hurry to gather them, as if they were gold louises. That is the popular tradition.
The early church, undoubtedly modest, disappeared to give way to the splendid Basilica whose dedication we recall today. It was built under the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Now, in 431, at the time of the ecumenical Council held at Ephesus, the Church declared it legitimate to give Mary the name “Mother of God.” It was not, at first, about honoring the Virgin, even less so of transforming her into a goddess, but, rather, to go to the bottom of the Christian faith in the Incarnation. God became man in the person of His Son. He is called Jesus, “God saves,” Emmanuel, “God with us.” He was borne and given birth to by a woman, Mary. She certainly is not the source of his divinity but she is the one through whom the Son, who merits the name “God” as the Father, was really united to humanity. An infinite honor was bestowed on her and also on us. A woman of our race merits being called “Mother of God,” as we say in the “Hail Mary,” Theotokos, the name preferred by the Orientals to designate the Virgin Mary.
The Roman Basilica is the monumental homage that the Church of Rome wished to render without delay to the Mother of God.
However, after having culminated in the most assured theology, let us return to concrete things. Mary gave birth to her Son. This happened at Bethlehem. “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a crib.” This is why Saint Mary Major includes a representation of the crib and, it is said, a relic of the authentic manger. Regardless of the effective historicity, it is beautiful and profoundly Christian, to express the realities of the faith in the very visible signs: it is a “sound devotion.”
This Basilica is very dear to Romans. They invoke the Mother of God there as “salvation of the Roman people.” She is, therefore, dear to the Bishop of Rome. On the day after his election, Pope Francis went there to entrust his ministry to her whom his predecessor, Paul VI, proclaimed, during Vatican Council II, “Mother of the Church.” He returned there just before leaving for the World Youth Day in Brazil. That twofold pilgrimage of Pope Francis is added reason to celebrate fittingly this year the dedication of the Basilica dedicated to the Mother of God.
Come To Me
In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew juxtaposes the prayerful serenity of the mountain on “high” with the roaring chaos of the sea. For many of us, our lives can feel like the restless sea. We constantly encounter all kinds of movements every day that may take us to uncharted waters. Unfortunately we do not always have the advantage of having a mountain top view. Like Peter we look down at the water and the fear sets in. We stop moving forward. We stop taking risks.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s second rule discernment  cautions that a common tactic of the evil spirit is to “bite, sadden, and place obstacles [...] so that a person might not go forward.” He advises that if we are hindered from moving forward because of feelings of fear, weakness, unrest, and distrust, then we should continue moving forward toward that which will lead us to generosity, peace, love, and care for others. In other words, he advocates that persistence overcomes resistance.
Can you locate places in your life where fear has kept you from walking towards God? What might you want to ask of God to help you continue walking towards him?
—Jeffrey Sullivan, S.J., www.jesuitprayer.org
Lord, in many ways we, too, are like Peter. When we take our eyes off of you, life can become overwhelming. Help us to refocus on you and therein remember what really matters in life. We know the waves will come and torrential winds will shake our foundation. There is no escaping this.
But through it all we have your assurance that nothing can separate us from you. Though you might seem so distant, we will not claim this as our truth. Instead you seek us in the dark of night and promise to bring us into the light.
—The Jesuit Prayer Team