· Vatican City ·


Saint Mary Major, the oldest Marian shrine

The church desired
by the Mother of God

 La chiesa voluta  dalla madre di Dio  DCM-006
03 June 2023

You leave behind the traffic of Rome and the cosmopolitan chaos of the nearby Termini Station, pass under the security detector, and then plunge into the silent and solemn dim light of Saint Mary Major. What strikes you, first of all, is the row of multilingual confessionals that line the two side aisles, in operation for every type of penitent, be that English-Italian, Italian-Polish, Spanish-French, German, Portuguese, and more besides. The indications are clear, there is no risk of mistaking the speaker, and sinners line up for their turn.  We share a desire for spirituality mixed with the contemplation of art, an intimate relationship with God and the stunning beauty found there. Beyond the inevitable selfies, guided tours, and stops in front of the basilica’s treasures listed on every tourist map, people come here to pray. Following the Marian cult that is incessantly disseminated and promoted through celebrations, meetings, and a series of catechesis. The number is greater of the faithful than of tourists, or rather tourists who have not forgotten to be faithful. In fact, the visitors who in their thousands head here from every corner of the planet, flock to this truly special church throughout the year. Saint Mary Major is the largest western sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary and at the same time the oldest papal basilica built following the direct inspiration of Mary who, in 358 A.D., appeared to Pope Liberius and the Roman patrician John asking that a temple be dedicated to her in the place that she would miraculously indicate. The miracle was the unscheduled snowfall that occurred on August 5, right here on the Esquiline Hill, and has been commemorated every year since then on the same date with the scattering of white flowers.

We are therefore in a place of worship that deserves respect, not just another museum. Even the French lady who, caught talking on her mobile phone in front of the Borghese Chapel, ends her call realising this, when she is politely asked to keep quiet by Fr Ivan Ricupero, the tireless master of celebrations. The priest explains, “So many people come here just to gather, in recent times collective religiosity has increased. Beyond visiting the wonders of catechetical art, entering this church represents a spiritual journey”. And it is perhaps for this reason that St Mary Major stands out from the other three papal basilicas, which are essential stops on any tour of Rome, and include the nearby St John Lateran, St Peter, and St Paul Outside the Walls.

There are always many people here, and to show visitors the magnificence of the Cosmatesque mosaics adorning the floor, the pews have been removed from the nave. On Saturdays and feast days, they are relocated for Masses, which are attended mainly by Romans who consider Saint Mary Major their church of reference. Unlike the tourists, the locals are not so impressed by the wonders they are familiar with, such as the majestic golden throne behind the high altar in the centre of the apse, which was donated to Pope Pius XII, then offered to the basilica by Paul VI. During the week, the local faithful mix with groups from all over the world, which include people from Australia, Korea and Latin America, though it is the Spaniards who are the greater in number. The King of Spain is historically awarded the title of honorary protocanon. Felipe VI, who has been on the throne since 2014, has not yet come to receive the title but in the meantime the basilica’s lighting was offered by his father Juan Carlos and wife Doña Sofia who, as a sign in front of the sacristy recalls, attended the inauguration January 19, 2018.

Today, there is the usual crowd swarming from either the Cesi Chapel to the Chapel of the Crucifixion, or from Valadier's gilded baptistery, to Arnolfo di Cambio’s 14th-century nativity scene, from an icon or a statue. One must not forget the Holy Door, the work of the sculptor Luigi Enzo Mattei, which will be ready to open for the 2025 Jubilee. As Fr. Ivan explains, “We are already working in preparation to welcome pilgrims; there will be thousands from all over the world, volunteers will help us”. As I make my way halfway round, a blonde girl has broken away from her school group and lies exhausted at the base of a column. At the same time, a restorer, kneeling on the precious floor, cleans the brass gate leading to the crypt of the Nativity with a brush; it is here where the most famous relic is kept in a golden reliquary, stormed by visitors who, at certain times, crowd in like a bus at rush hour and stand queuing up to get off. There are five wooden rods from the cradle of the Infant Jesus, which, with its panniculum and fragments of the Cross, is one of the basilica’s main attractions. Here there are also relics of St Matthew, St Matthias, St Andrew, St Jerome, St Zacharias and St Luke. In addition, there is the very famous Salus Populi Romani Byzantine icon, known as the “Madonna of the Romans”, which has been exhibited there since 1613 in the Pauline Chapel. In addition, the icon has been visited by Pontiffs prior to every pastoral journey and on December 8 before the homage to the Immaculate Conception in Piazza di Spagna. Pope Francis has already been here 107 times, the penultimate surprise visit last April as he left the Gemelli Hospital where he had been hospitalized, then on the occasion of his trip to Hungary.

The statue of Mary Regina Pacis, commissioned by Benedict XV at the end of the First World War -and of shocking relevance today- also attracts a lot of people, especially in these fear-filled times. The statue depicts the Virgin with her hand outstretched, as if to stop the horrors of any conflict, while the Child in her arms holds out an olive branch to a dove ready to snatch it. A Polish group has gathered in front of the sculpture, praying; “Mary, deliver us from war,” whispers a woman. Her name is Elzbieta and she promises to return to the basilica on the occasion of the snowfall event on August 5, when three thousand white dahlias’ petals will rain down from the fourth of the 105 golden ceiling coffers, at the hypogeum. These petals are traditionally offered by Dutch flower growers and are picked one by one by the Sisters of Mary Ever Virgin, the community in charge of the basilica together with the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception who look after the sacristy. As Elzbieta explains to her fellow travelers, “The summer snow is a miracle that is renewed, we cannot miss it”. Beside her, in silence, a Roman lady has come, and she asks the Virgin for help, perhaps a miracle, for her sick son.  A number of popes are buried in Saint Mary Major, for example, Paul V, Clement VIII, Pius V, and Sixtus V who gave his name to the Sistine Chapel is also here. There is the tomb of Pauline Borghese, Napoleon's sister. The art treasures are complemented by the museum that contains Arnolfo di Cambio’s nativity scene. In addition, the excavations that took place between 1960 and 1970 revealed the remains of a Roman villa from the second or third century AD; and the Chapel of San Michele that boasts ancient floors and a ceiling frescoed by Piero della Francesca, which is the only work by the artist visible in Rome. Then there is the issue of security, which is now crucial in all high-tourist-traffic venues. The security detector was introduced in 2015. Sensational acts of vandalism such as the defacement of Michelangelo's Pieta, perpetrated over 50 years ago at St. Peter's, have never been recorded here. Nevertheless, in recent years, they say, a deranged man tried to hit an angel on the high altar and the worst was averted thanks to the numerous but hidden cameras that keep the church under control. A unique place in the world where admiration for man-made artistic prodigies is continually intertwined with a sense of the sacred and devotion to Mary is a tangible presence. Even in the eyes of the South American tourist to whom her travelling companions almost have to drag away. If it were up to her, she would stay indefinitely praying to the “Madonna of the Romans”. She explains, “She protects this city and is a light for the whole world”.