Our Lady of the Snows: Santa Maria Maggiore


On August 5th, we celebrate the dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the highest church in the hierarchy of churches dedicated to Our Lady in all of Christendom. The glorious edifice sits atop the Esquiline Hill, beside the palace of Victor Emmanuel II, just outside the Vatican City State – set up on February 11th, 1929, providentially the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, under Benito Mussolini. Even so, the church and its land are owned by the Church, and under her authority.


This memorial is also called Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives ‘the Dedication of Our Lady of the Snows’, since legend goes as follows, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed that she might make known to them how they were to dispose of their property in her honour. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. In obedience to a vision of the Virgin Mary that they had the same night, the couple built a basilica in honour of Mary on the very spot that was covered with snow.

Like most legends, there may be some truth to this, even if the first reference to this miracle was only centuries post hoc. Years ago, I was wandering through Sydney, Australia, and discovered, on an elevated spot in the middle of the city, a plaque commemorating the one and only snowfall in the city’s history. So far, no church has been built on the spot, but one never knows what the future holds.

Relics of the Saviour’s Crib (wikipedia.org)

Whatever the historical veracity of this story, what is true is that the basilica was completed under Pope Sixtus III just after the Council of Ephesus in 431, consecrated August 5th, 434, in celebration of Our Lady being proclaimed truly Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’, against the heresy of Nestorius, who denied this truth, calling Mary only Christotokos.  The glorious basilica, an architectural and liturgical marvel, still has its original structure, and within, one may immerse oneself in the beauty of the mosaics, architecture and artwork, along with any number of relics, including most of the original ‘manger’ where the Saviour was born.

Santa Maria Maggiore stands as a testament to Our Lady’s  holiness and unique place is salvation, and its dedication has been celebrated ever since. To conclude with stirring words from Saint Cyril of Alexandria, one of the great champions of Mary’s divine motherhood:

Who can put Mary’s high honour into words? She is both mother and virgin. I am overwhelmed by the wonder of this miracle. Of course no one could be prevented from living in the house he had built for himself, yet who would invite mockery by asking his own servant to become his mother?
Behold then the joy of the whole universe. Let the union of God and man in the Son of the Virgin Mary fill us with awe and adoration. Let us fear and worship the undivided Trinity as we sing the praise of the ever-virgin Mary, the holy temple of God, and of God himself, her Son and spotless Bridegroom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.