Sheila Grove


The Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.
Photo/Anne-Marie Welsh

         According to tradition, the Virgin Mary herself inspired the choice of the Esquiline Hill in Rome, for the construction of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Appearing in a dream to Pope Liberius, she asked that a church be built in her honor on a site she would miraculously indicate.

Ave Regina at St. Mary Major in Rome
Photo/Anne-Marie Welsh

         On the morning of August 5, in the year 358 A.D., the Esquiline Hill was covered with snow. According to the legend, the pope traced out the perimeter of the basilica in the snow.

        Nothing remains of the original church, but the present Basilica, constructed in the fifth century, was tied to the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD, which proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God. Sixtus III commissioned and financed the project as Bishop of Rome.

        In 1995, a new rose window in stained glass was created for the main façade by Giovanni Hajnal. It reaffirms the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that Mary is the link that unites the Church to the Old Testament. To symbolize the Old Testament, Hajnal used the seven-branched candlestick, for the New Testament, the chalice of the Eucharist.

        Pope Francis routinely visits the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani (salvation of the Roman people), prominently displayed above the altar in the chapel, for prayer and adoration. His mini-pilgrimage on March 15, 2020, while Italy was shut down because of the pandemic, drew attention to his devotion. The pope had the icon moved, temporarily, to the Vatican for adoration during his ubi et orbi (to the city and the world) service on March 27, 2020.

Watch a two-minute video about the annual "snowfall" and take a virtual tour of the basilica.

Pope Francis prays in front of the Marian icon "Salus Populi Romani"
at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome March 15, 2020. 
Photo/CNS Vatican News

Source: and Catholic News Service