On Monday the Church celebrates the feast day not of a saint, but of a building – the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, one of the four most illustrious churches of Rome (the other three being: St. John Lateran [the Pope’s Cathedral], St. Peter’s at the Vatican [where St. Peter was martyred], and St. Paul Outside the Walls [the place of his martyrdom]). Santa Maria Maggiore, as the Basilica is known in Italian, is the most important church in the world dedicated to Our Lady; it is the biggest church in Rome which honours Our Lady, hence the reason it is called ‘Maggiore’ meaning ‘greatest’ or ‘biggest’.
Even today the Basilica is sometimes known as the Liberian Basilica, in honour of Pope Liberius (352-366AD). According to a pious legend, which probably dates from the Middle Ages, Our Lady appeared in a dream to two Roman Christians, the married couple John and Placida, who were wealthy members of Rome’s Patrician or upper class. She is said to have asked them to build church in her honour on the Esquiline hill (one of the ‘seven hills of Rome’). The location would be indicated, she had said, by a fall of snow on the night of 4th-5th of August. They told Pope Liberius about the dream, and he is said to have traced the outline of the building in the snow, and the first basilica was built on that site. For this reason, the basilica is sometimes called Our Lady of the Snows (Sancta Maria ad nives, in Latin); something which is further underlined by the fall of white rose petals which takes place this evening at the end of Evening Prayer (Vespers).
The basilica is visited by over a million people each year, including his Holiness Pope Francis, who visits to pray before the icon of Our Lady that hangs in of one of the side chapels, the Borghese Chapel – Maria, Salus Populi Romani (Mary, health of the Roman People), before he begins one of his Apostolic journeys around the world; he also visits on the way back, and leaves a bouquet of flowers in thanksgiving.