Today, August 5th, the Church celebrates the feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major, which is also sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Snows.
So why is there a feast involving snow (in the Northern hemisphere) in August? Read on to find out!
1. St. Mary Major refers to a place, not a person
Or at least, “Mary” refers to the Mother of God, not a separate saint. St. Mary Major is one of the four Roman basilicas known as patriarchal, or “major”, cathedrals in memory of the first centers of the Church. (We also celebrate the dedication of St. John Lateran, one of the other three, in November.) St. Mary Major was dedicated in the mid-400s, shortly after the Council of Ephesus affirmed Mary’s title as Mother of God. For more information on the patriarchal cathedrals, check out this video tour.
2. Why is this particular church so important that it gets its own feast?
St. Mary Major is the largest church in the world honoring God through Mary. It was Christendom’s first Marian shrine for pilgrims. St. Jerome is buried there, along with several popes. The basilica also houses a famous icon of the Blessed Mother known as Salus Populi Romani (“Health of the Roman People”).
3. And finally, what’s up with the snow?
A legend, unreported until the 1000s, says that around the year 350 A.D., a wealthy Roman couple who wanted their money to be used in a way to honor Blessed Mother, prayed earnestly for a sign. Mary appeared to the husband in a dream, asking that a church be built for her. She would show them the spot by sending down a miraculous midsummer snowfall. The couple quickly went and told the Pope, who had had a similar dream. On August 5th, snow fell on the Esquiline hill in Rome and defined the floor plan of the church.
While there is no evidence that the snowfall actually took place, the feast of the Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows was added to the universal calendar in 1568. In 1969, the name of the feast was changed to its current title, “Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major”. Every year, on the feast day, a shower of white rose petals is released from the basilica’s dome. Check out this “cool” tradition in the video above.
Can’t make it to Rome this year? There is also a national shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois.