Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore (Pic Source)
In this column, we continue our series on the Papal Basilicas with a church that is dear to the heart of Pope Francis: Santa Maria Maggiore. Before and after each apostolic journey, our Holy Father arrives at this Basilica to lay a bouquet of flowers before an image of Our Lady, asking her intercession for a safe journey and a successful mission. Although various modifications have been made to the Basilica over the years, the core of the structure dates back to the early 5th c., making Santa Maria Maggiore perhaps the oldest church in the world that is dedicated to Our Lady.
Another title given to this Basilica is “Our Lady of the Snows”. This name derives from a legend that surrounds the initial building of the Church. In one version of the story, the Basilica was built on the site upon which snow miraculously fell during the height of the Roman summer, on August 5th. On this date, the Universal Church continues to celebrate the dedication of this ancient Church. During the ceremony each year that occurs in the Basilica itself, there is a very interesting custom. In the special Mass, during the Gloria, one of the ceiling panels above the altar is opened and white flower petals are released, cascading upon the congregants below. This is done to call to mind the snow that was reported to have fallen when construction on the Basilica began some 1500 years ago. After the Mass is completed, those who were at the Mass hurry to try to take some of the flower petals as a special souvenir! Another special, annual celebration that occurs at Santa Maria Maggiore is the Eucharistic Procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi. This procession begins at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. From there, the Holy Father accompanies a Monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament along Via Merulana as far as Santa Maria Maggiore. There, the Pope gives the people a Benediction from the porch of the Basilica.
In addition to its long history, the Basilica is significant because of the art and relics found within. The Church is covered with many beautiful mosaics, some of which date from the 5th c. and were probably commissioned to celebrate Mary having been officially recognized with the title “Theotokos” or “God Bearer” at the Council of Ephesus in 431. At this Council, Mary was given this appellation in order to defend our belief in Jesus. Since we believe that Jesus was, from his conception, true God and true man, the child that Mary of Nazareth gave birth to was indeed God, making her the bearer of the Divine. In one of the side chapels is found the image of Our Lady called  “Salus Populi Romani”. It is this image which Pope Francis normally visits before each major trip and is a particular object of devotion for the people of Rome. Finally, under the main altar is found a reliquary which contains wood that is believed to be from the crib in which Jesus was laid after his birth. This relic was brought to the Basilica sometime in the 6th c.
Each year, on August 5th, the entire Church celebrates the Feast of this great and important Basilica.

St. John Lateran

In our last article, we tried to answer the question, “what is a Papal Basilica?” We will now investigate a very important Papal Basilica. Here is a hint as to its identity: it is the Cathedral of the Pope and the Diocese of Rome. In every Diocese, there is a special church which is called the Cathedral because it has in it the cathedra (latin for “chair”) of the Bishop. Each Cathedral, therefore, is associated in a special way with the Bishop of that Diocese; it is like his headquarters. As well, the Cathedral is a special sign of unity for the Diocese. People often assume that the Pope’s Cathedral is St. Peter’s since he spends much of his time there. In fact, the Pope’s Cathedral is St. John Lateran. Because it is the Cathedral of the the Diocese of Rome, this Basilica is sometimes called the “mother church” of all the world.
Photo: Livioandronico2013 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The land on which St. John Lateran sits was given by Constantine to the Pope (probably Pope Miltiades) in the year 313. The building that we see today, which is the end result of many renovations over the years, is truly impressive. What perhaps strikes me most about this building are the enormous statues of the Apostles that flank the two sides of the nave. As a visitor walks through the Basilica, these imposing statues, which were created in the 18th century, make quite an impression. If you were to take a tour of the Basilica, a question often asked is, “which St. John is the Basilica named after?” The group is then usually divided as to whether it is named after St. John the Baptist or St. John the Evangelist. In fact, it is a bit of a trick question. The original and primary patron of the Basilica is “Christ the Saviour”.  Hundreds of years later, in the 10th century, the Basilica was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Then, in the 12th century, the Basilica was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Therefore, the main patron of the Basilica is Jesus and its two other co-patrons are St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

From the year 313, every Pope lived beside the Basilica in the Lateran Palace until Pope Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon in 1307. While the Popes were in Avignon, two fires greatly damaged the Basilica and the Palace. When Pope Gregory XI finally moved back from Avignon to Rome in 1377, the Lateran Palace was deemed to run-down to live in. Instead, the Popes lived for a time at St. Mary in Trastevere and then at St. Mary Major. After some years, the Papal Palace beside St. Peter’s was constructed and it became the official residence of the Popes. Pope Francis changed this practice as he chose to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse located a few hundred meters from the Papal Palace.

On November 9th, the entire Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran.

What are the Papal Basilicas?

Among the most popular attractions in Rome are the four churches known as “Papal Basilicas”: 1) St. John Lateran, 2) St. Peter’s, 3) St. Mary Major, and 4) St. Paul Outside the Walls.  All of these posses a long and interesting history, beautiful architecture, and important relics.  Because of their significance, over a series of five articles we will explore these churches.  Here, we begin by investigating what is meant by the term Papal Basilica.

In general, the word “basilica” is used either to indicate an architectural style or as a title designating the special status a church possesses.  The basilican architectural form arose in the Roman empire.  A basilica is basically a large rectangular building with an apse at the short side of the structure which is furthest from the entrance.  Often there was a raised platform in the apse.  The latin word basilica is derived from the greek basilike stoa, which literally means “kingly walkway”.  As such, a basilica originally referred to the court chamber of the king.  The place for the king was the raised platform in the apse.  Between 200 BC and 300 AD, numerous basilicas were built in Rome, many of them around the forum area.  The ruins of these buildings are still visible today.  These structures were used as public halls for secular events such as court sessions, public talks and even business transactions.  As the number of Christians in the Roman Empire grew, they eventually needed special buildings to hold their liturgies.  The well known basilica style was used by the Church for this very purpose. Whereas a human king used to be on the raised platform in the apse, in these new basilica churches, the King of Kings, Jesus, was now present on the altar in the celebration of the Mass.  Though few of the Papal Basilicas still retain this architectural style, originally they were built in the basilican form.

The word “basilica” is also a title given by Popes to significant churches around the world.  The four Papal Basilicas are known as Major Basilicas.  The vast majority of other basilicas around the world, including those in Canada (ex. St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal) are called Minor Basilicas.  Each of the Papal Basilicas has a Holy Door.  When a pilgrim visits one of the Papal Basilicas, he or she is able to receive a special Roman Jubilee.  Further, each is assigned to one of the Patriarchs of the Catholic Church, who traditionally were understood as governing over an ecclesiastical territory.  Therefore, taken together the Papal Basilicas symbolize the unity of the Church.  With respect to law, the Papal Basilicas are related to the Pope in a special way.  St. Peter’s is in the State of Vatican City, of which the Pope is the head.  The other three Papal Basilicas, even though found within Italian territory, still have a special relationship to the Vatican City as they enjoy “extraterritorial status” under the Lateran Treaty (1929).  In subsequent articles we will investigate what makes each of the Papal Basilicas unique and interesting.

St. John Lateran
St. Peter's
St. Mary Major
St. Paul Outside the Walls