Snow in Rome... in August
Snow in Rome, on any stifling August evening, would indeed be a miracle. One of the oldest devotions to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is to Our Lady of the Snows. Legend has it that in 352 A.D. the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to both Pope Liberius and a patrician named John. He and his wife were a childless, wealthy Roman couple who wanted to donate their fortune to the church and prayed for guidance. Mary indicated in the vision that a church should be built where there would be a snowfall in Rome. On August 5th that year, it snowed on the Esquiline Hill and all of Rome celebrated the mid-summer miracle. Pope Liberius is credited with tracing an outline of the future church in the snow. The Basilica of St. Mary Major, financed by the couple and according to the outline made by the Pope, was constructed on the site of the snowfall (completed in 358 A.D.) and dedicated to Mary. It is the only basilica of the four major basilicas in Rome to retain its paleo-Christian structure and it’s the first one that Pope Francis visited after he was elected Pope.
Every August 5th extra Masses are celebrated at St. Mary Major throughout the day, to give local Catholics an opportunity to partake in the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Snows. During the late morning Mass, white rose petals are released from the ceiling to commemorate the fall of snow and later that evening the parish joins with the larger community of Rome (even the Mayor was in attendance this year), to actually recreate the snowfall outside the basilica.
*Image of rose petals falling during Mass provided by my dear friend Fr. Marius Zerafa O.P. (pictured with us waiting for the evening snowfall to begin)!
Unfortunately, there was no real snow this August,or last! But the light show, poetry readings, opera singing, and playing of Italian and Polish (in reverence to St. Pope John Paul II) National Anthems added to the suggestive setting for the summer snow show. The pulsing crowd of VIPs, locals, tourists and pilgrims of all ages presented an enthusiastic show of belief, respect or at least curiosity for the religious traditions of the Eternal City. And whether or not you believe that snow fell in 352 A.D., the miracle of August 5th – the date by which most Romans have long departed for summer holidays – was a heaving congregation which filled the vast space within the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, at every single Mass.