Tuesday was a remarkable day.
Umbrellas protecting us from a few sprinkles, we headed up the hill from our hotel to Feltrinelli’s International Bookstores on Via V.E. Orlando, near Santa Susanna, and dropped off a copy of Pilgrimage and information on the upcoming titles, Offerings to be released in May, and Inheritance this fall, then headed for the Economy Bookstore on Via Torino which had closed. I wondered how many small book stores would be seriously impacted by the economy.
We decided to take Via Torino straight out to Maria Maggiore, the main Marian basilica in Rome and one of our favorite churches. The road runs straight, like a spike, from Santa Susana, ending at Maria Maggiore.
The Basilica of Mary Major stands on the Esquiline Hill. In 350 the wealthy citizen Ionnes Patricius had a dream of the Virgin Mary. Mary asked him to build a basilica on the hill where snow would soon fall. Pope Liberius had the same dream. The following day, in the heat of August, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and Liberius planned a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
We entered the vast space. Circular tiles of russet, green, and pink marble cover the floor. White marble pillars line the nave under a Peruvian gold ceiling. Confessionals stand in side aisles and light streams through clerestory windows. Four giant columns support a square bronze canopy above the altar.
We walked down the central aisle and turned left at the transept, heading toward the Holy Sacrament Chapel. As we approached, a mass was in progress, and the priest had just finished the consecration. He held the large priest’s host up for adoration, and we genuflected, then paused in the back, as the faithful lined up to receive the Eucharist in this chapel of pink-and-white marble, golds, and bronzes. Above the altar hangs an earthy image of Mary dating to the 1st century, Sta. Maria ad Nives, Holy Mary of the Snows, known popularly as Salus Populi Romani, said to have been painted by St. Luke. Revered in Rome, she is thought to be miraculous, having saved the city from the plague in the Middle Ages. Above the icon is a bronze frieze of Pope Liberius marking out the site in the snow.
We turned back to the nave and the high altar and descended to the confessio where wood from the Christ Child’s cradle is enshrined in a gold-and-glass reliquary ark. A giant marble sculpture of a pope kneels before the holy wood. Once again I was touched by the earthy material made glorious, the simple stuff of wood and ancient pigments, of bread and wine. God entering our earthy world, our wordly earth.
Every August 15 the Ceremony of the Snows is held. Petals of “snow” fall from the coffered ceiling onto the congregation.
(Open 7 am-6:45 pm.; Masses: Sunday 7 am, 8, 9, 10 (Latin), 11, 12 noon, 6 pm; Monday-Saturday 7 am, 8, 9, 10, 11, 3 pm, noon, 6 pm;http://www.vatican.va/ )
Since I devote a scene in Pilgrimage to this church, I wanted to drop off a copy at the shop in thanksgiving. We found the shop next to the baptistery off the southern aisle and purchased an icon of the Salus Populi. She is a dark Madonna, serious and young, holding a boy Jesus on her hip, her face full of concern, her eyes carrying anticipation as she looks away to her right.
We walked down Via Carlo Alberto, a straight boulevard leading to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, another major pilgrimage basilica.
Saint Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, lived in the Sessorium Palace on this site. In 329 she returned from Jerusalem with a piece of Christ’s cross and other relics from His passion. When she died, Constantine converted part of her palace to a church to house the relics, called Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.We entered the tiled narthex, and were startled to find a Russian icon exhibit. I love icons, those carefully delineated, almost symbolic, renderings of holiness, that can be an encouraging reminder on the wall or a colorful aid to prayer. Icons, they say, are painted with special pigments on wood, layered with gold leaf, and with each stroke the painter prays, a curious blending of spirit and matter. This collection was Russian,with many from Moscow, from homes and from churches, 17th to 19th centuries. They were mounted in the side aisles, and we toured slowly, captivated by color and detail, pausing to view the cerulean apsidal mosaic of the basilica itself, to me the loveliest part of this church.
We descended stairs to St. Helen’s chapel in the crypt, the original sanctuary, where the Sacrament is reserved above a golden altar, the vaults covered in pastel mosaics, and where the offices are said by Cistercians who occupy the adjoining monastery.
We returned to the nave and the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Relics off the north aisle. Here, behind glass and protected in silver reliquaries, are displayed fragments of Christ’s cross: the sign reading, Here is the King of the Jews, two thorns from the Crown of Thorns, the finger of St. Thomas, bits of the column of scourging, a nail from the cross.
The lovely basilica, the story of Saint Helena, and the spectacular icon exhibit would be images I would hold close for days.
(Usually open: 6 am-12:30 pm; 3:30-7:30, http://www.santacroce.it/ )
Saint John Lateran, another major pilgrimage site, was nearby, and we took the wide path to this Cathedral of Rome, the seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. A giant Saint Francis faces the huge basilica and raises his hands in blessing, the heavy traffic racing past. It was here that the Pope granted Francis permission to form his Order of Friars Minor, after dreaming that the beggar from Assisi was holding up Saint Peter’s Basilica.
After defeating Maxentius in battle in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine built this church on the site of Maxentius’ barracks. The adjoining palace was the papal residence up to the 14th century.
We entered and paused on the marbled tiles in the center of the nave. At the transept crossing, the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul rest in the baldachin over the altar. Giant marble statues of the Apostles leap from the side columns. The ceiling is coffered in golds, reds, and blues. Frescoes fill the apse. I recall being overwhelmed by this church the first time I visited, its size, its shininess, its perfection, but over the years I have come to love it.
We walked up the central aisle and turned toward the northern transept chapel where the Sacrament is reserved beneath the frieze of the Last Supper table, said to cover a piece of the table itself, then turned to the glorious apse and the episcopal chair, and on to the shop off the southern transept. After purchasing a few Saint Francis mementos for a Franciscan friend at home, I asked the Sisters at the counter what order they professed, noting their dark green-and-white habits. One of them disappeared to a back room and returned with a sister, actually a postulate, from England.
Their story was remarkable, and completely new to me. They are an order founded after the Virgin Mary appeared to Bruno Cornacchiol and his three children on April 12, 1947 in the grotto at the Abbey of the Three Fountains, a church on the site of the beheading of Saint Paul. Bruno was Protestant and anti-clerical and had planned to kill Pope Pius XII. Mary informed him that she was the “Virgin of Revelation.” She converted him, and stated that she was bodily assumed to Heaven, a doctrine called the Assumption proclaimed by the Pope three years later. She promised to “convert the most obstinate sinners with miracles which I will work with the soil of the Grotto.” And according to my new postulate friend, Mary did just that, and the grotto is filled with plaques describing miracles and intercessions. The new order called themselves The Missionaries of the Divine Revelation ( http://www.divinarivelazione.org/ ) and took on the job of education: catechism classes, tours to shrines in Rome. At the Abbey of the Three Fountains, Minor Conventual Franciscans care for the Grotto, and the Sisters assist at the weekend liturgical services held in the Grotto. I hope we can visit before we leave Rome.
All in all, a remarkable day: new visions, new friends.
(Saint John Lateran is open 7 am-6:30 pm; Masses: Sunday, 10 am, Latin, 5 pm, 6 pm; Winter: 7 am, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 noon, 5 pm; Summer: 7 am, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 noon, 6 pm, http://www.vatican.va/ )