The month of August includes a couple of well-known feasts in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary – most notably her Assumption on August 15th and the Queenship of Mary one week later on August 22nd. But there is another celebration that often gets overlooked that is worth mentioning: the celebration of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on August 5th, sometimes called the memorial of “Our Lady of the Snow”.
Saint Mary Major, located in Rome, Italy, is one of only four major basilicas in the world (basilicas are significant church buildings designated specifically by the pope). It is the oldest church in the West dedicated to Mary and holds a certain pride of place amongst all Marian churches in the world.
I have celebrated this dedication for years now as a priest, but this year was a little bit different for me. Because I offer a Traditional Latin Mass on Wednesday mornings at 6:30 a.m., I had the opportunity to celebrate this memorial under its previous title – that of “Our Lady of the Snow” refers to the legend of the founding of Saint Mary Major.
Early August seems like an odd time to have a feast with snow in the title! Even here in Minnesota we are still in the midst of summer and it is hard to imagine snow falling at this time of year. The city of Rome rarely gets much snow at all in a year, and it is even less likely that snow would occur in August.
The legend states that a wealthy patrician and his wife in Rome had no children and wanted to choose Mary as the heir to their fortune. The Pope encouraged them to ask Mary for a particular sign on how to do so. In response, Mary appeared to them during the night of August 5th and tasked them with building a church on a certain hill, and the sign would be that snow will cover the crest of the hill. The city woke the next morning to discover snow covering the Esquiline Hill, where the Basilica stands to this day. This occasion is still marked in the Basilica on its dedication date each year as they drop white rose petals from the dome during the celebration of Mass and Vespers.
“Our Lady of Snow” eventually became added as another title of our Blessed Mother and I think it is a fitting one. Snow is made of countless unique, unrepeatable snowflakes that come down from heaven and change the face of the earth. We too as unique children of Mary in Christ are to receive the grace of God from heaven and take part in transforming our world – making it “pure as the driven snow.” May Mary continue to intercede for us and our world as she leads us to Christ her son, and may we always honor her with devotion and respect.
Reminder: Because the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary falls on a Saturday this year (Aug. 15th), it is not a holy day of obligation as it would be on other years. However, it is still an important and holy day that is worthy of celebration and prayer. I encourage you to join us for our Area Catholic Community Mass on the 15th at St. Joseph at 9:00 a.m. Our ACC Masses are also good opportunities for us to gather as one community and continue to pray for and support one another.
-- Fr. Timothy Gapinski