On August 5th in AD 352, on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, snow covered a large patch of ground, in spite of the summer heat.
The snow marked the spot where the Pope was to build a basilica in honor of the Mother of God, St. Mary Major.
Now, is Mary a major? An English major? Drum major? The very model of a modern major general?
No. Mary is Mary, the Blessed Mother. St. Mary Major is the church, one of the four major basilicas of Rome.
Anybody know what the other major basilicas of Rome are?
…One each for the two Apostles who were martyred in Rome…St. Peter and St. Paul. And one for the beloved disciple…St. John.
So, in the city of Rome, the buildings are arranged like the band of the most loving disciples, gathered around Christ. St. Peter here, St. Paul there, St. John here, and the Blessed Mother over here.
And St. Joseph is all the way over here in Martinsville, Virginia?
No. All the saints who love Christ are close together in heaven. We can be here, on the other side of the world from the church of St. Mary Major, and still our Lady and the saints kneel right alongside us as we worship the triune God.
After a week of pressing hard towards the goal, many of us were the worse for wear today. Speaking for myself, the tiredness in my legs made the whole day seem like a climb up the Holy Steps of Jerusalem. (More about this below.)
The Pope has four Major Basilicas in Rome. The pilgrim to Rome visits all four.
The first two are the shrines of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The other two are the cathedral of Rome and the neighborhood church of our hotel, on the top of the Esquiline Hill.
Our Mass this morning was in the Cesi Chapel of St. Mary Major. We couldn’t stay for a proper visit to the Basilica after Mass, because we had an appointment. We had time for a quick visit to the tomb of St. Monica, which is in the Roman church dedicated to her son, St. Augustine. Then we had to press on to our meeting.
As I mentioned in previous installments, Yours Truly went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. I traveled with a group of 25 priests. We were led by Archbishop Raymond Burke. At that time, Archbishop Burke was the Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri.
Since then, the Pope asked Archbishop Burke to come to Rome to serve as the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. This is the rough equivalent in the Church of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Because he occupies this important post, Archbishop Burke will certainly be created a Cardinal at the next Consistory.
This morning, Archbishop Burke received us in the Palazzo Cancelleria, a Renaissance palace in downtowm Rome where his office is located. He explained the work of his office, encouraged us in the faith, and gave us his blessing.
Then we lunched in the nearby Piazza Navona, the center of Rome’s social life. From there we took a quick busride to the home of the Popes for the millenia from fourth to the fourteenth centuries–the Lateran.
As we recall from celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of the Laterna Basilica twelve days ago, this church is the Mother and Head of all the churches, the cathedral of Peter.
Inside, there are Baroque statues of the Twelve Apostles lining the nave, which was designed by Bernini. In the baldacino over the high altar are reliquaries containing the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul. Pope Martin V, who brought the Papacy back to Rome after it had been moved to France for a few tumultuous decades, is bured in the confessio (under the high altar). The table our Lord used at the Last Supper is in a reliquary over the tabernacle. The great Pope Leo XIII is entombed here.
Across the road from the Basilica are the ruins of the original Apostolic Palace, the home of the Popes for a thousand years. The only remnant of this once-grand edifice is a chapel called the “Holy of Holies.” The pilgrim reaches this chapel by ascending steps used by our Lord Himself.
St. Helena (the Emporer Constantine’s mother) went to Jerusalem to bring back to Rome as many relics of our Lord’s life as she could find. The most massive relic she recovered was the set of steps leading up to the entrance of Pilate’s praetorium. Christ would have walked up these steps to be judged by Pilate, and He would have walked down them after He had been condemned to death. The original stone steps are encased in wood. We ascended these steps on our knees.
After this, we returned to Santa Maria Maggiore to visit and complete our Roman pilgrimage. We stopped in front of the confessio (in which the reliquary of the Manger is kept) to recite the Creed, Our Father, and Hail Mary.
I will have more to say about our pilgrimage. Now, however, we will dine together to say farewell to the Eternal City over a glass or two of montepulciano. Arrivaderci for the moment.