This is the oldest church dedicated to Our Lady in Rome, having been built by Pope Liberius in about 352 AD. Our Lady appeared to a Christian Roman nobleman on the night of August 4, and she asked that a church be built in her honor on the Esquiline hill. She told him there would be a sign to accompany this dream: that the exact location of the Church would be marked out in snow. Pope Liberius was granted a similar vision that same night, so that he would know of Our Lady's request.
Upon awakening, John and Pope Liberius rushed to the Esquiline and saw the miraculous snowfall which had traced the form of the basilica on the hill. Many other people were there to see the snow which had miraculously fallen in the August heat (anyone who has ever experienced the sauna that is Rome in August will know just how miraculous such a thing would be).
The basilica was completed on that spot within two years and consecrated by Pope Liberius. When the Council of Ephesus defined Mary as Theotokos, the God-bearer, in 431 A.D., Pope Sixtus III (432-440) rebuilt and embellished the basilica. From the seventh century onward, it was referred to as St. Mary the Great or Major. Because of the miraculous snowfall, it is also sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Snows.
Today's Feast is marked at the basilica by a special procession in which white flower petals are droppd from the ceiling of the church to commemorate the miraculous snowfall. On this day, traditionally, the Pope is presented at the basilica with his flock of Papal sheep, which he gives a special blessing. These are the sheep from whose wool the pallia (singular= pallium) are made. The pallium is the white woolen cloth, decorated with black crosses, worn by Metropolitan Archbishops around their neck over their vestments when they celebrate Mass. The pallium is a sign of the Archbishop's communion with the See of Peter and is presented to new Archbishops on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, June 29. Bet you didn't know the Pope had his own special flock of sheep! The sheep are raised at Castel Gondolfo, the Pope's summer residence.
On a note of pure diversion, at Castel Gondolfo is also the Papal herd of cows. I have seen the Papal cows myself and taken part in the unusual tradition of serenading the Pope's cows. The song which one sings to the Pope's cows is, of course, in Latin, though the text is not ready to hand. I took part in this curious custom when I was studying Latin in Rome in 1997 with Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, who is known as "the Pope's Latinist". Reggie regularly takes his students out to Castel Gondolfo to take part in this pilgrimage of Papal animal-lore.
Getting back to Saint Mary Major, also there is the Praesepium, the relic of the manger in which Christ rested:
The chapel of the Praesepium is granted a singular privilege: In that chapel any priest may, on any day of the year save Good Friday and Easter Sunday, celebrate any of the Masses of Christmas. It's Christmas everyday there! I intend on my next visit to Rome, which will be the first since my ordination, to visit that Chapel and celebrate Midnight Mass there. Being Catholic is great, isn't it?
As one might gather from my enthusiasm, this feast is special to me. It was in this Basilica, as a seminarian, that I put away some doubts and difficulties I was having in persevering, and rededicated myself to seeing through my vocation to the priesthood. Also, by God's providence, this day is the day I was privileged to be able to offer my First Mass at the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Kalamazoo. That day, the oldest known prayer to Our Lady became a special and personal prayer for me. The music director at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Mr. Calvert Shenk, has written a sublimely beautiful motet on this text, which I hope he has published:
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus,xxxxxxxxxxWe fly to thy patronage,
sancta Dei Genitrix: nostras deprecationesxxxxO holy Mother of God. Depise not
ne despicias in neccestitatibus:xxxxxxxxxxxxxour petitions in our neccessities,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,xxxxbut deliver us always from all dangers,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxO glorious and blessed Virgin.