In the afternoon of the Solemnity of the Mother of God Jan. 1, Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome where he prayed in silence before the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani.

The private visit, which was not scheduled according to the Pope's official activity agenda, was witnessed and greeted with joy and surprise by the many faithful who were in the basilica at the time, Vatican Radio reported.

Since his election, the Pope has already twice visited the basilica. The first time was on the morning following his election as Pope, and the second before travelling to Brazil to celebrate World Youth Day.

During his visit Wednesday, he spent time in silent prayer in the chapel where the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani is displayed.

In his homily at Mass that morning, Pope Francis explicitly made mention of the basilica and of the Marian icon with the words: "The truth of [Mary's] divine maternity found an echo in Rome where, a little later, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major was built, the first Marian shrine in Rome and in the entire West, in which the image of the Mother of God – the Theotokos – is venerated under the title of Salus Populi Romani".