By Jacques Perrier
The liturgical calendar includes four feasts of dedication: two universal dates, those of the Basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major at Rome; a date proper to each diocese, that of the dedication of its cathedral and, in each city or village, the dedication of the parish church. On those dates, the faithful recall the day those buildings were consecrated to God and dedicated to this or that Saint.
The choice of those four feasts of dedication is not the fruit of a logical construction, but is rich in meaning.
Let us return to Rome. The Eternal City has four Basilicas: Saint John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral, with its famous baptistery; Saint Peter’s in the Vatican; Saint Paul Outside the Walls, recalling their martyrdom; and Saint Mary Major, learnedly called the “Liberian” Basilica, because the first building, today totally disappeared, was built by Pope Liberius. Thus Mary is present at Rome, next to the Precursor, the last of the prophets, and the two “columns” of the Church.
Let us leave Rome and return home. Many cathedrals and a certain number of parish churches are dedicated to the Virgin Mary. However, it is not a universal rule. Inversely, on inscribing the dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in its calendar, the liturgy reminds us that Mary has her place in the construction of the Church. In fact, if we commemorate a “dedication,” it is because we think of a construction, a building that is first of all spiritual, of which the stone building has, however, the honor of being the sign.
To celebrate the dedication of Saint Mary Major is, therefore, to highlight the Marian, feminine dimension of the Church.
The history of the Basilica is a charming tale of a popular tradition, of an assured theology and of a healthy devotion.
On the night of August 4-5, 358, snow fell on the Esquiline, one of the seven Hills of Rome. Advised in a dream to build a church in that place in honor of the Virgin Mary, Pope Liberius and a rich and pious layman devoted themselves to this mission. In memory of that, in the course of Vespers of the feast, petals of white roses fall from the vault, to the great joy of the faithful who hurry to gather them, as if they were gold louises. That is the popular tradition.
The early church, undoubtedly modest, disappeared to give way to the splendid Basilica whose dedication we recall today. It was built under the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Now, in 431, at the time of the ecumenical Council held at Ephesus, the Church declared it legitimate to give Mary the name “Mother of God.” It was not, at first, about honoring the Virgin, even less so of transforming her into a goddess, but, rather, to go to the bottom of the Christian faith in the Incarnation. God became man in the person of His Son. He is called Jesus, “God saves,” Emmanuel, “God with us.” He was borne and given birth to by a woman, Mary. She certainly is not the source of his divinity but she is the one through whom the Son, who merits the name “God” as the Father, was really united to humanity. An infinite honor was bestowed on her and also on us. A woman of our race merits being called “Mother of God,” as we say in the “Hail Mary,” Theotokos, the name preferred by the Orientals to designate the Virgin Mary.
The Roman Basilica is the monumental homage that the Church of Rome wished to render without delay to the Mother of God.
However, after having culminated in the most assured theology, let us return to concrete things. Mary gave birth to her Son. This happened at Bethlehem. “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a crib.” This is why Saint Mary Major includes a representation of the crib and, it is said, a relic of the authentic manger. Regardless of the effective historicity, it is beautiful and profoundly Christian, to express the realities of the faith in the very visible signs: it is a “sound devotion.”
This Basilica is very dear to Romans. They invoke the Mother of God there as “salvation of the Roman people.” She is, therefore, dear to the Bishop of Rome. On the day after his election, Pope Francis went there to entrust his ministry to her whom his predecessor, Paul VI, proclaimed, during Vatican Council II, “Mother of the Church.” He returned there just before leaving for the World Youth Day in Brazil. That twofold pilgrimage of Pope Francis is added reason to celebrate fittingly this year the dedication of the Basilica dedicated to the Mother of God.