As I write on Thursday evening, snow is falling gently outside. Not too unusual in Britain, but what if snow fell during August? Tradition tells of a snowfall that seemed impossible, namely in Rome on 5th August in the year, 352, when snow fell during the night.
There lived in the Eternal City a nobleman, John and his childless wife, who had been blessed with much of this world’s goods. They chose the Mother of God as the heir to their fortune, and at the suggestion of Pope Liberius, prayed that Our Lady might make known to them how to do this by a particular sign. In answer the Virgin Mother during the night of 5th August, appeared to John and his wife and also to the Holy Father, Pope Liberius, directing them to build a church in her honour on the crown of the Esquiline, one of the hills of Rome! And what would be the sign that John and his wife had requested? “Snow will cover the crest of the hill.”
Snow rarely falls in Rome, and never in August, but the flakes fell silently during that night, blanketing the peak of the historic hill. In the morning the news quickly spread and crowds gathered to throng up the hill and behold the white splendor. The snow had fallen in a particular pattern, showing the outline of the future church. When it became known that the snow was a sign from Mary, the people spontaneously added another to her long list of titles, Our Lady of the Snows.
The church built by John and his wife in honour of Our Lady, restored and enlarged at various times has been known by different names: the Basilica of Liberius, Saint Mary of the Crib (because it is believed to enshrine relics of Christ’s Crib). It is most familiar as Saint Mary Major, to distinguish it from the many other Roman churches dedicated to the Mother of God. Saint Mary Major is one of the four basilicas in which the pilgrims to Rome must pray in order to truly make the pilgrimage to Rome, along with St Peter’s, St Paul’s and St John Lateran. It is one of the most popular churches in the world. Crowds gather still on 5th August to celebrate a Mass of Our Lady of the Snows, when a shower of white rose petals falls from the ceiling, to commemorate the day that snow fell… in August… in Rome.
Fr Matthew (edited from www.roman-catholic-saints.com)