In Rome, there is a very old tradition that states the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a patrician named John. Patricians were members of the original families from Ancient Rome. During the appearance to John, the Blessed Virgin Mary requested that a church be built on the site in her honor.
She told John that during the summer months, when it is very warm, snow would fall in the city, and it did. This apparition is known as Our Lady of the Snows. The patrician founded the church in the year 352, during the reign of Pope Liberius (352-366). The church became known as Liberian Basilica.
In honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary being declared Theotokos (God-Bearer) in 431 by the Council of Ephesus, Pope Sixtus III increased the size of the basilica and consecrated it to the Mother of God. It is one of the oldest churches in the Latin Catholic Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV enhanced the primary façade of the church. It now bears the title of Saint Mary Major, or Greater, because out of all the churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome, this is the most ancient. Another important fact about Saint Mary Major is that it holds the holy crib (manger) of Bethlehem. Because it holds the crib of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the church is also known as Sancta Maria ad Praesepe (at the Crib).
Out of the four major basilica’s in Rome, there are three patriarchal churches where the Pope has an altar reserved for him and will officiate for certain celebrations. Saint Mary Major is one of the patriarchal churches along with Saint Peter’s and Saint John Lateran (the official church for the Bishop of Rome). The fourth basilica and the only non-patriarchal is Saint Paul Outside the Walls (outside the original walls of Rome).
Saint Mary Major holds a special place in the heart of Pope Francis. It was this basilica that he visited on the first official day of his Papacy. He went to the chapel where the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani is held and prayed there for sometime dedicating his Pontificate to her guidance.
Before he left for World Youth Day, Pope Francis went to the basilica and chapel to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary for safe travels on his first Apostolic Voyage. Upon his return to Rome, even before returning home, Pope Francis made his way to the basilica and chapel to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary for the success and outpouring of grace that occurred in Rio de Janeiro. This time he offered a green soccer jersey and green beach ball.
Let us pray: O Blessed Virgin Mary under your title of Theotokos and Saint Mary Major, assist our Holy Father Francis in all he does as he rebuilds and reforms the Catholic Church, the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Assist us in helping him build up the Catholic Church in the years ahead. Help dispense the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the faithful and those who will return to the Church. Amen.