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The Basilica Of Saint Mary Major In Rome Is A Destination

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome is one of the four major papal basilicas in Rome and because of the amazing history, it is a must-see destination.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major - Exterior

The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Built on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore) is one of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Johns and St. Paul are the other three), and among these basilicas, St. Mary Major is the only one to have kept its original structure, though it has been updated and expanded over the years. It is also one the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, which I’ve detailed below.

The Location Of St. Mary’s Basilica

Tradition has it that the location of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen because it was the site where the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius in which she asked that the church be built in that location in her honor.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major - Pope Pius IX in Prayer

Statue of Pope Pius IX In Prayer

The Seven Pilgrim Churches Of Rome

The tradition of visiting all seven churches was started back in the 16th century in order to combine conviviality and the sharing of a common religious experience through the discovery of the history of the early Saints. In the beginning, a few friends and acquaintances would gather before dawn and set out on their walk. At each church, there would be prayer, hymn singing, lunch breaks and a brief sermon. The path covers twelve miles in Rome, but if you aren’t interested in walking that far, public transportation and taxis can make the journey that much easier. 

In addition to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, there are five other basilicas and a shrine that make up the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome:

The Seven Churches Visitation is a Roman Catholic tradition to visit seven churches on the evening of Maundy Thursday during Lent, but it is also done on Wednesday of Holy Week. During the Seven Churches Visitation, the faithful visit several churches to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in each church. Depending on the timing, you might encounter church services that you can either attend or wait until they are finished, before you can have a detailed tour of the church.

Why Is It Called Saint Mary Major?

Since its creation, the building on the site of Basilica of St. Mary Major has gone by many names. It was known at the Liberian Basilica and Santa Maria Liberiana in reference to Pope Liberius’ vision. It was known as Saint Mary of the Crib (Sancta Maria ad Praesepe) because of a relic from the nativity crib that was brought to the church. Another name sometimes used is Our Lady of the Snows. This is in reference to another vision of the Virgin Mary and a snow that fell on Esquiline Hill in August, at the height of summer. It maintains the name Major because of its important status as a major papal basilica, even though including Major in the title is not used more widely.

The Sistine Chapel

This is not the more famous Sistine Chapel in a Rome Basilica that you can enjoy when you visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel or if you are allowed to elect a new Pope. That one was built at the request of Pope Sixtus IV around 1473. This Sistine Chapel was built at the direction of Pope Sixtus V more than 100 years later and contains his tomb.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major - Pope Statue

You Can Identify The Pope By His Tiara

Is The Church Of Saint Mary Used By The Pope?

Since the Basilica of Saint Mary Major is a papal basilica, it is used by the pope on occasion. He presides over the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary on Ferragosto. The canopied high altar is reserved for use by the pope alone. The pope gives charge of the basilica to an archpriest, usually a cardinal, and I will go into a little more background on one specific Cardinal that I am familiar with below, Cardinal Bernard Law.

Who Is buried In Rome’s The Basilica Of Saint Mary Major?

Being such an important religious site, there is a long list of Popes and other dignitaries that call Saint Mary’s Basilica their final resting place. Among the Popes interred here are:

  • Pope Sixtus V
  • Pope Clement VIII
  • Pope Honorius III
  • Pope Clement IX
  • Pope Nicholas IV
  • Pope Pius V
Basilica of Saint Mary Major - Bernini Tomb

The Bernini Family Tomb

Other notable perpetual residents are:

  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini – The leading Italian sculptor and architect of his time. His art is found all over Rome and in particular at the Borghese Museum due to his relationship with the powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his uncle Pope Paul V (formerly known as Camillo Borghese).
  • Pauline Bonaparte – The younger sister of Napoleon, her second marriage was to another Camillo Borghese (i.e. not Pope Paul V).
  • Junio Valerio Borghese – Another member of the House of Borghese, this delightful gentleman, nicknamed The Black Prince, was a Navy commander during the reign of Benito Mussolini and the Fascists. He was a prominent hardline Fascist politician and in 1970 he took part in the planning of an aborted neo-fascist coup and he escaped to Spain where he spent the remaining years of his life.

The Escape Of Cardinal Bernard Law

Bernard Francis Law was an American cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, he was appointed Archbishop of Boston by Pope John Paul II in 1984 and he is known largely for covering up the serial rape of children by Catholic priests.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major - Coffered Ceiling

The Coffered Ceiling

In 2001, Cardinal Law was named as a defendant in several high-profile cases involving pedophile priests. In 2002, after the public exposure of the cover up of pedophile priests by Cardinal Law, he submitted his resignation and it was accepted. Cardinal Law had become the central figure in a scandal of criminal abuses, denials, payoffs, and coverups that resonated around the world. Within weeks, the Cardinal moved from Boston to Rome and eventually was appointed as the Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

How To Visit The Basilica Of Saint Mary Major

If you want to visit The Basilica of Saint Mary, you are in luck because it is very centrally located at:  Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, which is only a couple of blocks from the Termini train station. You can reach Termini Station on Metro A or B at the stop named Termini. You can either walk or take the ATAC buses: #714, #360 or #649. There is also a taxi stand at Termini if the bus isn’t your style.

Basilica of Saint Mary Major - The Dome

The Dome Of The Basilica

The Basilica Of Saint Mary Major Visiting Hours

When visiting Saint Mary’s Basilica, please be aware that there is a dress code. You are requested to wear appropriate clothing that covers the shoulders and knees. While this is generally the rule at all houses of worship, and in particular at the major basilicas, it is worth noting that my experiences during the summer have been a bit more flexible. Men definitely can’t wear hats, but wearing shorts didn’t seem to be much of a concern. I’ve noticed similar flexibility with women as well.

The basilica is popular with tourists and pilgrims alike, so be prepared for long lines if you are visiting during the summer at popular times. I recommend getting there early as the hours for the Basilica are: daily from 7:00 am to 6:45 pm. On Sundays and feast days it is open from 9:00 am until noon.

How To Get Tickets  For The Basilica of Saint Mary Major

There are no tickets needed to visit the Basilica of Saint Mary as entry is free. It is a working church, however, so expect to have to wait to enter if a mass is being celebrated.

Other Hidden Gems That Might Interest You

If you have enjoyed this brief history of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, you may also find these hidden gems interesting and worthy of a visit as well:

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