St. Mary Major Is the Right Place for Penance

By John H. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
January 25, 2008

Cardinal Bernard Law's appointment as archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in May 2004 reflected a consensus that, following his resignation in Boston, he could not remain in the States. The Vatican's solution: an available post at St Maria Maggiore, or St. Mary Major in English, became Law's "golden parachute" in Rome.

Spiritually speaking, the match was apt. The basilica, situated in the heart of historic Rome, offers an ideal setting for prayer and penance. According to pious tradition, the Virgin Mary herself laid out the floor plan, its outline gifted via a miraculous snowfall in 352. The tradition is commemorated each year in a special Mass, the high point of which is a flurry of white rose petals released from the dome.

St. Mary Major is one of four great basilicas in the Eternal City, each with a unique history and aesthetic, and it is an entertaining game to match them up with different personality types (much as, in the 1970s, pop psychologists amused themselves by classifying personality types according to which Beatle someone felt drawn to -- John the brooding loner, Paul the bubbly optimist, and so on).

Rome's three other major churches are St. Peter's, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

There's a sense of wistfulness about St. John Lateran, which lost its prestige as the center of the papal court with the demise of the Papal States in the 19th century; St. Peter's projects self-confidence and power, a classic space for the alpha male; St. Paul's Outside the Walls is ecumenical and open; and St. Mary Major, the first basilica in the West dedicated to the Virgin Mary, has an air of pious devotion.

Thus, among Romans, St. Mary Major has long been regarded as the basilica of choice for the spiritually rigorous Catholic, and for those with the most refined liturgical tastes. The basilica holds the remains of Pope Pius V, who in 1570 promulgated the Tridentine Latin Mass, the Mass of the church until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Further, St. Mary Major promotes examination of conscience. During the last 500 years, the presence of both Dominican and Redemptorist confessors has made the basilica a center for promotion and practice of the sacrament of penance.

If, as one Law confidante puts it, the cardinal is in Rome "doing penance," then in many ways he's come to the right place.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.