Rome is home to a number of churches which are classified as Marian shrines; two of these, the Basilica of St. Mary Major and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love, are among the most important Catholic churches in the world. Although ranked after St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s and St. John’s Basilicas, both of the churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary are among the most important in the city. Both of these institutions are numbered among the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome. In addition, the Basilica of St. Mary Major is one of five Patriarchal Basilicas, representing Antioch, and one of only four cathedrals in the world to bear the distinction of being a Basilica Major. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love is a relative newcomer, and is Italy’s most popular Marian Shrine. The Basilica of St. Mary Major is part of the Vatican City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The story of Mary, the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, is so well known that it bears little repeating here. What is important is her particular importance within the Catholic faith. Aside from Jesus himself, no person in Catholicism is as revered as Mary. No other saint is as honored as prolifically as she is with churches and cathedrals named in her honor. No other saint is called upon with such feverish devotion in order to implore her for an intercession. And no one else, other than Jesus, has a prayer sanctioned by the Church written specifically for him or her. For all of these reasons, a strange cult phenomenon has arisen around Mary: the Marian Shrine.
In general, a Marian shrine is technically any church that honors the Virgin Mary. In practice, true Marian shrines are generally associated with miraculous events, or are of immense historical importance. Not surprisingly, one of the very first Marian shrines, and perhaps the oldest one still standing, is in Rome: the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Founded in the early 5th century, the basilica was from the time of its inception one of the key churches of Rome. According to legend, the site of the church on the Esqualine Hill was chosen by a freak snowstorm, which had appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream.
St. Mary Major is as old as the other great churches of Rome, but while virtually nothing remains of the other original buildings, St. Mary’s has survived the centuries relatively well. Despite being damaged in an earthquake in the 14th century, as well as undergoing periodic renovations, the core of the church essentially dates back to the original construction. Because of this it preserves some of the most ancient architecture and artwork in any church in Rome. Until the 1960s, the Basilica of St. Mary Major also served as the Patriarchal Church of Antioch in exile. It still retains the honorary distinction as a patriarchal church.
On the opposite end of the timeline is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love. Dating only back to the 18th century, it is less of an historical site and more of a Marian shrine in the traditional sense of the world. In 1740, a pilgrim was attacked by a pack of dogs, and was apparently saved by the intervention of the Virgin Mary. A chapel soon arose on the spot, and quickly became Rome’s church of choice for prayers of intercession, itself a miracle considering all of the other churches available in the city. It became so popular that a full basilica was constructed on the site in the 1990s, making it by far the youngest of Rome’s major churches. Because of its popularity among the Roman masses, Pope John Paul II added it to the list of the Seven Pilgrimage Churches of Rome, replacing the Church of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls.
The Basilica of St. Mary Major is among the oldest, best-preserved Roman-era churches in Rome. It may also be the best existing example of a true Roman basilica, in the governmental sense, still standing. Nevertheless there have been many restorations and additions made over the centuries, notably the addition of the Renaissance masterpiece that is the Borghese Chapel. The most historically important artwork in the church are the splendid mosaics that date back to the 5th century. There are also works by Bernini, who is also buried here, Rainaldi, della Porta and many other artists. A number of Popes and officials are buried in the church, including St. Jerome.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love is the architectural anomaly of the pilgrimage churches in Rome. Built towards the end of the 20th century, the New Sanctuary is a glass and steel effort featuring works of modern art and new age stained class. The whole effect is somewhat uninspiring. The tombs of the Quattrocchis can be found here, a husband and wife who are in the process of being beatified simultaneously, the first time in Church history this has happened.
The Basilica of St. Mary Major is located on the east side of Rome, a few blocks south of the train station. It is open daily from 7:00am-7:00pm (later hours in the Summer). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore (official website; The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love is located in the hills to the south of Rome, approximately five miles from the city center. As of this writing visitor information was not available. Web: www.santuariodivinoamore.it (official website)
Rome is home to countless churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The next most important is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which may be the oldest church in Rome still in use, at least in part. There is also the Ancient Church of St. Mary, which is located among the buildings of the Roman Forum, and the Church of St. Mary in Via Lata, which possibly stands on a site where either Peter or Paul or both resided in Rome.