Our last stop on our station church pilgrimage is Saint Mary Major. If you love Rome, there are many people you can thank for it’s beauty and it’s charm. Two of them are buried here.
Pope Sixtus V is buried in the Sistine Chapel, no, not that Sistine Chapel, the one located here. During his brief pontificate (1585-1590), Pope Sixtus V took on many projects to better his city. First he commissioned a fifteen mile aqueduct to bring water into the hills of Rome. The famous aqueduct, Acqua Felice, is named for his baptism name, Felice. He then went on to restore and finish construction at some of Rome’s most beautiful churches, including several of the major basilicas. He connected these churches with grand boulevards, which still make up the main arteries of Rome. He moved several of the city’s obelisks to prominent church locations, including the one at Saint Peter’s basilica. All this and more in just five years!
Buried just outside the Sistine Chapel is Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in Rome without seeing Bernini’s work. He was a sculptor, painter, engineer and an architect whose influence was seen for centuries after his death. Some consider him to be the father of Baroque. Throughout our station pilgrimage, Bernini’s work has been in Sant’Agostino (altar and angels), San Lorenzo in Lucina (chapel and sculptures), Santa Maria Maggiore (statue), San Lorenzo in Damaso (high altar), Santa Prassede (statue). His work is also all over Saint Peter’s Basilica (baldacchino, tabernacle, dove window, several statues, several tombs, and even the piazza, including many of the statues that line to top of the colonnades).
The chapel across from the Sistine Chapel is the Pauline Chapel. Here, high above the main altar is an icon of the Blessed Virgin. A pious tradition links this icon to Saint Luke the Evangelist. Some believe it to have been painted by him. It was this icon, known as Salus Populi Romani, meaning Health of the Roman People, that Pope Saint Gregory the Great carried through the streets of Rome praying for an end to the plague. He then saw Saint Michael the Archangel drawing his sword atop Castel Sant’Angelo, then Hadrian’s Tomb. Soon after, the city was saved. A statue recalling this event is on top of Castel Sant’Angelo today.
Our final stop in Saint Mary Major is at the confessio, below the main altar. Saint Ignatius of Loyola offered his first Mass at this altar on Christmas day in 1538. Saint Matthias the Apostle is buried here. Saint Jerome, doctor of the Church, is buried here. Saint Jerome spent a part of his life in Bethlehem, and it was thought fitting to preserve his relics here, in the Bethlehem in Rome.
Why is this the Bethlehem of Rome?
Because in the reliquary above the altar of the confessio are five pieces of wood bound by iron. The wood is said to be that of the Holy Manger which held the baby Jesus.
Today, the day we celebrate Christ rising from the dead, we visit the manger which held Him when He was born.