John says that we are on a pilgrimage.
I’m not sure. Being in Roma is both an adventure as well as an experience that subtly changes you.
Roma is a big city. Lots of people from everywhere are here. Yesterday we saw two motor scooter accidents. We palpably know that we are immersed in a place and time in which a lot of things are happening at once. The energy level is high. For centuries – millennia – Roma has been one of the earth’s focal points toward which people are drawn.
Here we are as well.
Last September, on the Saturday before my brain surgery, I watched Pope Francis lead a long service for peace in Syria. He had the icon, Salus Populi Romani, brought from the Basilica of Maria Maggiore to St. Peter’s in the Vatican. With much reverence the Swiss Guards carried this ancient and sacred icon and placed it on the altar. Then, for hours, Francis sat in silence before the icon of Mary and her son. I was mesmerized as I watched the ceremony live streamed to my little computer.
The Basilica of Maria Maggiore was one of the first places we deliberately visited. The church was built just after the Council of Ephesus (431), which proclaimed Mary Mother of God.
Pope Francis made the icon of the Salus Populi Romani at Santa Maria Maggiore one of his first places of pilgrimage the day after his election to the Papacy.
Maria Salus Populi Romani
Protectress (translated “salvation” or “health”) of the Roman People
The icon is located in the Borghese chapel of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. It is gated off from the rest of the Church. You are not allowed to enter or to take photos. But you can stand right at the gate and gaze at the icon. I stood just off to the left and felt a deep peace and silence.
The phrase, Salus Populi Romani, goes back to the pagan rituals of the Roman Republic. An official priest of the Republic (an auger) would ask the gods for permission for the praetors to pray for the health and salvation of the Roman people. When Christianity became the official religion (Edict of Milan, 313 AD) the phrase, Salus Populi Romani, was embellished as a Marian title for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the Piazza Maria Maggiore there is a statue of Mary, the Mother of God, atop a column taken from the Roman Forum.
One of my personal interpretations of all of this is that there is a place/space within each of us where we know (and can access) the peace and silence (and protection and health and salvation) of Salus Populi Romani if we are open to receiving it. I also think that the historical (and pagan) roots give it a universal authenticity.
Salus Populi Romani has historically been the most important Marian icon in Rome. From at least the 15th century it has been honored as a miraculous image and carried around Rome in procession many times.
The icon is one of the so-called “Luke images” of which there are many in the world. These were believed to have been painted from the life by Saint Luke himself. According to legend, after the Crucifixion Our Lady moved to the home of St. John. She took with her a few personal belongings, among which was a table built by Jesus in the workshop of St. Joseph. St. Luke painted the portraits of the Mother of God on this table top while listening to Mary speak about the life of her son. The painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena in the 4th Century. Together with other sacred relics, the painting was taken to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for the icon.
It was allegedly brought to Rome by St. Helena.
The only “souvenirs” I brought from Rome were copies of the Salus Populi Romani icon that I bought in their gift shop.