By FRANCIS KENT
irF tradition is followed (and I expect it is) there will be a moment today at Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore when white petals fall from the roof of the basilica, in memory of August 5, in the year 352, when snow fell on the Esquiline hill.
Today is the feast of the dedication of this noble church of Rome. S. Maria ad Nives--Our Lady of the Snow. The legend is that she appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius the night before and bade him build a church in her honour where snow should fall. as indeed
it did -and as very welcome surprise it must have been in the heat of a Roman August.
I have a special affection for St. Mary Major because it was the first church I ever entered in Rome, on a Sunday morning 10 years ago. It was Holy Year. and the holy chaos in its wide nave was something to bring tears from the heart. Priests and servers with their cruet-baskets had to putt their heads down, as if in a Rugby scrum, to fight their way through the throng to the side altars.
pARTICULARLY I remember one procession (of many) winding its way through with banners and singing in a strange tongue. They were little Vietnamese, part of the Universal Church and pilgrims to the Eternal City in 1950.
This was my first sight of Italians and Romans at their rehgious duties: naturally enough. my impression at once was how much they were at home. We found it difficult, first to discover and next to reach the altar where we could receive Holy Communion, distributed by a priest all during and long after Mass itself. People of all races. sizes, shapes. and ages flocked to the rails-some in finery, some in shawls. The visual effect was a kind of living masterpiece of Italian painting. something to remain in the memory for a lifetime.
One tiny bambino with a rosary in her small hands bad escaped from her mother's arms and crawled through the altar rails. where she continued to play quite unconscious of adult movement around her, and of the fact that she made the priest administering the sacrament take a detour every time he passed her. Such was the charming Italian way.
SUCH recollections make unreal many otherwise quite excel lent pictures of Rome presented on the cinema screen or in print. I have before me a rather chic Continental monthly. published in several languages, of which this is a special Italian issue partly to celebrate the Olympic Games, but also attempting a smooth impression of the Italian. and especially Roman. scene.
There are historical summaries. many references to the controversial film La Dolce Vita, an article on the Via Veneto by its director. Frederic° Fellini, one by a Swedish-born Italian baroness On Roman fashions, another retelling the story of the Colosseum under the heading "The Greatest Show on Earth", others on the restaurants and night haunts of Rome, shopping in Italy, and recipes for "An Exotic Italian Dinner". All very well done and strictly, or loosely, high-life.
But. remembering Santa Maria Maggiore that Sunday morning, I cannot help feeling that something essential had been overlooked: especially when on the last page among "Key People in Italy", from Aristotle Onassis to Anna Magnani. there is never a mention of Pope John XXIII. It seems rather like "Hamlet" without the Prince of Denmark.
FOR those who du not already know them, it may be interesting that the treasures of St. Mary Major include the Crib of all cribs, the manger in which Our Lord was laid in the stable at Bethlehem, said to have been brought here by Gregory Ill, though the egregious Augustus Hare disputes it. Anyway. there has been a Christmas crib set up in the basilica every year since the 4th century. and St. Mary Major k also known as S. M aria ad Praesepe for crib).
A 14th century mosaic shows Pope Liberius tracing the plan of his basilica in the snow. The ceilidg of the Pauline Chapel is decorated with the first gold brought from the New World, presented by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. What might be termed a topical curiosity in the Baptistery is a Bernini memorial of an African envoy sent by a Congo chief to Urban VIII-. who made him the Marquis of Nitgritia!
Home at last?
I PRESENT Mr. Macmillan with a Shakespearean quotation for the rising of Parliament last week: Home. you idle creatures, get you home: Is this a holiday?
(Julius Caesar. I:1:1.1