5 Aug: Dedication of St. Mary Major

Pope Liberius (352-366) was Bishop of Rome in difficult times.

In 350 Constans was assassinated and Constantius became the sole Emperor by defeating Magnentius. Some bishops in the East who opposed St. Athanasius in Egypt appealed to Liberius to get involved with the Arian controversy in which Athanasius was embroiled.

The Arian heresy and controversy was raging.  (Arians didn’t want to acknowledge Christ as consubstantial with the Father: sound familiar?) Thus, Liberius called a for a Synod in Rome, but the Synod came to nothing. Liberius then made an appeal to Constantius to call a council to be held at Aquileia.

Constantius had Athanasius condemned by both the Synod of Arles (353) and the Synod of Milan (355) and tried to win Liberius over to his side. When Liberius resisted, Constantius summoned Liberius to Milan and then exiled him to Bearea in Thrace. Liberius eventually acquiesced to Constantius once he was weakened from his sufferings in hardship and the Thracian cold.

St. Hilary of Poitier preserved letters of Pope Liberius attesting to what happened (Frag. Hist. 4,6).

Eventually Constantius let Liberius come out of his exile in Thrace. He went to Sirmium in 358 and then back to Rome. In Rome Felix II had taken over as bishop, but the people backed Liberius as the true Bishop of Rome.

Liberius had more than likely subscribed to the formula of Sirmium of 351 which was a "fundamentally" orthodox statement. Some Eastern bishops and "moderate" Arians met in the presence of Constantius to oppose Photinus. Photinus was condemned. Liberius did not subscribe to Sirmium 357, however. This meeting issued a pro-Arian statement. Nevertheless, St. Athanasius and St. Hilary and others considered Liberius to have erred gravely, but they were probably mistaken. Granting that Liberius was weak and his pontificate was fraught with problems, partly of his own creation, Liberius seems to have been more sinned against than sinner.

Yes, Liberius did condemn Athanasius, that staunch defender of Nicaean faith against the heretic Arians. but he was forced under duress and perhaps even torture to give support to the Arians. Nevertheless, Liberius refused to subscribe to an obviously Arian formula of faith and instead signed on that, while not explicitly condemning Arianism, did support for the most part the Nicaean faith. Sometimes anti-Catholics will fling Liberius in our faces as an example of how the Pope cannot be thought to teach infallibly. SSPXers often invoke him and Athanasius as a way of justifying their disobedience. Liberius, however, is a complex figure in difficult times and much of the "story" of his "fall" in weakness is not properly grasped.

After Constantius, the infamous Julian adopted a policy of toleration. Pope Liberius issued a letter to the bishops of Italy in 362 and a letter of reply to the bishops of the East in 366 which both affirmed the faith of the Council of Nicaea.

Pope Liberius is important to us today because of the feast we celebrate: the Dedication of St. Mary Major, known as the Liberian Basilica. The Basilica is associated with Pope Liberius because of the famous story we all know about the miraculous snowfall on this day on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Anyone who has been in Rome in August will not question that at a snowfall would be indeed a miracle. To give you an idea of how hot it is in Rome in August, the soles of a pair of my running shoes melted and the layers came apart. In any event, the Basilica was completed by Pope Sixtus III and his archdeacon Leo (later Pope Leo I "the Great"). Here is what the Roman Martyrology says:

Dedicatio basilicae Sanctae Mariae, Romae in Exquilis conditae, quam in memoriam Concilii Ephesini, in quo Maria Virgo Dei Genetrix salutata est, Xystus papa Tertius plebi Dei obtulit…. The dedication of the basilica of Saint Mary founded in Rome on the Esquiline hill, which Sixtus III, Pope consecrated for God’s People as a memorial of the Council of Ephesus during which the Virgin Mary was hailed as Mother of God.

In the basilica you can see the great triumphal arch decorated with beautiful mosaics prepared and directed by the future Pope Leo I having anti-Manichean themes. On the summit of the curve of the arch you see the name of "Xystus Episcopus Plebi Dei" even to this day.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jack Hughes says:

    “SSPXers often invoke him and Athanasius as a way of justifying their disobedience”

    C’mon Father, the good Archbishop never compared himself to St Athanasius and couldn’t help it if other people saw him as a modern day equivalent.

    As for St Mary Major, its a beutifull church and can’t wait to visit it on my visit to Rome next year.

  2. Dr. Eric says:

    I have a special love for that Basilica. For 3 years, I lived pretty close to the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, IL. During my trip to Rome for the 2000 Jubilee I stayed in a hotel near the Basilica of St. Mary Major and visited the church almost everyday and went to Mass there twice.

    I think I need to take another trip!

  3. Dr. Eric says:

    By the way, they usually leave those big churches pretty dark on the inside unless there is a major event going on. It is hard to make out the mosaics and artwork in some of the churches in Rome. Oh yeah, NO AIR CONDITIONING!!! The week I was there, it was the hottest week on record.

  4. Luis says:

    “The Arian heresy and controversy was raging. (Arians didn’t want to acknowledge Christ as consubstantial with the Father: sound familiar?” For the record.. I’ve had my morning coffee but, I am not sure I understand. Could you explain how the denial of the consubstantial nature of the Trinity is used in our, modern, era? Is it something specific to modernism? The Real Presence? Is it the Eucharistic theology of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s ‘Gather Faithfully Together’? Thanks

  5. irishgirl says:

    I remember seeing the frieze depciting Pope Liberius ‘shoveling’ the snow, but it was so high up it was hard to see the details. Thanks for showing the ‘closeup’, Father Z!

    On my first three visits to Rome, I went in the fall-October & November-but my last trip was in June [went to an ordination of a seminarian friend by John Paul II]. The weather wasn’t too bad then-but I can imagine how HOT it can get in Rome during the height of summer!

  6. Sid says:

    Last in Rome Jan 2007, I found that the coin operated lights for the mosaics in St. Mary Major, down by the door on the right, are three fold:

    — one operates the lights in the apse and the 2nd, recessed, triumphal arch. I judge these mosaics the best from the Gothic age, the 13th C, in Rome, equal to the mosaics in the Baptistery in Florence. The solemn, even grave, Coronation of the Virgin, in the apse, is sublime, (and a contrast to the equally sublime but more joyous Coronation in the apse in Santa Maria in Trastevere, it from the 12th C., the Romanesque period). Alas, by the time one walks from the coin machine down the nave to these mosaics, not much time remains before the lights go out. So, if you’re in a group, have at the door someone who will put the money in, and the rest of the group can enjoy the mosaics. Another problem is that the baldicino blocks a front view of the apse, as you can see in Fr. Z’s photo above, so you have to see it from the side.

    — a second money machine control the lights on the first triumphal arch, and a third the lights high up on the sides of the nave. These two sets of mosaics date from the founding of the church and are in my judgement the best 5th C mosaics I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

    I’ve never been able to see the mosaics over the door outside; one needs an accompanying minder, and I’ve never arrived a the right time. Any of y’all seen these? Know what time the minder takes you?

    You will need a guide to the mosaics, which you can purchase at the shop, on the right when you enter the church. I had bought a large magazine size quide entitled simply Santa Maria Maggiore, Basilican Patriarcale Roma, a guide in Italian, English, and German.

    And for the latter two groups of mosaics, you will need binoculars.

    Bernini is buried to the right of the high altar in a simple tomb. While there, don’t forget the fine Mannerist chapel on the liturgical south transept (to your right), the church’s own Sistine Chapel; and the chapel in the liturgical north transept, the fine Baroque Cappella Borghese, with the famous Byzantine icon, the Madonna Salus Populi Romani over the high altar, the palladium of the city of Rome. Daily Mass is in the chapel, and a daily MEF at 8am, or so I’m told.

    Alas, the statue of Bl. Pius IX in the crypt I find to be kitsch.

    Sunday Solemn Mass and Solemn Vespers, both OF, are, I am told, among the most correct and dignified of the Great Basilicas. I pray to be at this church during part of Holy Week 2009.

  7. ssoldie says:

    in the ‘Gregorian Rite Mass’ T.L.M.,in the Creed the words, “Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father,by whom all things were made.” In the New Order, “begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.” The Basilica of Mary Major is very beautiful, I was blessed to be able to go to Rome in 2000, Oh! that all could go and see the beauty.

  8. Rob F. says:

    Luis asked, “Could you explain how the denial of the consubstantial nature of the Trinity is used in our, modern, era?” He then went on to speculate on possible references to nefarious theological errors that afflict some Catholics today.

    But in this case, I suspect nothing so nefarious. I imagine that Father is making a jocular dig toward the ICEL translators (criticism of whom is this blog’s raison d’etre) who were so reluctant to make use of the perfectly good English word “consubstantial” to translate the Latin term “consubstantialem Patri” from the Constantinopolitan creed. They instead paraphrased the term as “one in being with the Father”, whatever that means. And for that they deserve at least a good ribbing, and maybe even a wedgie. And certainly their mistranslation deserves to be abandoned, which indeed shall happen. But I don’t think that Father was (seriously) implying they should be excommunicated.

  9. Jenny says:

    Thanks for that history. In the list of popes, there is a long line of Saint Popes before and after Liberius. I have often wondered what happened in his life that he should be so conspicuously left out.

  10. Luis says:

    Thanks Rob,
    That sounds reasonable… although I bet calling for a wedgie for mistranslation might get more press than an excommunication for bad Eucharistic theology! : )

  11. William of the Old says:

    For reference: Athanasian Creed: http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html

  12. Thomas S says:

    If and when I ever get to go to Rome, St. Mary Major is tops on my list. Reason #1: The Tomb of St. Pius V.

    Do any frequent Rome visitors here know if I could obtain a medal of the Saint at the basilica? If so, maybe I could drop a line to my former archbishop.

    I’ve been told finding “memorabilia” (poor word choice, I know) of saints other than Peter and Paul in Rome is a tall task.

  13. paulbailes says:

    Dear Father

    Last time I thanked you for your sympathetic understanding of SSPX supporters. And in a way thanks again for your suprising even bold if unconscious defence of the SSPX in yours above.

    In this blog you’ve been zealous to prove the SSPX of unjustified disobedience, and in the above you seem to attempt to invalidate the “Athanasius” precedent that SSPXers cite. You write (correctly IMHO) “SSPXers often invoke him [Liberius] and Athanasius as a way of justifying their disobedience”. You also say “St. Athanasius and St. Hilary and others considered Liberius to have erred gravely, but they were probably mistaken”. The syllogism seems to be
    – the SSPX depends upon the Athanasian precedent
    – Athanasius was mistaken
    – so the SSPX is mistaken.

    Now AFAIK the SSPX doesn’t depend upon the Athanasian precedent, so the syllogism doesn’t work. But as a polemic against the SSPX, it’s undoubtedly a tactic worth your tryng.

    But what’s interesting is the line you take for the to-you-necessary proof that “Athanasius was mistaken” (even if it’s fundamentally irrelevant to the SSPX argument). You write “Liberius was weak and his pontificate was fraught with problems, partly of his own creation” (sounds familiar?), but then you continue “Liberius seems to have been more sinned against than sinner”. I realise you’re not actually accusing Athanasius himself of sinning “against” Liberius, merely of being “mistaken”, but the result of your logic seems to identify two opposing sides:
    Team X:
    – weak popes with pontificates fraught with problems e.g. Liberius, and others more recent
    – and apologists for the above
    Team Y:
    – those who in Fr Z’s opinion mistakenly condemn “weak popes with pontificates fraught with problems”
    – e.g. St Athanasius (Fr Z said so – read it above)
    – e.g. Abp. Lefebvre and the SSPX

    To conclude, thanks to you dear Father, I am now even more comfortable where I find myself – on Team Y!

    God bless you as ever

  14. paul: You don’t understand the issues very well.

    A little knowledge is dangerous.

  15. paulbailes says:

    Thankyou, Father [You are very welcome.]

  16. C.L. says:

    This was very interesting. It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to read a good explanation of the case of Pope Honorius. It seems he was condemned as a heretic by the Third Council of Constantinople over the whole question of Monophysitism and Monothelitism. “To Honorius, the heretic, anathema!” How, I wonder, does the doctrine of Papal Infallibility (to which I subscribe wholly) get around that?

  17. Jack Hughes says:

    With respect Father I’m not sure you entirely understand the issues from the point of view of the average SSPX’er.

    Those of us who wern’t brought up attending society Masses were often hounded out/made to feel unwelcome in our old N.O. Parishes simply because we were FAITHFULL Catholics, we were given dirty looks for criticising the overuse of EMHC’s, wearing appropriate attire for Holy Mass, kneeling for communion on the tounge,always recieving from the Priest and holding to an Othordox interpritation of Vatican Two Ect, Ect.

    As for the claim that the faculties of our priests are ‘suspended’ we have a problem taking it seriously when entire Bishop’s conferences routinely go rouge and distort the faith and public heretics like Mcbrien, Weakland et al are allowed to roam freely all whilst ‘retaining’ thier faculties. With situations like this who can blame us for sometimes thinking that ‘we are the Church’, I’ll concede that Williamson has a habbit of making stupid statements but when he does Lord Felley usually orders him back to the doghouse and that shuts him up for a few months, also despite his ‘quirky’ statements Williamson to my knowledge has never made a heretical statement in public, unlike the head of the German Bishops Conference.

    [You know what? I just went back to the top and took a look at the title and content of the top entry.]

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    C.L with regards to Honorius if my memory serves me correctly he was condemmed for failure to propogate Othordox doctrine rather than endorsing a heretical one.

  19. Tim Ferguson says:


    with respect, and having known Fr. Z for more than a few years, I think he knows well – probably better than you, I’d venture, about being “hounded out/made to feel unwelcome” because of his orthodoxy. I can say that, to a lesser extent, I’m familiar with that experience myself.

    However, the issue of priests faculties is not a matter of “feelings” at all – it is a matter of objective fact. Viewing the facts from the position of an SSPX-er, or viewing the facts from the position of someone in full communion with the Holy Father might change one’s perception, but it doesn’t change the fact.

    But this is tending toward a rabbit hole…

  20. Jack Hughes says:


    Sorry but as the society cannonists have demonstrated time and time again, Cannon Law is on our side with regards to faculties. BTW does anyone know where St Pius V’s tomb is located within the basilica? [It’s CANON Law.]

  21. Sid says:

    The Tomb of Saint Pius V, as well as Pope Sixtus V, is in the Basilica’s own Sistine Chapel, the liturgically south transept (to the right of the high altar).

  22. Oleg-Michael says:

    Funnily, the Eastern ‘Orthodox’ (and perhaps some of the Eastern Catholics too) consider Pope Liberius as a saint.

    But isn’t he shown playing… golf on the first bas-relief or repousse?

  23. C.L. says:

    Jack, thanks. I was aware of that generality but it doesn’t really solve the problem of a pope who was specifically asked for a theological judgement and decided to let sleeping Monophysite dogs lie for the sake of nominal reunification. Honorius totally bungled the question raised by Sergius. He was condemned as a heretic by the sixth general council. As I said, I don’t doubt papal infallibility but I like to understand and be more than passably well informed – apologetically speaking – about the Church’s history. This episode does puzzle me, as it did some of the fathers at Vatican I. It seems that Honorius has been condemned by history not for what he did but for what he didn’t do. I think this story is immensely important today, as cautionary tale. New Advent says Honorius “was a heretic, not in intention, but in fact.” How many modern fathers of the Church – by virtue of what they haven’t condemned and by the phony eirenicism they have pursued as policy (qua Honorius) – also deserve that description: “heretic, not in intention, but in fact”? Hundreds, would be my guess.

  24. Jack: Cannon Law is on our side …

    Hmm … Shotgun law?

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