Dedication of St. Mary Major: Pope Liberius, St. Athanasius, and a miracle

That's a hoe, not a golf club.

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

In 350 the Emperor 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 acknowledge Christ as consubstantial with the Father. Neither, apparently do liberals who rejected the new translation.) 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 to the Roman Pontiff.

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, having anti-Manichean themes, prepared and directed by the future Pope Leo I. 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. BillyT92679 says:

    I will always remember Liberius because he was the first Sovereign Pontiff to not be canonized.

  2. KM Edwards says:

    Father, I do not wish to sound or be “tongue in cheek”. Given the focus of this blog on “the precise translation”, can you please enumerate what would count as ‘disobedience’ on the part of the SSPX?
    “SSPXers often invoke him and Athanasius as a way of justifying their disobedience to the Roman Pontiff.”

    I am not affiliated with the SSPX, but I admit to having a soft spot for them. My rationale is as follows:
    – Most people I know in the SSPX in Toronto have to deal with the same things I do – neo-modernistical clergy, the homo-heresy having taken over our ‘Catholic’ school system (without any condemnation of our Cardinal, who although he has advised against it, claims to have no control over the school boards – no excommunications have ever been issued, and our Catholic School Board actually had formal official representation at the latest World Pride 2014 Parade in Toronto), 99% of “Catholic” couples here practice contraception or have been sterilized (free of charge thanks to state medicare), 80+% of students leaving our Catholic school system becomes Buddhists or agnostics, etc, etc. In short, they along with the rest of us Catholics are victims.
    – Anytime liberals and modernists disobey the official magesterium of the Church, except in the rarest of cases, they get praised or at best get a slap on the wrist. Traditional priests on the other hand get kicked out of their parishes and dealt with very harshly.
    – The SSPX has led numerous Rosary Crusades for the intentions of the Holy Father, believe in Francis, warts and all, as the Vicar of Christ, and mention him in all of their masses
    – The SSPX was very supportive of Pope Benedict’s rapprochement. The deal was scuttled when wording that both the Pope and Bishop Fellay had originally agreed to change, was, 2 years after the fact, re-instated mysteriously just as winds of the Pope’s imminent abdication were surfacing
    – The SSPX does not advocate disobeying the Pope on anything except practices that are not part of the official magesterium such as (a) interfaith prayer meetings and ecumenical dialogue bereft of the spirit of conversion (b) the novelties relating to female altar servers (c) the watering down by a 1000 exceptions of the moral law of the church with regards to the control of births (d) refuse to celebrate the Novus Ordo.

    I agree there are a number among their ranks who exhibit fringe extremism and who do fall into errors/heresies when talking about the validity of the Novus Ordo, but do we hold common lay people not among their ranks to such rigors of legality?

    In my view, this normalization hinges on acknowledging that Vatican II was a legitimate ecumenical council, infallible in any teaching on faith and morals that correspond with the perennial magesterium, and fallible, per Pope Paul VI’s Nota Praevia, on prudential matters such as ecumenism. The NO Mass is valid, but we can debate its liceity on the point as to whether the Roman Pontiff abused his authority in making such a revolutionary change to the Ordo, or not.

    But beyond those fine points of theology, I do not see the SSPX disobeying the supreme pontiff and believe it is unnecessarily injurious to make such a claim. I know SSPX parishioners who are simply protecting their children from the school system and bad confessors, wanting to ensure they get the straight goods in the confessional, who pray for the Holy Father, whose priests cooperate with the Ordinary on marriages and other things that only the Ordinary has faculties to pronounce on, etc.

    Where is the disobedience other than refusing to sign documents that are intended to kill tradition?

    Could we have hoped for the wonders of Summorum had the SSPX not taken a stand against the imminent destruction of the Latin Mass?

    I ask sincerely. I mean no offence. God bless.

  3. TWF says:

    I celebrated today’s feast of the dedication of St. Mary’s Major by hearing mass at Santa Maria la Menor, in Santo Domingo, the oldest church in the Americas, and couldn’t help noticing the plethora of grape / vine embellishments in the side chapel where the mass was celebrated. I had never noticed that feature prior to Father’s recent post. The liturgy in Santo Domingo isn’t always as traditional as it could be, but I do always enjoy seeing an abundance of nuns in traditional habits going about their daily business.

  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    If you will indulge a popular-literary trivia question, do we know after which ‘Liberio’ Peppone’s son is named in the Don Camillo story about his baptism? St. Liberius of Ravenna? St. Liberius of Ancona? Presumably not Pope Liberius. Or cheekily ambiguously so, in the background of one of the Saints named Liberius? (I always assumed a sort of toned-down revolutionary wordplay with ‘libero’, etc., was involved in this revised choice of Peppone’s.)

  5. Matt R says:

    It was very neat getting to go to Pontifical Mass at the throne celebrated by Cardinal Burke in St. Louis, since there the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is right across the river in Illinois.

  6. jameeka says:

    what s complicated history, and Fr Bossuet mentioned too! no clue who was “right”.

  7. Gerard Plourde says:

    A timely lesson in history and linguistics. The words we use to express ideas are important and the story of Liberius and Athanasius and their efforts to preserve the understanding of the unity of Jesus and the Father carries important lessons. Liberius protected the Papacy by following an almost Thomas More-like strategy of preserving the doctrine through ambiguity. Athanasius accepted six years of exile in the desert in obedience to the order of the Arian Emperor Constantinus rather than further divide God’s Church.

    The return of “consubstantial” and “incarnate” to the Creed and the heightened formality and precision of the language employed in the current Mass translation are welcome as it is through our attentive participation in the Sacrifice that we reaffirm the Faith we profess and thus give added praise to our Creator.

  8. Magash says:

    KM Edwards,
    I too would like to see the SSPX regularized, however their disobedience is well documented. To start with there is the four bishops ordained in disobedience to the Roman Pontiff. The SSPX does not get to decide what is Magisterial teaching and what is not. The Magisterium gets to do that. The Magisterium has decided that Vatican II is a valid Ecumenical Council. The Magisterium, in the person of the Roman Pontiff has decided that a certain amount of ecumenical rapprochement is useful in the ultimate saving of souls.
    Meanwhile the SSPX is disobedient because they are preporting to conduct sacraments without authority, since that authority comes from the Ordinary. As Father has explained many times the SSPX cannot conduct valid marriages or confessions without permission of the Ordinary. (Technically I would suppose that SSPX marriages are invalid due to lack of form.) They do not ask for permission of the Ordinary to set up their facilities within his diocese. This is disobedience to canon law.
    I would speculate that they do not trust the Holy Spirit to protect the Church from error, else they would not hesitate to place themselves under the authority of the Pope. I fear they have overplayed their hand and missed the best chance they had for reintegration with the Church.

  9. Gerard Plourde says:


    I agree completely with your analysis of the tragedy of the SSPX. If the breach with Rome is not healed and the history of the Old Catholic Churches is any guide one wonders whether Archbishop Lefebvre would recognize the SSPX’s descendants a century from now.

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