If ever you get to Rome there are four churches that you should put on your list: St Peter’s, St John Lateran, St Paul’s Outside the Walls and Saint Mary Major. It is impossible to say which is the most beautiful for they are all incredibly beautiful in their own way, but all are worth a good long visit.
The last time we were in Rome, March 2014, we spent a whole day in each of these churches and we enjoyed every minute of it. The church of Mary Major comes directly from the teaching that Mary is the Mother of God. This point was debated by Christians for many years, centuries in fact, before the doctrine was formally approved at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD.
Pope Sixtus III built the first church on the site, the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, very shortly afterwards. Sixtus was pope from 432-440AD so the church must have been built almost immediately after the council, and is the oldest church in the Western church that is specifically dedicated to Our Lady.
The reading for today’s Office of Readings is a superb piece of writing by St Cyril of Alexandria who was present at the Council of Ephesus and who was the main proposer of the doctrine that Mary was the Mother of God. In it Cyril sings the praises of Mary and highlights the many graces that the world has received through her.
“What man can sing adequately the praise of Mary? She is both virgin and mother! The wonder astounds me,” writes Cyril.
When you think of it, one of us, a mere human being, was chosen to be the Mother of God. That has to give the human race great dignity, how could it do anything else?