Perhaps no man ascended to the throne of St. Peter in more difficult circumstances than Pope Gregory, who is most justly called “the Great”. When he became pope in 590, the city of Rome lay in ruins. It had once been the envy of the world, but no longer. The emperors had long ago moved their capital far away to the East in Constantinople. The Roman Empire eventually collapsed altogether in the West, and for the next 150 years or so the city was fought over by several different pagan tribes. No victor ever bothered to restore the damage done in the fighting. And when Gregory became pope yet another great calamity befell the city when one of the later waves of the “Plague of Justinian” broke out. This pandemic began in Constantinople about sixty years prior and left tens of millions dead in its wake. Rome was decimated; among the lives it claimed was that of Gregory’s predecessor, Pope Pelagius II. Sickness and death were everywhere.
This was the lot Gregory inherited upon assuming the papal office. What was he to do?
The holy pontiff did not cower in the face of such a crisis. He knew exactly what to do. The confidence he had in his solution to the great problems facing his people came from his experiences years before when serving as papal ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. As a monk, Gregory was enormously interested in liturgical matters and knew well the power of the Church’s public and formalized prayer. While in Constantinople, he keenly observed the common practice of holding processions through the city streets seeking to appease God’s wrath for the alleviation of the plague by the chanting psalms, singing the kyrie eleison, and imploring the intercession of Our Lady. The people of Constantinople had a deep devotion to Mary—their city after all, had been consecrated to her under the title Theotokos—“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”.
After his election in January, Gregory immediately got to work in bringing this practice to Rome, seeking God’s mercy upon the suffering city. This was his first priority and was a work he took up before he was even consecrated as bishop of Rome, which took place on September 3rd, the date his feast is celebrated now. For the cessation of the plague, Gregory ordered a processional litany through the streets of Rome, to take place on April 25th. In could not begin before because in Gregory’s mind everything had to wait until the arrival of the “secret weapon” he was to employ in this spiritual battle and renewal. Gregory made arrangements for a famous icon of Mary, which he learned about while in Constantinople, be brought to Rome. When it arrived, he was present on the banks of the Tiber River to personally receive it from the boat.
But what was so special about this icon that gave Gregory such confidence in its power?
Various traditions holds that it was was painted by the Evangelist St. Luke during one of his interviews with Mary while he was writing his Gospel. One of Mary’s prized possessions was a table made by her son during his youth in Nazareth when he worked as a carpenter in St. Joseph’s shop. Knowing St. Luke was also an artist, wood from the special table was given to him upon which to paint an icon of the Mother with her Divine Child. As Joan Carroll Cruz writes in Miraculous Images of Our Lady, describing accounts of what transpired:
While applying his brush and paints, St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her son, facts which the Evangelist later recorded in his Gospel. Legend also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by Saint Helena in the 4th century. Together with other sacred relics, the painting was transported to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for its enthronement.
So, after having been in Constantinople for many years, the icon was brought by Gregory to Rome so that through the intercession of the Mother of God, God’s mercy might befall the city. Gregory ordered the procession take place on April 25th, 590. Throngs of people proceeded from seven different churches in Rome, making their way to the Basilica of St. Mary Major—the chief Marian church of the city.
The plague was raging so fiercely that eighty people collapsed and died from it while walking in procession. When the crowds finally arrived at the basilica, Pope Gregory was there to meet them, holding the icon. Taking his place at the head of the now united procession, Gregory held the icon aloft and led the people through the narrow streets of the city. All were chanting various litanies until finally, as they approached the Vatican, the heavens opened and a startling image of St. Michael could be seen sheathing his sword on the summit of Hadrian’s Mausoleum.
Seeing this as an obvious sign that God looked with favor upon the prayers rendered to Him through Mary, Gregory led the people in giving thanks by chanting the Regina Caeli—the Easter Marian Antiphon. A speedy diminution of the plague followed. Hadrian’s Mausoleum was renamed Castel Sant’ Angelo, with a statue of St. Michael sheathing his sword placed on top. The icon of the Mary was placed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major so it could be continually venerated by the grateful people of Rome. It has affectionately been given the title—Salus Populi Romani—“Health of the Roman People.”
The Catholic world knows by now the profound devotion the current pontiff has to this hallowed icon. Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major the day after his election to pray before the icon, entrusting his mission as Bishop of Rome to she who is the Salus Populi Romani. As a matter of course, he visits the basilica to pray in front of the icon before and after every apostolic journey abroad.
In the face of the sickness, death, and upheavals across the world due to the still raging coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis—like his predecessor Gregory the Great—turned to Mary, Salus Populi Romani. Yesterday, before an empty and rain-covered St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis imparted an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing “to the city and to the world”—usually reserved only for Christmas, Easter, and upon the election of a new pontiff. The moving ceremony included Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, chanted litanies, and a reading from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus calming the storm. The Holy Father spoke poignantly about how our self-confident society, which has spurned the helping hand God, must return to Him:
Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!”, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.
Beside the Holy Father were two images he bought from the city. One was the famous crucifix kept within the Church of San Marcello al Corso. In 1522, when plague broke out in Rome, this crucifix was processed through the different districts of the city with the people chanting, “Mercy, Holy Crucifix!” The public authorities were worried that the crowds would increase the contagion but, instead, the plague rapidly ended wherever the crucifix was carried.
The other image was, of course, the icon of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, brought from the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
As she looked with favor on the prayers of Pope Gregory and the people of Rome all those centuries ago, may she heed the petitions of Peter’s Successor in our own day:
Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts.
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