SALUS POPULI ROMANI – A needful son’s pilgrimage

– Maria Kwak*

The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, reported that Pope Francis spent his afternoon on the Third Sunday of Lent to offer a prayer to the Virgin Mary, Salus Populi Romani at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the Pope made a private visit for a prayer to this miraculous icon in the hope of bringing an end to the outbreak.

Pope Francis’s special devotion to this Marian icon has been evidenced by his initiatives for conservation and restoration efforts in the recent years. The image went through a process of restoration by the Vatican Museum in 2018 and was given the honour of a Pontifical Mass by the Pope on 28 January, 2018. The Holy Father is known to pay a visit to the icon before and after his international Apostolic Journeys.

Veneration for this icon has been the protagonist during difficult times in the city of Rome throughout the centuries. It is believed that this image was discovered in Crete in the 6th century. The Greek initials ΜΡ ΘΥ on the two corners of the image indicate “Mother of God,” which was bestowed by the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Salus Populi Romani, meaning the “Salvation of the Roman People, is venerated for such crises that we face in the most recent days.

Romans are no stranger to epidemics throughout the centuries. In the year 590, a great plague took many lives of the Romans, including the bishop of Rome Pelagius II. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590-604), who was still a deacon,  succeeded Pelagius II. In the midst of the battle with the epidemic, he organised a procession with the Salus Populi Romani image with groups of people. Historical accounts tell us that this was probably unusual at the time as the people of Rome believed in St Peter’s protection over the city. In the year 593, Pope Gregory again carried out a procession with this icon in the streets of Rome.

Pope St Gregory the Great was the first person to emphasize the pedagogical role of sacred images in the lives of the faithful. In fact, images help us remember the meaning of our faith and lead the way to devotion. Some scholars assert that his stay in Constantinople, where he was ambassador and where he had witnessed such customs, may have inspired him to initiate street processions with the image.

Pope Francis and Pope Gregory the Great were not the only popes to seek protection from the Salus Populi Romani. During the second cholera pandemic (1826-1837), Pope Gregory XVI is believed to invoke her blessing to put an end to the outbreak also known as the Asiatic cholera pandemic. At the end of the crisis, he granted the image a Canonical Coronation on 15 August through the Papal bull Cælestis Regina. (Photo credit: vaticannews.va)

*MA candidate in History at USJ


INNO ALLA SALUS POPULI ROMANI (Al tuo tempio secolare, V. Miserachs)

Temple of Thy Gracious Snow/ Fallen on the Night Most Hallowed;

‘Twas Our Lady’s Favour Shown, /Bounteous for the Church of Rome.

R. O Our Lady, Holy Mary, /Stream of Light, and Help of Rome!

Be Our Vanguard, /Squash Our Foes,

Source of Life, of Love Thou Own.

Be Our Vanguard, /Squash Our Foes,

Source of Life, of Love Thou Own.

Divine Mother, Theotokos, /Mystic Rose of Our Dear Saviour;

Holy Church Now in Thy Honour /Fills this Golden House with Awe.

R. O Our Lady, Holy Mary, /Stream of Light, and Help of Rome!

Be Our Vanguard, /Squash Our Foes,

Source of Life, of Love Thou Own.

Be Our Vanguard, /Squash Our Foes,

Source of Life, of Love Thou Own.

(English text: Cyril Jerome LAW, Jr)

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