Surely it would appear strange to many that a parish in a hot tropical place like Centro-Enrile (formerly Cabug) in Cagayan be named under the patronage of Our Lady of Snows or Nuestra Señora de las Nieves.
How this Marian title originated is just as interesting to know as how two places of great geographical and cultural divide, the Liberian Pontifical Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Manaoag, Pangasinan, are now intimately associated.
Based on a medieval legend that became very popular in the 10th century, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a certain John of Roman nobility and directed him to her chosen site, for him to construct the first temple in Rome dedicated to her.
As the story goes, during one hot summer on Aug. 5 in the 4th century, in order to affirm her wish, she miraculously showered down snow on the Equiline Hill where the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome stands until today. Thus, from this popular account came about another Marian title, Sancta Maria ad Nives or Our Lady of Snows.
Beyond the snow legend
Aug. 5 has been retained in the revised liturgical calendar of Vatican II as the memorial of the Dedication of Saint Mary Major.
A very special feature of this celebration in Rome is the traditional Nevicata (snow fall). This is customarily done in the presence of a big crowd gathered in the basilica’s quadrangle during the early evening, at around 8 p.m., to witness the shower of immaculately white confetti mimicking snow accompanied by celestial music of a live symphony orchestra.
Those who are planning to go on a pilgrimage or tour to Rome during the hot month of August can mark this date to have an opportunity to see the Nevicata.
More than the claim that the miracle of the snows occurred during the reign of Pope Liberius (332-336 C.E.), the Liber Pontificalis or Book of Popes provides basic information that the earliest structure of the basilica, now non-extant, was constructed on the Equiline Hill during his time. With that, the basilica is also honored with the title Basilica Liberiana.
To honor the divine motherhood of Mary, Pope Sixtus III (432-440 C.E.) reconstructed the basilica with greater grandiosity, a year after the triumph of the doctrine of Theotokos (Mother of God) in the Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E.
Because the proclamation of the Theotokos was considered the conquest of all heresies, it became very often a practice during the Middle Ages that books and parchments adjudged heretical and immodest were burned at the doorsteps of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
Major basilica for pilgrimage
The Basilica of St. Mary Major, near the Central Train Station of Rome, is still considered one of the important places of pilgrimage or tourism in the city for historical, religious and cultural reasons.
In addition to being known as the mother of Marian churches, the First Marian Sanctuary of the World and the Second Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, after the St. John Lateran (thus, a Pontifical basilica), the St. Mary Major houses within its walls great cultural, artistic as well as spiritual patrimonies which offer exploration delight and spiritual abundance to visitors and pilgrims.
The basilica is also placed under the title of Sancta Maria ad Preasepe, or St. Mary of the Manger, because at the very heart of the main nave is a submerged chapel where a silver reliquary is exposed. It is supposed to contain relics of the manger where the newly born baby Jesus Christ was made to rest in Bethlehem.
Some episodes from the Bible and the life of Virgin Mary are illustrated in magnificent mosaics on the walls, the triumphal arch and the apse of the basilica.
Other exquisite types of ornaments are incorporated in the adornments of the altars and tombs of some important personages such as St. Jerome, St. Matthias and St. Pope Pius V. It also has the tomb of Bernini, the famous artist of the Italian Baroque.
Venerated in one of the side chapels is the believed-to-be-miraculous image, more properly an icon, of Mary with the title Salus Populi Romani (Health of the Roman People).
According to tradition, the image was carried in procession around the city by Pope Gregory the Great, miraculously ending the pestilence of 6th-century Rome. The Basilica of St. Peter is said to have been saved from the fire of the mid-19th century when the image was displayed by Pope Leo IV (847-855 C.E.)
In 1527, the image was solemnly crowned by Clement VII. Later, Gregory XVI crowned it again following the vow made by the people of Rome when they were delivered from cholera.
Perhaps this was the same image carried in nocturnal procession on the eve of the feast of the Dormition, now the solemnity of the Assumption, alluded to in the Liber Pontificalis.
Described in another source, on the eve of the Dormition of Our Lady, by midnight the image of Christ was brought out in a procession from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major, and from there the image of Mary was made to join the image of Christ in the solemn religious procession that meandered back to St. John Lateran.
In 1566, the saintly Dominican Pope Pius V suppressed the nocturnal procession due to certain abuses. Most probably just like in many other festive occasions, the participants engaged in some sort of excessive revelries after the procession until the wee hours of the morning.
Lady on a tree
In an almost similar folk account, the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by a bright light is claimed to have appeared on top of a tree and called a farmer to whom she revealed her wish to build a shrine on her chosen location. From the native word taoag, meaning “to call,” the town of the shrine traces its name Manaoag.
Although historically improbable, some locals still claim that the carved wooden pedestal of clouds adorned with three cherubic heads, now in the middle of Museo de Nuestra Señora de Manaoag, is a remnant of the tree upon which the Virgin Mary stood.
The shrine has become very popular and a center of Marian pilgrimages in the Philippines for the very important reason that heavenly and miraculous favors are believed to be obtained through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Our Lady of the Rosary of Manaoag.
Enthroned at the center of the sanctuary is the centuries-old image in ivory and wood of Our Lady, which is similar to the Salus Populi Romani in its regal depiction of carrying the Child Jesus on her left arm.
The locals also refer to her as Apo Baket, an Iloko word of endearment used to address Our Lady to mean “venerable elder lady.”
As a way of official recognition of its renown, the image was canonically crowned in 1926. And, to commemorate the 84th anniversary of the canonical coronation and the 109th anniversary of the Dominicans’ return to Manaoag, Museo de Nuestra Señora de Manaoag was inaugurated together with the other renovated areas of the church on April 21, 2010.
Deliverance from fire
Manaoag has its own version of the church being delivered from fire. It is said that during the early period of the settlement, when the non-Christian natives from the mountain tribes burned the village of the newly converted Christians, the church of thatch roof where the Christians took refuge was saved from fire.
Again, such deliverance was attributed to Our Lady whose image was supposedly displayed to avert the flames.
Today, the miracle is depicted in one of the murals inside the shrine. Also, a visitor in the shrine’s museum is welcomed by a 2ftx3ft painting of a local painter, FC Zarate, dated 1975, which illustrates the miracle of the fire at the center of all the other wonders attributed to Our Lady’s intercession.
Another deliverance from destruction happened during the Second World War: The bombs dropped by a Japanese warplane did not explode, thus saving once more the church and the refugees. The incident is considered a miracle.
Both under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary and with some similar traditions, as if by divine affirmation of their affinity, the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Manaoag, with approval of the ecclesiastical authority, have formed a kind of spiritual bond that will last in perpetuity.
Last July 22, the solemn event of formally proclaiming the spiritual bond was celebrated with no less than Archbishop Socrates Villegas of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, as the main celebrant. He led the ceremonies attended by numerous clergy, religious, parishioners and devoted pilgrims.
The church was truly jam-packed that, unless one were to gaze upward, one would not notice the starkly geometrically decorated but magnificently imposing dome resting on pendentives on which hung the huge oval paintings of the four Evangelists, by Rafael del Casal, one of the country’s best portraitists.
“Today, you have every reason to be proud children of the Virgin of Manaoag,” the archbishop told the huge throng in his homily. “This shrine of Our Lady is the first, and until now the only, church in the Philippines to be given the title ‘affiliate’ of one of the four papal basilicas. This shrine, among all other shrines, has been honored by the papal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome with a special bond of spiritual affinity in perpetuity! The spiritual benefits that you can gain by visiting the papal basilicas, you can also receive by visiting the Shrine of Manaoag. The only one in the Philippines right now! Manaoag, you are blessed among all the Marian shrines of this country.
“In this part of the country,” the prelate added, “the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Manaoag has drawn millions of pilgrims seeking healing for body and spirit, success and victory in their undertakings, peace and serenity in the midst of life’s troubles. The poor and the rich, young and old, men and women, powerless and powerful—they are all children of the Virgin of Manaoag. No one has gone to Manaoag and left the shrine the same.”
In the crowd during the historic event were José de Venecia Jr., former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rep. “Manay Gina” de Venecia of the 4th district of Pangasinan.
Gratitude and hope
After the “Te Deum” was sung in thanksgiving, Fr. Stephen Redillas, OP, prior of the convent, delivered his words of thanks and disclosed that the idea of coming up with the spiritual bond between the papal basilica and the shrine was Archbishop Soc’s. He assured the Dominican community in Manaoag would continue to improve the facilities and services for the sake of the pilgrims.
Taking care of the preparations was Fr. Rolando Mactal, OP, chaplain of the shrine, whose name was mentioned in the document issued by Rome, as the petitioner of the plenary indulgence from the Supreme Pontiff.
Visitors will have a chance to view the copy of the original document in Latin, which is posted together with the marker on the left side of the wall near the church’s entrance.
The first of its kind and the only one in the Philippines, it is hoped that this event of spiritual knot will not only be etched in history but will bear a sense of pride manifested in forthcoming customs and traditions.
Don’t be surprised if one of these days there will be a kind of Nevicata or a nocturnal procession in Manaoag, minus, of course, the excesses and the burning of books!
As pilgrims are about to approach or leave the shrine, they enjoy the sight of colorful goodies on display along roadsides. These are the lines of stalls outside the walls of the church’s patio, which sell souvenirs, religious articles, brooms, woven baskets, sweet tropical fruits like mangoes, avocados, chicos, bananas. Not to be missed are the native kakanin, such as puto, kutsinta, bibingka and the much sought-after tupig.
In one popular television show, the tupig of Manaoag was rated as probably the best tupig in the region. Treat your palate with this kakanin during one of your visits and give your own culinary score.
However, these goodies are just the sideshow of what the pilgrims and visitors from all over the country seek. They come to pray, ask favors and to receive blessings. With this recently established spiritual bond that can dispense plenary indulgence, they have the opportunity to receive added blessings and renew their life that is attuned to the Gospel.
To visit the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Manaoag would mean this time a lot more to see, enjoy, pray and receive an abundance of blessings.
With these two Marian shrines, St. Mary Major in Rome and Our Lady of the Rosary in Manaoag, coming together to dispense more blessings, it means Mother Mary, who showered snow and stood on a tree, continues to watch us now lovingly with her two eyes, listen to our supplications with her two ears, assist us with her two hands and lead us with her two feet in this pilgrimage of life toward the kingdom of her Son.
Fr. Isidro Abaño, OP, is the director of the University of Santo Tomas Museum of Arts and Sciences.