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Rome Notes: Sealing the Christmas Season; Madonna of Medicine

Nativity Scene Finally Taken Down

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 4, 2005 (Zenit) - Never let it be said that Rome doesn't know how to party, at least liturgically. The Christmas season just drew to a close this week as the crèche and tree in St. Peter's Square were finally packed away.

Throughout the last weeks of January, puzzled visitors nudged one another asking whether there was a reason that the tree was still up or if Vatican employees were just lazy.

The Catholic calendar works on a slightly different time-scale than that of marketing and sales. While shops consider Christmas day the end of shopping season, here Christmas is just the beginning of festivities. The reminders of this joyous period traditionally stay around until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation.

But even as the Christmas lights come down and the grayness of February encroaches, the Romans respond with the bright confetti and the brilliant costumes of Carnival, squeezing the last few days of jubilation before the long haul of Lent.

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Healthy Reminder

Last Sunday a special celebration took place, co-hosted by the patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major and the city of Rome. Together they commemorated the feast of the transfer of the icon Madonna Salus Populi to its present location, the Borghese chapel of St. Mary Major.

The icon, whose name means Our Lady Health of the People, has been in the church for 1,500 years. Legend attributes its creation to St. Luke, physician and Evangelist, who is held to have made the first portrait of the Madonna and Child and for this reason is the patron saint of painters. According to medieval guidebooks, this icon would be that portrait.

The icon earned its title during the plague of 597. Rome's population was being decimated by illness. Seeking intercession from the Blessed Virgin, Pope Gregory the Great organized a procession bearing the image from St. Mary Major to St. Peter's Basilica.

As the procession approached the bridge to cross the Tiber River, legend has it that St. Michael the Archangel appeared over Hadrian's tomb (today known as Castel Sant'Angelo in honor of this event) and, before the eyes of all, re-sheathed his sword. The plague ended and from that moment on, the Madonna Salus Populi became the protectress of the city in times of pestilence.

The Madonna has since been carried in procession through the city many times over the years, the last time being in 1837 when Pope Gregory XVI led the faithful to pray for the end of a cholera epidemic.

During World War II, the faithful made frequent pilgrimages to the Madonna Salus Populi as bombing went on day and night on the outskirts of Rome.

The commemorative Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Bernard Law, archpriest of the basilica, was splendid, well worthy of honoring Rome's great protector. The mosaics shimmered in all their golden glory and the magnificent choir filled the church with sacred song, enhancing the grandeur of this age-old tradition.

The cardinal and several concelebrating bishops focused the soaring splendor around the altar. Their gold and white feast-day robes, with flashes of purple and red denoting their office, echoed the porphyry and gilt bronze of the canopy and altar.

Seated behind the celebrants near the choir were dignitaries in dark suits wearing the red, white and green sash of Italian magisterial office. This delegation from the city of Rome also had a part to play during the celebrations.

At the moment of the offertory, two Rome policemen in full dress uniform, with one side of their dark capes thrown over the shoulder to reveal a splash of red lining, came up the aisle bearing a golden chalice. This chalice is a gift offered annually by the city of Rome to the Madonna Salus Populi in thanks for her maternal care.

In these days that the Holy Father is hospitalized with a nasty chest flu, a bug which has been plaguing the city since early January, it is a good time for all of us spiritual Romans to invoke once again the aid of the Madonna Salus Populi.

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Dorothy's Daring

This year marks the 1,700th anniversary of a particularly savage moment in the persecution of Christians by Roman emperor Diocletian, and as a result many jubilees of martyrdoms will be celebrated.

The Vatican got a timely start on this important anniversary by publishing the Roman Martyrology last Dec. 4, listing the more than 7,000 saints and martyrs venerated by the Catholic Church.

Opening the year of martyr jubilees is the feast day of St. Dorothy, martyred in Caesarea of Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). Her church in Rome, San Dorotea in Trastevere, started celebrating her feast, coming up Feb. 6, with a three-day conference. ...

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