On March 18, 2020, as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a “global pandemic” and as Italy was preparing for a full lockdown, Pope Francis offered a prayer to the Virgin Mary, entrusting the whole world to the protection of Mary. I remember thinking, “that sounds so Catholic,” before scrolling past the headline to consume more anxiety-inducing articles about the pandemic. Yet, when I returned to that prayer today, I found it immensely consoling. Not only was the pope asking Mary to pray for the world, but he was inviting the world to consider Mary as he and the people of Rome do. liée
Pope Francis makes two easy-to-miss references to Rome’s special relationship with the Virgin Mary. In the English translation, he refers to Mary with the titles “Salvation of the Roman People” and “Mother of Divine Love.” The first title is a reference to the Salus Populi Romani icon of the Madonna and Mary and Child. Some pious traditions allege that this large three-feet-by-five-feet icon predates the Gospels. It was purportedly painted by St Luke the Evangelist—on wood from a table that Jesus himself built—while listening to Mary explain the details of her life. Though historians now believe that the icon does not date back to the first century, it has not lost its connection to biblical times. It is displayed in the Paolina Chapel of the Basilica of St Mary Major, near the crypt that is said to contain actual wood from Christ’s manger in Bethlehem.
The icon earned the title salus—salvation, health or welfare—from its earliest connections to the city. Historians say in the year 590, as the plague was beginning to overtake the city of Rome, Pope Gregory the Great ordered that image be taken in a procession around the city to stop the plague. The prayers were answered and the plague ceased. Since then, other popes have taken this image in procession against other mass illnesses like cholera.
Today, Pope Francis has renewed the icon’s popularity. Just after he was elected pope, Francis made a special visit to the basilica to entrust his papacy to Mary. Pilgrims and visitors can also count on seeing the pope away from the crowds at St Peter’s Square when he visits the Salus Populi Romani icon before and after every trip abroad. He recently paid another visit to that icon praying again for an end to the pandemic.