The story of the miraculous healing of a young Catholic pilgrim on August 5 in Fatima during the World Youth Day festivities has recently been circulating widely in Catholic media. According to several news sources, the young teenaged Spanish pilgrim named Jimena, who lost 95% of her vision two years ago, had her sight miraculously restored while praying in the pews after receiving Holy Communion. Jimena has attributed this healing to Our Lady of the Snows, whose feast day is commemorated on the day she had her sight restored. According to Aleteia, she said that this grace was received after she had just completed a Novena in honor of Our Lady of the Snows. It is interesting that this particular event has been invoked in this instance, because Pope Francis has promoted this Marian devotion since the very beginning of his pontificate.
“Our Lady of the Snows” refers to a miraculous event that is closely tied to the foundation of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome. Pope Francis famously visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the day after his election as Roman Pontiff, after telling the crowds during his appearance on the loggia, “Tomorrow I want to go to pray to the Madonna so that she protects all of Rome.” Since then, prior to each of his international pilgrimages, Pope Francis pays a visit to the basilica to ask for the special protection of the Blessed Virgin, and he goes back to the same basilica to give thanks each time he returns from a journey. In all, the pope has made over 100 visits to St. Mary Major to offer prayers to Our Lady.
The legend behind the construction of the Basilica of St. Mary Major after the miracle of Our Lady of the Snows involves Pope Liberius (r. 352-366), who was falsely accused of having subscribed to the heresy of Arianism by the Arians themselves, after he had refused to condemn St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373). While the legend only first appears in written form a few hundred years after the event, the feast associated with the miracle of Our Lady of the Snows was extended to be commemorated by the universal Church by Pope Pius V (r. 1566-1572). According to this legend, Our Lady appeared to a wealthy Roman patrician named John and his wife, who were childless and without heirs. They vowed to dispose of their possessions in honor of Our Lady, and after they prayed one night asking the Blessed Virgin to show them how they might best do so, she appeared to them both in a vision. She requested that they should construct a basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, in a spot that would be traced out by snow. Given the fact that snowfall is an unusual occurrence in Rome, the apparent fulfilment of this promise was particularly striking, since the snow arrived to trace out the location of the basilica during the height of summer on August 5.
According to the legend of Our Lady of the Snows, the Blessed Virgin also appeared to Pope Liberius on the same night telling him about this event, so that he could go and witness it for himself, in order to ensure that the basilica was completed with him personally overseeing its construction. Pope Liberius is said to have brought the icon of the Madonna and Child known as the Salus Populi Romani (Protectoress of the People of Rome) from his private chapel, in order for it to be installed in the basilica itself. This icon, which is reputed to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, is the one that Pope Francis pays particular devotion to during each of his visits to the basilica. So it is noteworthy that a devotion associated with a pope who was falsely accused of heresy has been invoked during the events of the World Youth Day at Fatima, since many radical traditionalists appeal to the alleged contents of a hidden “attachment” to the Third Secret of Fatima in order to support their accusations of heresy against Pope Francis. According to the radical traditionalists and sedevacantists accusing Pope Francis of heresy, this alleged hidden portion of the secret of Fatima concerns an “apostasy at the very top of the Church” — thus contradicting the doctrine of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See affirmed by the Formula of Hormisdas, Pope Agatho’s profession of faith, and ultimately, the content of the First Vatican Council. Could this miraculous healing associated with Our Lady of the Snows be a sign from Our Lady of Fatima herself, warning against using her name to accuse Pope Francis of heresy?
It is somewhat ironic that the content of the Third Secret itself details an attack on a “bishop dressed in white.” During a separate vision recounted by Sr. Lucia in her biographical memoirs, St. Jacinta Marto similarly witnessed a vision of a pope being accosted by an angry baying mob, resembling the group of stone-throwing Pharisees whom Jesus confronts in John 8:1-11:
“I don’t know how it was, but I saw the Holy Father in a very big house, kneeling by a table, with his head buried in his hands, and he was weeping,” she told the two other seers, brother Francisco and cousin Lucia dos Santos, one day, after they had taken a siesta on the slabs of her parents well. She continued: “Outside the house, there were many people. Some of them were throwing stones, others were cursing him and using bad language. Poor Holy Father, we must pray very much for him.”
The case of Pope Liberius is still used by radical traditionalists today, as a means of dissent from the papal magisterium, by appealing to various instances of supposedly “heretical” popes. Ed Feser recently brought up the case of Pope Liberius in response to a podcast by Michael Lofton on Reason & Theology concerning the indefectibility of the ordinary Magisterium, and asserts the false claim that Catholics are “at liberty to take either position” as to discerning whether or not Pope Liberius had subscribed to an Arian formula. This is simply not true. In his encyclical Quartus Supra, Pope Pius IX acknowledges that Liberius was falsely accused of subscribing to the heresy by his Arian accusers, as a consequence of his refusal to condemn St. Athanasius:
But the neo schismatics declare that they do not oppose the Catholic Church’s principles in the least. Their sole aim is to protect the rights of their churches and their nation and even the rights of their supreme Emperor; they falsely allege that We have infringed these rights. By this means, they fearlessly make us responsible for the present disorder. Exactly in this way did the Acacian schismatics act towards Our predecessor St. Gelasius. And previously the Arians falsely accused Liberius, also Our predecessor, to the Emperor Constantine, because Liberius refused to condemn St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and refused to support their heresy. For as the same holy Pontiff Gelasius wrote to the Emperor Anastasius on this matter, “a frequent characteristic of sick people is to reproach the doctors who recall them to health by appropriate measures rather than agree to desist from and condemn their own harmful desires.” These appear to be the main grounds on which the neo-schismatics gain their support and solicit the patronage of powerful men for their cause, most wicked as it is. Lest the faithful be led into error, We must deal with these grounds more fully than if We merely had to refute unjust accusations.
Among the ancient sources attesting on behalf of Liberius, the defense offered by Pope Anastasius I (r. 399-402) is particularly striking, since he appeals to the argument from indefectibility as the primary proof. It was this particular episode in Church history that prompted the Church Fathers to fully articulate the doctrine concerning the indefectible faith of the See of Rome. In his letter Dat mihi, addressed to Bishop Venerius of Milan around the year 401, Anastasius defends the orthodoxy of Pope Liberius by maintaining that God would never permit the faith of the Church be overwhelmed by heretical fraud in such a manner:
Very great joy is given me by what took place for the love of Christ, namely, that Italy, victorious in all the world, inflamed by divine zeal and ardor, retained intact that faith which was handed down by the apostles and established by [our] ancestors (and this indeed at the time when Constantius of divine memory reigned as victor over the world); and that the Arian faction was not able to insinuate its defilements by any heretical deception, because our God, as we believe, made sure that this holy and immaculate faith was not contaminated by any blasphemous error of slanderous men – that [faith] which has been discussed and defined at the council assembled at Nicaea by holy men and bishops, who already abide in the repose of the saints. On behalf of this [faith], those who proved themselves then to be holy bishops willingly accepted exile; namely Dionysius – for this reason a servant of God, disposed by divine instruction – or those of holy memory who followed his example: Liberius, bishop of the Roman Church; and also Eusebius of Vercelli, Hilary of Gaul, not to mention the great many who could choose to be fixed on a cross rather than blaspheme God, the Christ, as demanded by the Arian heresy, or call the Son of God, God, the Christ, a creature of the Lord.
In Book 4, Chapter IX of his De Romano Pontifice, St. Robert Bellarmine observed that Tyrannius Rufinus also defended the honor of Pope Liberius by appealing to the indefectibility of the Church. Writing around the year 407, just shortly after Pope Anastasius delivered his defense of Liberius, Rufinus uses Ephesians 5:27 as scriptural proof that the Roman Church is preserved against the corruption of heretical error in his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed:
This is that holy Church which is without spot or wrinkle. For many others have gathered together Churches, as Marcion, and Valentinus, and Ebion, and Manichæus, and Arius, and all the other heretics. But those Churches are not without spot or wrinkle of unfaithfulness. And therefore the Prophet said of them, I hate the Church of the malignants, and I will not sit with the ungodly. But of this Church which keeps the faith of Christ entire, hear what the Holy Spirit says in the Canticles, My dove is one; the perfect one of her mother is one. He then who receives this faith in the Church let him not turn aside in the Council of vanity, and let him not enter in with those who practice iniquity.”
Writing in his De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento in 383, St. Ambrose of Milan maintained that the entire superstructure of the Church rested on the stability of Peter’s faith, which was won in reward for his confession of Christ as the Son of God (Matt 16:16). As a consequence, the gates of hell, which Ambrose equates with heretical doctrines, would never be able to prevail against the rock-like strength of this foundation:
This, then, is Peter, who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather, before the rest of men. And so he is called the foundation, because he knows how to preserve not only his own but the common foundation. Christ agreed with him; the Father revealed it to him. For he who speaks of the true generation of the Father, received it from the Father, did not receive it from the flesh (cf. Mt 16:16-17). Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). But his confession of faith conquered hell. And this confession did not shut out one heresy, for, since the Church like a good ship is often buffeted by many waves, the foundation of the Church should prevail against all heresies.
As such, Ambrose clearly rejected any suggestion that the Petrine See could have been contaminated by the heresy of Arianism. Ambrose is one of the most vocal advocates for the primacy of Rome among the Church Fathers, having coined the famous expression “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, St. Ambrose further explicates his belief that the Petrine primacy was founded upon the constancy of Peter’s faith:
Christ is the rock, for ‘they drank of the same spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor. 10.4); also He denied not to His disciple the grace of this name; that he should be Peter, because he has from the rock (petra) the solidity of constancy, the firmness of faith. Make an effort, therefore, to be a rock! Do not seek the rock outside of yourself, but within yourself! Your rock is your deed, your rock is your mind. Upon this rock your house is built. Your rock is your faith, and faith is the foundation of the Church. If you are a rock, you will be in the Church, because the Church is on a rock. If you are in the Church the gates of hell will not prevail against you.
It is in the writings of Ambrose that we begin to see a further development of the doctrine of indefectibility, which clearly attributes the Roman primacy to the inviolable nature of Peter’s faith. For Ambrose, the stability of Peter’s faith is the very foundation upon which the Church was built. This idea would be further expanded upon in the writings of St. Augustine, who credited the constancy in faith of the successors of Peter to the abiding efficacy of Christ’s prayer detailed in Luke 22:32.
In his 1920 encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro, Pope Benedict XV also defended the honor of Pope Liberius by appealing to the doctrine of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See:
The ancient Fathers, especially those who held the more illustrious chairs of the East, since they accepted these privileges as proper to the pontifical authority, took refuge in the Apostolic See whenever heresy or internal strife troubled them. For it alone promised safety in extreme crises. Basil the Great did so, as did the renowned defender of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius, as well as John Chrysostom. For these inspired Fathers of the orthodox faith appealed from the councils of bishops to the supreme judgement of the Roman Pontiffs according to the prescriptions of the ecclesiastical Canons. Who can say that they were wanting in conformity to the command which they had from Christ? Indeed, lest they should prove faithless in their duty, some went fearlessly into exile, as did Liberius and Silverius and Martinus. Others pleaded vigorously for the cause of the orthodox faith and for its defenders who had appealed to the Pope, or to vindicate the memory of those who had died.
The remarkable parallels between this miraculous healing of young Jimena on the feast of Our Lady of the Snows, which occurred during a World Youth Day event at Fatima —attended by Pope Francis himself — should cause us to sit up and take note. Especially given Pope Francis’s particular devotion to Our Lady of the Snows and the icon of the Protectoress of the people of Rome, and the fact that both he and Pope Liberius have been unjustly accused of heresy — which stands in direct contradiction to the claim that the Catholic faith has always been preserved intact in the Apostolic See. How likely is it that Our Lady would provide this particular grace to Pope Liberius, if he was guilty of subscribing to the heresy of Arianism? Or that such a remarkable grace would be granted to Pope Francis at the site of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima if he was truly guilty of heresy? The fact that Pope Francis has such an unique devotion to the very devotion that this young pilgrim has attributed to her miraculous cure is nothing short of astonishing, and the fact that this healing has occurred at an apparition site which has been unjustly weaponized against the Holy Father makes the significance of this miracle even more profound in scope. It seems that Our Lady has listened to the numerous prayers the Holy Father has made before the icon of Salus Populi Romani, and has truly interceded on behalf of the people of Rome, by coming to the defense of the bishop entrusted to its care.
 Lúcia de Jesus Rosa dos Santos, Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words, 13th ed., Louis Kondor (ed.), trans. Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary (Fatima: Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, 2007), 129.
 Pope Pius IX, Quartus Supra, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1873), n. 16.
 Pope Anastasius I, Dat mihi, (Denz-H 209).
 Tyrannius Rufinus, Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, n. 39, trans. W.H. Fremantle, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co, 1892). PL, Vol. 21, col. 375.
 St. Ambrose of Milan, The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord, 32-35, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 44 (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 230-31.
 St. Ambrose of Milan, Explanatio psalmi 40, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL), vol. 64.
 St. Ambrose of Milan, Commentary in Luke VI.98, CSEL 32.4.
 Benedict XV, Principi Apostolorum Petro, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1920).
Main Image: Vatican Media.
Icon Image: By Fallaner – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107268260
Emmett O'Regan is the author of Unveiling the Apocalypse: The Final Passover of the Church. He is currently a PhD candidate studying Catholic theology at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin. After graduating in 2006 with First Class honours in 2006, he won the theology prize scholarship at the Institute of Theology at Queen's University Belfast. He also won the Sean O'Riordan scholarship at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin in 2019, as well as the Loyola Trust PhD scholarship in 2020. His writings have appeared in various publications, including Vatican Insider and the Catholic Truth Society.