Those who have had the privilege of visiting Rome a number of times, no matter how much effort they put towards seeing all they can -- and absorbing all there is to take in -- realize that for every church, chapel or shrine they visit, they passed up 10 -- for every historical site they study, they miss a dozen.
It is said there are over 700 churches and chapels in Rome alone, so we shouldn't have been surprised during our first several visits to that great city to have missed some of the wonderful shrines that have been erected in the city, as well as in the surrounding area. On our most recent trip to the Holy City we made an effort to visit some of these shrines - and were well rewarded for our efforts.
Just on the edge of what is modern Rome, on the Via Ardeatina, in the area of the Roman Campagna, at some time during the 13th century, was built the Castello del Leone. The Castello, which is now known as the Castel di Leva, was owned by the Savelli-Orsini family.
In 1570, a painted image of the "Mother of Divine Love" was given by Monsignor Cosimo Giustini to a charitable organization known as the Conservatory of St. Caterina della Rosa. For reasons unknown to anyone in our time, the image was positioned on a gate tower of the Castel di Leva, in the same fashion in which a copy of the image still can be seen on the tower (see the picture at right). There the image was venerated by the shepherds, who in winter visited the lonely image to pray while the sheep grazed nearby. For centuries the place was lonely and neglected.
In the spring of 1740, a lone pilgrim was walking on the Appian Way twoard Rome. Hoping to shorten his trip he took what he thought would be a short-cut but lost his way. Seeing farm buildings at a distance he began to make his way toward them in hopes of finding someone to give him directions. In horror, he saw a pack of wild sheepdogs which suddenly appeared from behind a cluster of bushes. The dogs bolted toward him, and the pilgrim, panic-stricken, started to run in the directions of the buildings. The dogs quickly drew nearer, and as they were about to attack, the pilgrim saw the image of Our Lady on the gate tower. "Madonna, help me!" he cried.
Immediately, as though held by an invisible force, the dogs were kept at bay. In a few moments they calmed down, and soon turned and walked peacefully away. The Madonna had intervened at the Castel di Leva for the first of what would turn out to be a long series of extraordinary graces and favors being granted to those who asked for her intercession.
In 1745 a church was built in which the miraculous image was enshrined. The solemn consecration of the church took place on March 31, 1750. The accounts of favors granted by the Mother of Divine Love are so numerous as to be impossible to even begin to recount here. There are two which we will mention here that are quite startling. By the early 20th century the Shrine of the Mother of Divine Love had become extremelly well known. Thus, when in 1935, prior to leaving for the Ethopian War, some 3,000 Italian soldiers recommended their safety to the Madonna, it was not surprising. What was surprising is that despite the numerous casualties that resulted from that war, all 3,000 soldiers who had placed themselves in Our Lady's care returned unharmed!
The Second World War brought occupation to Italy, and with it the threat of vast destruction as liberation by the Allies became imminent. In early 1944, the city of Rome was in grave danger of destruction. At the orders of Pope Pius Xii, the Image of the Mother of Divine Love was moved into the city and carried in pilgrimage to various churches. In the Church of St. Ignatius, on June 4 of that year, the Roman people, praying for deliverance of their city and their personal safety, made a vow to our Lady to renew their lives and to erect a new Shrine -- and to promote charitable works in honor of the Mother of Divine Love. Rome was spared, and on June 11, Pope Pius XII went in pilgrimage to the Shrine to pray with the Roman faithful. There he conferred on Our Lady the title of "Savior of the City" which was added to her title of Mother of Divine Love.
Following the war the promises made by the faithful to Our Lady were fulfilled. The new Shrine was begun in 1991. The ancient gate tower is now in a garden area and a replica of the original image of the Mother of Divine Love adorns it in much the same way it was adorned for centuries. Every Saturday night, from Easter through the end of October, a night Pilgrimage on foot takes place. It sets out at midnight from Piazza di Porta Capena, Rome, and reaches the Sanctuary at 5 o'clock on Sunday morning. A similar night Pilgrimage is carried out on 7 December, on the even of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The night pilgrims walk along the famous Via Appia Antica until they reach the church called Quo Vadis, then they turn on Via Ardeatina and continue their way, walking over the Catacombs of St. Callisto and past the Mausoleum of the Ardeatin Dips (Fosse Ardeatine). They bring the petitions for the personal needs, hope and work for the mission of the Church to the feet of the Virgin Mother of Divine Love.