I recently read that Pope Francis will be visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love (Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore) just outside of Rome, on the afternoon of May 1st. There he will pray the rosary to mark the beginning of May, the month of Mary. A visit to this Roman shrine had been originally scheduled for May of 2014, but three days before the visit, it had to be canceled to lessen the pope’s commitments the week prior to his apostolic trip to the Holy Land.

I had never heard of the Madonna of Divine Love shrine until I read that the pope was going there. I made some inquiries and website searches and shortly thereafter, three of us monks took the subway (called the Metro here) and then a bus to the sanctuary. Our visit was on a Saturday and a very beautiful day as spring was getting into full swing in Rome. The extensive shrine includes quite a few building on many acres of land in the Roman countryside. Included in the compound are three churches, a visitors’ center, a seminary, a convent, a house for the elderly, a retreat house, a cemetery, and a restaurant.

The oldest of the churches at the shrine is small but quite lovely, built in 1745. We attended Mass there at 11:00 am the day we visited. Almost every hour of the day Mass is celebrated in the little chapel. After Mass we visited the new, larger church, dedicated in 1999. It can hold thousands and is very impressive in its good taste and beauty. A separate adoration chapel is also a part of this church, where Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place.

The history of the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love stretches back to the thirteenth century. The present shrine is located where there used to be a medieval fortress belonging to the Savelli-Orsini family. On one of the towers was an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, portrayed as seated on a throne with the Child Jesus in her arms. A dove hovers above as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of the Divine Love of God. This image was much venerated by the local shepherds.

According to tradition, in the spring of 1740 a pilgrim on his way to Rome passed near the abandoned castle tower and was attacked by a herd of wild dogs. At the point of being killed, turning to the image of the Blessed Virgin and Jesus on the tower, the man pleaded for help and immediately the vicious dogs withdrew and the pilgrim was spared. This first miracle was the basis of the building of a shrine to the Virgin Mary and Divine Love at this place. The dedication of the little church by Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico took place in 1750. Rezzonico went on to become Pope Clement XIII. From its dedication onwards, the church and grounds became a pilgrimage place and continues so to the present.

Don Umberto Terenzi, who lived from 1900 to 1974, was appointed Rector or Director of the shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love in 1930. In 1932 a parish was established there and a church was built for that purpose near the smaller first church. In 1942 Dom Umberto founded the religious Congregation of Daughters of Our Lady of Divine Love, who have convents and apostolic works, as well as many vocations, in various parts of the world, especially Latin America and India. In 1962 the Oblate Priests of Our Lady of Divine Love were founded by Dom Umberto, who died in 1974. Both the sisters and priests help run the Shrine of Divine Love and parish.

In 1944, during World War II, Rome was under siege and the shrine was closed, but the image of Our Lady of Divine Love was taken to various Roman churches and lastly to Saint Ignatius, quite near our Curia Sant’Ambrogio. On June 4, 1944, the people of Rome implored for liberation of the city, vowing to Our Lady to renew their lives, expand the shrine and perform charitable works in Mary’s honor. On June 11, 1944, Pope Pius XII with many faithful of Rome went to the shrine to express gratitude that the war was indeed ending. The Madonna of Divine Love was by then considered an important protectress of the city of Rome.

After World War II the shrine was reopened and the apostolic works began anew. Publication of various magazines and bulletins also began. Orphan girls were received by the sisters and they began opening new houses in various parts of Italy and abroad, including Colombia in 1971, Brazil in 1991, Peru in 1993, the Philippines in 1998, India in 1999 and Nicaragua in 2000. Because of this expansion the Congregation has become very international. The Congregation of priests, the Sons of Our Lady of Divine Love, has also grown since its founding in 1962.

Other important dates for the shrine include May 1, 1979, when the pope, now Saint John Paul II, visited the shrine and named it “Marian Shrine of Rome.” He came again in 1987 and finally in 1999, when the new church was dedicated. In 1983 the large “Casa del Pellegrino” (Pilgrim House) was completed, used for meetings, retreats and lodging for pilgrims to the shrine.

One of the most interesting features of this shrine is the regularly held “night pilgrimage on foot.” Each Saturday night from Easter until the end of October, a pilgrimage on foot sets out at midnight from Piazza di Porta Capena in the city of Rome and reaches the shrine by about 5:00 am Sunday morning. Usually there are many pilgrims for the walk. On the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 7th, a similar night pilgrimage is held. The walk is along the famous Appian Way, toward the church of “Domine Qua Vadis?” to the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus, then to the shrine of Divine Love for morning Mass. I have not made this walk, but I know others who have. It is obviously not for the faint of heart, but those really up to walking some five hours in the dead of night.

This year the Solemnity of the Annunciation, normally celebrated on March 25th, was transferred to a later date, because March 25th was during Holy Week. The solemnity was kept on April 9th, and at Mass that day at the “Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore,” five sisters of the Order were celebrating sixty years of religious life and five sisters were celebrating fifty years. I was not present, but it must have been a joyful day for the Daughters and Sons of Our Lady of Divine Love. Bishop Angelo de Donatis, vicar of the Diocese of Rome and friend of ours, was celebrant at the Mass.

I was impressed by what I saw at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love and feel it is well worth a visit. It is a bit off the beaten track and probably overlooked by many pilgrims coming to Rome from afar, who have limited time to see only the essential sites of Rome. For those staying longer or living in the Eternal City, this important shrine should be on their list of places to go for prayer and inspiration.