The Feast of the Our Lady of Loreto and the Holy House – 10 December
Eighteen miles south of Ancona, and about three miles from the Adriatic coast of Italy, stands the city of Loreto (also spelled Loretto) on the summit of a hill. A vast basilica with a great dome forms the most treasured of all the Pope’s “extraterritorial” Vatican State properties, enshrining, as it does, one of the most sacred and important of all Our Lady’s Shrines — the Home of the Holy Family, “the Holy House of Loreto.” Written at the door of the basilica are these words: “The whole world has no place more sacred… For here was the Word made Flesh and here was born the Virgin Mother…” On entering the basilica, one finds beneath the central dome and just behind the high altar, a rectangular edifice of white marble, richly adorned with statues. The white marble, however, forms only a protective crust. The contrast between the exterior richness and the poverty of the interior is startling. Inside are the plain, rough walls of a cottage of great antiquity, thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide and about fifteen feet high. In the centre of the House of Our Lady, there is a replica of a wooden statue of the Madonna. The original one, made of cedar of Lebanon, arrived at Loreto together with the house but has since been destroyed.
How this Shrine came to be is a fascinating story. This is the House of Nazareth, the home of the Holy Family, which had been brought by angels from Nazareth to the Dalmatian coast and later, by the same angels, transported to Loreto where it stands today enclosed in the huge Basilica just described. The history of Loreto is based upon a wealth of sound tradition and reliably recorded historical facts. We know from the visits of reliable witnesses to the Holy Land, whose journeys were carefully recorded in documents, that the Holy House of Nazareth was intact in Palestine at a relatively late date. St Louis, King of France, heard Mass in Nazareth in 1253 in the same chamber where the Angel announced the coming of Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Holy Land had seen its last and unsuccessful Crusade in 1291. The last of the Christian soldiers withdrew from Nazareth the same year, leaving behind the holiest of houses unprotected. It was to be dealt with according to the Muslim tradition of pillaging and destruction. It may seem far-fetched to think that a tiny clay house venerated by a handful of Christians could merit such vindictive rage. But this was a unique house — visibly an edifice of mud and straw, but preserving within its framework living memories of its Royal Household — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
The first assault was that of the Seljukian Turks in 1090. They rampaged through the Holy Land, looting the treasures left in the churches of the Holy Places by devout Christian pilgrims. They turned basilicas and churches into mosques and destroyed what was deemed useless for their unholy purposes. Among the last class fell the fate of Santa Casa, home of the Holy Family. Fortunately, when Constantine had the first Basilica built over the holy spot in 312, the house, along with the grotto that was attached, was interred within a subterranean crypt. And so it survived the initial desecrations of Islam.
In the years that followed, a trickle of Christian pilgrims kept alive the devotion and veneration of the Holy House where the Word was made Flesh. Then, when the first Crusaders arrived victorious in 1100 under Tancred, they built a new Basilica.
During the relative peace that ensued, pilgrims once again freely visited the sanctified ground. But because of the mixed motives that drew some of the Crusaders to the Holy Land, God did not bless all of their attempts to secure a lasting peace for the new Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. In all there were eight crusades, marked by some glorious victories but punctuated also with terrible defeats. In 1219, Saint Francis of Assisi, whose spiritual sons were later to be given charge of the Holy House, visited this “holiest spot on earth” in Nazareth. It was during the last crusade that St. Louis IX knelt on the ground that had once been frequented by Our Lord and received Him into his heart in Holy Communion. The saintly king deemed this to be a far greater privilege than his earthly royalty.
The year 1263 saw the second destruction of the Basilica, but again the Holy House miraculously survived the assaults of the Infidels. But the defeated Christians eventually withdrew in 1291. Total destruction finally loomed over the former home of the Holy Family, as free reign was given in the Holy Land to its unholy inhabitants. Eternal Wisdom, however, had other plans!
Our Lady of Loretto On the night of May 10th, 1291 the shepherds of Tersatto, now Croatia, parted company to tend to their flocks. The lonely fields in Dalmatia and the shepherds who treaded them daily were well acquainted with each other. So the sudden appearance of a house that wasn’t there the night before caused quite a stir; the evening before, there had been no building, nor any building materials. Little did they realise it once had housed the Morning Star.
The poor, baffled, little shepherds, not suspecting the workings of Divine grace in that little hut, inspected it curiously. The walls did not all evenly touch the ground; half of them hovered over the road and the rest rested in the field. The tiny structure resembled a church more than a domestic abode. The house had an ancient altar, a Greek cross and a strange statue of a lady. As they entered it, the air seemed filled with a heavenly incense. Indeed it was. For in this very house, from the root of Jesse, blossomed the Mystical Rose.
Realising it was no ordinary incident, the shepherds ran off to the local church of St George to awaken Father Alexander Georgevich. The puzzled priest, after investigating the clay “church” himself, could offer little explanation to the humble crowd that gathered. That night the weary old priest, although severely crippled with arthritis, spent hours in prayer beseeching enlightenment from the Virgin Most Powerful. In his sleep the Mother of Good Counsel rewarded his humility by answering his request in a dream. “Know that this house,” She said, “is the same in which I was born and brought up. Here, at the Annunciation, I conceived the Creator of all things. Here, the Word of the Eternal Father became Man. The altar which was brought with the house was consecrated by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. This house has now come to your shores by the power of God. And now, in order that you may bear testimony of all these things, be healed. Your unexpected and sudden recovery shall confirm the truth of what I have declared to you.”
The sudden disappearance of Father Georgevich’s familiar malady the next day quite convinced him. He then announced that it was She, who is called Health of the Sick, who had cured him and related the vision of the night before. The peasants of Tersatto now knew for sure that this was the sacred little home of their Saviour. They venerated it accordingly.
Hearing of the miraculous appearance, the Governor of Dalmatia immediately dispatched his emissaries to Nazareth, and they reported that the Holy House had indeed disappeared from there. The length and breadth of the walls of the dwelling found at Tersatto corresponded exactly with the foundations beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This basilica had been built over the original Holy Home in Nazareth. Tradition says that the investigation disclosed another bit of valuable evidence: the house found at Tersatto was built of limestone, mortar and cedar wood. These materials were commonplace in Nazareth but almost unobtainable in Dalmatia.
Then suddenly on 10 December 1294, three years later, the little house disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. This time, however, the angels were not so successful in bearing it away without notice! The alert shepherds of Tersatto reported the departure. And across the Adriatic Sea, the happy victims of insomnia, who happened to be out that night, rushed home with reports of a mysterious passage overhead of a little house, borne aloft by angels. The awesomeness of the spectacle gave hint that it was the work of the Son of the Queen of Angels.
To this very day the people of Tersatto in Dalmatia (Croatia), as well as people in the Italian Marche region, on the night of December ninth and tenth, rise at 3:00 a.m. to the sound of a joyful pealing of their bells and light their customary bonfires, as they sing litanies of praise to the Cause of Our Joy.
Across the sea in Italy, on the shores of the Adriatic, a little plain called Banderuolo, four miles from the city of Recanati welcomed the Holy House when the angels lowered its uneven walls onto the wooded area. It took almost no time for people to hear of the arrival of this mysterious, airborne house. Thousands of people began to make pilgrimages to it and it rapidly gained a reputation as a place of cures. But unfortunately, as the pilgrims increased, so did the bandits that lurked in the surrounding forest. Slowly the house of prayer became surrounded by a den of thieves. Feeling the same justified anger that once compelled Him to cast the buyers and sellers from His Father’s House, Our Lord withdrew the House itself!
Once again the soft flutter of angels’ wings stirred the night air as they relocated the home of the House of Gold. This time its foundation-less walls settled down in an open meadow on the Antici property in Recanati. Tradition tells us that, not long after this, the brothers who owned the property, two hot-tempered Italian rustics, took to fighting. The cause of the discord was allegedly over the Holy House itself, each claiming to own the plot it occupied, or perhaps taking credit for its having chosen the land because of their personal holiness! Tradition calls it a mere quarrel but it was sufficient to cause the Refuge of Sinners to abandon the site. Happily, as soon as the Santa Casa moved, the brothers repented and were reconciled.
The Holy House now reached its final destination; final, that is, at least to this present date, on Loreto hill, a few miles away from its previous location, close to the village of Recanati. Although they weren’t quite sure just what was the story behind it, people began to come in droves to venerate it. In 1295 a strong wall was built around it, either for protection, or to keep it from escaping their humble grasp and making another nightly excursion! Identification of Her sweet little home was clearly unfolded by the Virgin of Virgins Herself in 1296 to a saintly hermit who lived nearby. Immediately the government of Recanati sent sixteen of its most reputable citizens to the Holy Land to investigate the situation. After an absence of months, the retinue of homespun scientists returned with the obvious facts. All they found in Nazareth was the spot, still venerated, where the house once stood. The foundation measured up exactly to that of the House of Loreto: thirteen feet by thirty-one. The bricks of the local Nazareth habitation were of the same substance as the Holy House, whereas the other Recanati abodes were completely dissimilar. The Recanati representatives were convinced; this was the House of the Holy Family, miraculously brought to the shores of Italy through the Will of God and for His Glory.
Most of the evidence about the translation of the Holy House came to light through a commission of inquiry set up by Pope Boniface VIII, who sent his investigators to Tersatto and Nazareth, as well as to Loreto. He himself, as well as other popes, declared that the history and traditions of Loreto are “most worthy of belief.” Later the Sacred Congregation of Rites appointed 10 December as the Feast of the “Translation of the Holy House.”
Since 1294, it has become one of the greatest shrines to Our Lady, with pilgrims from all over the world crowding the roads to Loreto. Over 2,000 canonided, beatified and venerable children of the Church have paid homage to the Singular Vessel of Devotion by visiting the home in which she was born and in which she raised the only-begotten Son of God. These include: St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis Xavier, St John Berchmans, St Philip Neri, St Francis de Sales, St John Capistrano, St Clement Mary Hofbauer, St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, St Louis Marie de Montfort, St Benedict Joseph Labre, St Therese and St Frances Xavier Cabrini, Blessed John Henry Newman, just to mention a few. Forty-seven popes have knelt there during their pontificates and many others came to pray before they were elevated to the Holy See. More than fifty Popes have issued Bulls and Papal Briefs testifying to its authenticity. Hundreds of Papal documents have granted it privileges, exemptions, and authorisations to receive benefits. In 1669, it was given a Mass of its own in the Missal. The Litany of Our Lady, that most beautiful and poetic expression of her virtues and her sublime role for both Heaven and Earth, is named after this Shrine, the Litany of Loreto.
It is a place of many miracles. Those who have come throughout the ages, beseeching aid from the Comforter of the Afflicted, usually return home spiritually aided or physically cured. Three successors to the chair of Peter have physically experienced the benevolence of the Virgin Most Merciful and were restored to health. They were Pope Pius II, Pope Paul II and Pope Pius IX. Even today Her graces continue to flow, for Our Lady still exercises Her Queenship by interceding for Her subjects who implore Her aid under the title of Our Lady of Loreto.
Italy has, perhaps more than any other European country, been the scene of civil strife, wars and revolutions from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The country was divided with city fighting city, faction pitted against faction, and man against man. Those six centuries of Italian history are the most dramatic in the formation of Europe. But as numerous armies marched from North to South and South to North, no harm was ever done to the House of Loreto and to its mystical image.
It was again one of the many sacrileges of the Freemasonic French Revolution to desecrate this most sacred image of Our Lady. The French Revolutionary Directory seized all the treasures of Loreto, including the image, took them to Paris and exposed them to profane curiosity. Napoleon III finally gave the statue back to Pope Pius VII, who enthroned it first in the Papal Palace at the Quirinal and then, with great solemnity restored it to Loreto in 1802. Tragically, however, an accident in 1921 destroyed the original statue and a new figure, about three feet high, was then carved from the wood of a cedar grown in the Vatican gardens.
Pope Pius XI enthroned this new statue in September of 1924 in the Sistine Chapel. Then, with his own hands, he crowned the Holy Child and His Mother, whereupon the figure was exposed for a day in the Basi1ica of St Mary Major in Rome. Finally, with great solemnity, it was carried to Loreto. On feast days, the figure of Our Lady and the Holy Child were accustomed to be dressed in robes of gold and silk. The jewels on the robe are the marriage jewels of the Catholic Empress, Maria Theresa of Austria and are of inestimable value.
There are, of course, the inevitable skeptics who obstinately reject the fact of the “translation” of the Holy House from Nazareth to Tersatto and thence to its present location. But their objections are refuted by the very fact that no house could stand for as long a time as this one has — certainly not for centuries — resting on the surface of the ground only, without even having a foundation. Yet the fact remains that the house is not artificially sustained in any way and it has no foundation at all. This can be verified by anyone who visits the shrine. During World War II, the shock of airwaves destroyed many more solidly built houses, ancient and modern, as well as fortified castles. The vicinity of Loreto and the city itself were bombed by the Allies (Americans) several times during the conflict but the House of Nazareth, where the Angel announced that the Word would be made Flesh, still stands erect and unshattered, as if proclaiming to mankind that it need only depend upon the unshakable Rock of Peter, the foundation-stone of Christ’s One, True Church.
Sweet were the days the Blessed Virgin Mary spent with Saint Joseph and the Holy Child in their modest little home. Their life within the clay walls was affluent with poverty, resonant with silence and illustrious in humility. “Her actual life, both at Nazareth and later, must have been a very ordinary one…” said Saint Thèrése, the Little Flower of Jesus, who once visited the Holy House. “She should be shown to us as someone who can be imitated, someone who lived a life of hidden virtue and who lived by faith as we must.” This beautiful and much needed lesson of extraordinary sanctity in very ordinary circumstances, is precisely what the humble and Holy House of Loreto bespeaks to us.