The threads of the history of the whole of humankind are tied anew in that house [the Holy House of Loreto]. It is the Shrine of the House of Nazareth, to which the Church that is in Italy is tied by providence, that the latter rediscovers a quickening reminder of the mystery of the Incarnation, thanks to which each man is called to the dignity of the Son of God (Pope Saint John Paul II).
The Holy House of Loreto is the first shrine of international renown dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. It has been visited by over two thousand saints (including Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Maximillian Kolbe) and several popes.
The Feast of Our Lady of Loreto (December 10) is now included in the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial by Pope Francis through a decree on October 7, 2019. This certainly has given worldwide prominence to this Feast observed mostly in Europe.
This feast day connects the faithful across generations in a tangibly intimate way to the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, falling felicitously during Advent during the same week as the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Holy House of Loreto: Origins
Traditionally, the ‘Holy House of Loreto’ (in Italy) is believed to be the house in Nazareth where Mary was born and raised; and where she said ‘Yes’ to bearing Jesus when Archangel Gabriel appeared to her (the Annunciation), where the Word became flesh, and also the home where Jesus grew, and his earthly father Joseph worked and passed away.
How the Holy House in Nazareth got transported to Italy’s hill region of Loreto is interesting to learn. Traditionally again, it is believed that the Holy House was carried by angels from Nazareth to Italy (during the Crusades). This has resulted in Our Lady of Loreto being designated 100 years ago as the Universal Patroness of Aviators marked by the ongoing Jubilee Year of Loreto (Lauretan Jubilee).
The idea that the Holy House was carried by angels may bear its origin to the fact that a certain noble family from Italy by the name ‘Angeli’ (‘angels’ in Italian) transported the Holy House by ship as Crusaders returning home. Crusaders brought from the Holy Land several relics and articles of sacred significance. The Holy House was first transported to Tersatto, a hill in Dalmatia (a region in present-day Croatia), where it remained three years. When the Muslims occupied Albania, the Holy House had to take flight again to escape destruction and finally come to rest in Loreto, Italy on December 10, 1294.
A Personal Connection
I have never visited Loreto. This gender-neutral name is not common in India except for educational institutions run by the Loreto Sisters. My father chose to name me Loreto as my birth was expected before Christmas. He further chose Angelina for my middle name since Advent and Christmas-time are when angels are busy carrying God’s messages to various people. In the case of the Holy House of Loreto, the angels seem to have carried the good news in brick and mortar, if not flesh and blood.
With the Loreto Feast being universalized this year, I am confident more than ever to share for our contemporary times, these contemplations on the Holy House of Loreto.
The Impermanence of Human Existence; Providence of God
In these times of intense global movement of people, goods and knowledge aided by fast means of transportation and communication, people yearn for restfulness, respite and permanence. People dream of, save for and invest their life savings in buying homes in which they hardly get to live. They intend to entertain guests, have expensive furniture and dinnerware but hardly do people visit or stay with each other. They prefer to meet in restaurants and public places, eating out of disposable dinnerware. When they need a break, they travel to distant getaways.
When work constrains them to move locations, they often leave their homes locked up or struggle to find trustworthy custodians. In contrast, the world outside is homeless, hungry, and forgotten, relying on God’s providence.
In the days following the Exodus, desert wanderings and entry into the Promised Land, Israelites took with them the Ark of the Covenant as a sign of God’s constant presence and protection. What if we chose to let God dictate every move of our lives, depending on Him alone to provide for our needs? In turn, how can we be God’s provident hand upon the needy to whom uncertainty is the only constant?
The Strength of Simplicity
The House of Nazareth was venerated by the Apostles and the early Christians. Empress (Saint) Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine built a church upon the humble House of Nazareth, just as she had upon several other sites of significance in Jesus’ life. At the end of the Crusades in 1291, when the Saracens plundered and destroyed several of these sacred places in the Holy Land, the church built over the House of Nazareth was not spared either. It is amazing to note, however, that although the church built atop the Holy House fell to the fury of these haters of Christians, the humble structure that lay in the crypt beneath escaped unscathed. Precious possessions and power attracted plunder and revenge but the “shrine of humility” preempted such onslaught and survived the times.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux writes in her autobiography of the simplicity of Loreto:
“I am not at all surprised the Blessed Virgin chose this spot to transport her blessed house, for here peace, poverty, and joy reign supreme; everything is primitive and simple. […] Loreto really charmed me!”
What worldly constructs attract us? Are people attracted to us for the wrong reasons? A well-paying job, opulent living, high fashion, elite connections, exotic vacations, a larger-than-life social media presence? Have we used our earthly dispositions to point people to heaven? What attitudes alienate rather than welcome?
Foundation in Christ
The Holy House never ever had foundations sunk in the earth. To this day, its walls rest partly on ground and partly ‘in space’ as pilgrims to Loreto can witness. In a sense, the house can still be considered to be in flight.
Mary became the “living house” of the Lord. With her Yes to bear the Christ child, heaven and earth unite in her womb, in the Holy House, in this world. Pope Saint John XXIII in his visit to Loreto invited the faithful to “reflect on that union of heaven and earth, which is the purpose of the Incarnation and Redemption”.
In the imitation of Mary, with Christ as our firm foundation, our own bodies, our own homes, our world turn into intersections for the human and the divine. When the Holy Spirit fills the spaces of our lives, all other spirits depart.
Of Walls and Immigration
The Holy House of Loreto is but three walls. In his September 2007 visit to Loreto, Pope Benedict XVI observed that the one open side of the Holy House signifies that everyone is welcome here. Addressing the ‘agora’ (open space) of Italian youth, He points to the Holy House as “your square without walls and barriers, where a thousand streets converge and from which they branch out.”
Pope Saint John Paul II in a 1995 homily called the Holy House of Loreto, “the house of all God’s adopted children.” The Holy House of Loreto becomes a timely point of reference in a climate polarized on the issue of immigration. If people holding opposing views on the subject meditated upon the Holy House, what would its walls speak to them? Would they still take a purely political stance? Would they begin to consider this as a humanity issue first?
Fitting Patron of House-Moving and Relocations
Although Our Lady of Loreto is considered a patron of builders because of the endurance of the House of Loreto, I would invoke her as a patron of house-moving as well. Those needing to find a house, move into a new house, relocating/immigrating to a faraway place, or needing help with packing and moving, Our Lady of Loreto is a reliable go-to person. Whoever moved the Holy House from Nazareth to Europe was most certainly aided by Divine assistance (angels?) in the exercise.
Looking back at my own family’s move to the United States, I am grateful for the little band of neighborhood kids in India who helped sort and clean out the mountain of odd things that remained after all the big stuff was moved. I often found myself helping friends move or pack for long travels or transport furniture to the needy. There is something to Loreto, for sure.
From Obscurity into History: Hope of Late Bloomers
What was Mary occupied with when Angel Gabriel visited her in that blessed home? Were her hands buried in flour preparing bread for the family? Was her pail midway up the well while she drew water? Was she exhausted from housework and looking to rest? Perhaps her thoughts of her future with Joseph were on top of her mind. She was afraid. But she simply surrendered to the mission God gave her through His angel.
Some discover their purpose early on in life while others much later. Every now and then, we find someone we think is caught in too simple a position for their caliber. Many well-qualified women either choose or are constrained to stay at home to raise kids, sacrificing promising opportunities. In a world of ambition and extreme feminism, the humility of Mary shines out as a beacon to every generation.
In a situation of long-suffering wait, it benefits us to find ourselves in the Holy House. Here, personal plans were abandoned by a simple maiden in exchange for a future of uncertainty and suffering. Not all like Elizabeth acknowledge her as “blessed” because she “believed” (Cf. Luke 1:45). Yet Mary proclaims in advance:
“[B]ehold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)
In time, God “remembered his mercy” and drew His faithful handmaiden into Heaven.
In such a life, time is of the essence in doing the Father’s will regardless of one’s age or stage in life. However, the fruits of our labors in the Lord’s vineyard are borne in eternity. All our waiting must be in this spirit in order to be fruitful. As Saint Augustine confesses:
“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!”
Christian Life as a Marian Journey
Mary of Nazareth was a ‘frequent flier’—Her life a series of travels. Transitioning from a dreamy-eyed maiden betrothed to Joseph to being called to be the Mother of the Messiah. Hastening to Elizabeth to assist her in the final months of her pregnancy. Journeying pregnant to Bethlehem with Joseph. The flight to Egypt to protect the newborn’s life. Return to Nazareth to raise the Christ child. Annual Passover journeys to the Temple of Jerusalem. Returning to look for the ‘lost’ boy Jesus only to find Him engaging with the teachers. Accompanying Jesus to Calvary. Leaving her home to stay with John. Being assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Mary is ever docile in the flight path God set her on.
None of these transitions makes sense in itself but in eternity, we find the golden thread of redemption stringing together these earthly episodes. How about the journeys of our own life? Is it wise to seek to build upon our own merits? How prudent is it to quickly move on from unfavorable circumstances? Who is the author of the big picture?
Here is an indulgenced prayer to Our Lady of Loreto that meditates on the Walls of the Holy House.