“Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us!” These simple words of my friend Maria came as she commented on the dimensions and the simplicity of the Holy House of Loreto. What is this Holy House in the hill-top town of Loreto, near the Adriatic Sea in the region of Le Marche, Italy?
The sites of the Holy Land have been visited by Christians since the earliest days of Christianity. The first Christians visited these places, setting up small shrines even in the time of persecution. The pagan rulers could knock down these shrines, building temples to their own gods on top of them, which only served to show later generation where the original shrines were.
One of the earliest shrines was the house of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, where she first received the message of the angel Gabriel, that she would be the Mother of the Savior and where she lived with Our Lord and St. Joseph. We know, for example, that St. Helen had a Basilica built over this important place where our Lord “grew in wisdom and stature before God and men” and our Lady “pondered all these things that had taken place in her heart” (Luke 2:52). This Basilica would be destroyed by the Saracens after the Christians had largely disappeared from the Holy Land. Still, devotion to the holy house would continue. In the Middle Ages, both St. Francis and St. Louis of France visited, because a new Basilica was built at the time of the Crusades.
When the Holy Land was definitively lost for the Christians after the time of the Crusades, the Holy House (it’s walls to be exact) was taken first to Croatia (1291), and after the Muslims had conquered even that territory, to its current place across the Adriatic at Loreto (1294).
Loreto is located in the region of Le Marche, which was once part of the Papal States; it remains one of the few territories that belong directly to the Vatican outside of Vatican City. In time, a huge basilica was built around the Holy House, and an ornate structure to enclose the fragile walls of the original house. It has become the principle Marian shrine in Italy, and was visited by many saints and popes throughout the history of the Church: St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Frances Cabrini, Blessed Cardinal Newman, St. John Neumann, and St. Francis de Sales, to name but a few, have visited the Holy House. Pope John XXIII visited Loreto in 1962, just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, to ask our Lady’s prayers for the Council.
What can we say about this shrine? Is it really possible that the real house of the Virgin Mary could be in East-Central Italy?
First of all, the story that angels carried the house from its location in Nazareth to Loreto is a little hard for us to imagine in our modern, scientific age. It has been suggested that the family that paid for its transport was the “Angeli” family. That could be one way to understand the reference to the “angels” who brought the house to Italy. For that matter, the visit of Pope John XXIII, whose baptismal name was “Angelo”, could be said to have been the visit of an “angel” to Loreto. Or it could have been transported by angels, for all we know! God can do such things, of course, and maybe He did… It is this miraculous transport that has made Our Lady of Loreto the patroness of aeronautics. In the museum, I found a medal that was brought on the lunar module of the space mission Apollo 9.
But how do we know that the house is from Nazareth? Here, modern scientific studies are very helpful. The structure has two different levels of bricks: one that is very clearly proven to be the type that would be used in that region of Italy in the Middle Ages, and another that can be traced to the type used in 1st century Palestine (the Holy Land). You can see the two types pretty clearly in this image:
The bricks below also have some graffiti (the holy type) on them that turn out to be early Christian symbols: Alpha and Omega, a Cross, and other Christological references, all the same style that the early Christians used. The markings show the devotion already surrounding these walls in the earliest days of the Church. The walls do not have a foundation, which shows that the small house was not built there, but moved from somewhere else. Last of all, there are only three walls, which match perfectly with what is “missing” from the rest of the house at the current Basilica in Nazareth.
There is much more that could be said, and much more I still want to learn. But there is one last thing that struck me more than anything else at the Holy House. It is a phrase that is also at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth: Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est, “The Word was made flesh here“. Here!
My friends, this is the mystery that brings us to our knees, the mystery that Maria helped me to pay attention to: “Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us.” God wanted to be with us. This is the only reason why Christianity exists, why we give a damn about walls from 1st century Palestine in the first place. We do not go to Loreto to marvel at “old stuff”, or to hear a story about moving a house across the Mediterranean. We go to Loreto–I went to Loreto–to kneel before that mystery, and to ask that that mystery will fulfill itself in my life: “Whatever reason you came to be with us Lord, I want that to happen for me.” Just like Our Lady said, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
This last image is of the marks in the marble (that is a type of stone, mind you), where millions of pilgrims have knelt over the centuries. These marks go all the way around the ornate structure that “houses” the Holy House of Loreto. Imagine how many people have knelt in this place, before the mystery of God-made-flesh, to bring their prayers and their hopes and their sickness and suffering before that God and the woman who made herself available for His coming.
And I can understand why! The first thing I wanted to do, after feeling some small part of the importance of those words that Maria said to me, was to kneel. I was brought to my knees before this central mystery of our Faith, the Incarnation. The Word was made flesh, here!