Loreto and the Holy House of Mary
‘Loreto, after Nazareth, is the ideal place to pray while meditating on the mystery on the Incarnation of the Son of God.’ —Pope Benedict XVI
Loreto is a charming hill town of some 10,000 inhabitants in the central Italian region known as the Marches. It is famed throughout the world for the Holy House of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth. Bordering the Adriatic Sea, it has been an important pilgrimage destination for nearly eight centuries.
The Holy House is enclosed within ornate, Renaissance-era marble beneath a large basilica, also built during the Renaissance.
The House itself consists of three walls of stacked stones. It is believed that Mary grew up and the Annunciation took place within these walls.
The House is now used as a chapel. Toward the front is a stone altar, known as the “Altar of the Apostles.” Along with an ancient plate, these relics arrived in Loreto together with the Holy House.
So how did Mary’s House end up in Loreto? In order to answer that question, it is necessary to visit Nazareth.
Today in Nazareth there is another important basilica — the Basilica of the Annunciation. Built over a grotto, this is believed to be the site where Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and gave her Fiat — her consent to conceive, bear a son and name him Jesus (see Luke 1:26-38).
The Basilica of the Annunciation is the largest church in the Middle East. The actual church is modern, consecrated as recently as 1969. However, the site has a long history. Archaeologists have determined there are the ruins of four other churches beneath and around the grotto. A good guide will point out the remnants of the previous churches.
First, a small synagogal basilica, dating back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, was built around the cave. Next, in the 5th century during the Byzantine period and the era of Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, a larger basilica was built. This church was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest of Palestine.
After the Crusaders reestablished a Christian kingdom in the 12th century, they rebuilt a larger basilica on the same site. However, this church, too, destroyed in 1260 by Sultan Baybars and the Mamluk army.
Finally, during a period of calm, the Franciscans rebuilt the church in the 18th century. This was expanded into the current Basilica of the Annunciation that pilgrims visit in Nazareth today.
Given the long history at the grotto in Nazareth, it is clear that there was devotion to it as the home of Mary and site of the Annunciation from at least the 2nd century onward. It is very likely, however, that there was a monument or marker at the grotto and House even in apostolic times. Since devotion to Mary dates back to biblical times (see Luke 1:26-56), sites relating to her life would have been protected and considered holy.
So, how did the walls get to Loreto? For many centuries, tradition held that angels miraculously carried the Holy House from Nazareth to Loreto in 1294. This is attested to by numerous artistic depictions in and around the Holy House of flying angels carrying the House.
This tradition is celebrated during the feast of the “Translation of the Holy House” on Dec. 10. Every year, the faithful gather in the square in front of the basilica on Dec. 9. Late at night a bonfire is lit, symbolizing a type of “navigational beacon” that guided the angels to Loreto on that night.
For this reason, Our Lady of Loreto was proclaimed patroness of aviators. Pilots returning home after World War I asked Pope Benedict XV for a patron. On March 24, 1920, he assigned them Our Lady of Loreto. The first centenary was recently celebrated.
Others speculate that the Holy House of Loreto, like many relics from the Holy Land, was brought to Italy by ship at the conclusion of the Crusades. This was not uncommon, as the relics of St. Mark’s in Venice, St. Nicholas in Bari and St. Andrew in Amalfi were all brought by Crusaders to Italy during this period.
In the early 1900s, a priest and papal archivist was studying Vatican documents when he discovered a ledger detailing items that were brought out of the Holy Land during the period of the Crusades.
He read that a Byzantine Greek merchant, with the surname Angelos, financed the expedition and paid the crusaders to move the House to Italy as part a wedding dowry for his daughter, who was to marry Philip of Taranto in 1294.
His name would have been Angeli in Latin and Italian, which means “Angels.” This, they say, is the origin of the tradition of the “Angels” carrying the House to Italy.
Regardless of how the House arrived, there is little doubt that the walls are from the grotto of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Studies have shown that the stones making up the walls were not cut according to local Italian methods.
More convincingly, however, are the numerous graffiti on the Loreto walls that are similar to those found in early Judeo-Christian churches in Palestine before the 5th century. There is a marking on one of the Loreto walls that is identical to one in the Nazareth grotto.
The sanctuary of Loreto is a place of prayer. It is documented that at least 150 saints and blessed have made a pilgrimage to the Holy House in Loreto. Their names are inscribed in a marble tablet upon entrance to the basilica.
The Holy House is also a site of miracles and conversions. Testifying to graces received are displays of gifts and “ex-voto” medals given to the church by the faithful out of gratitude for blessings received through the intercession of Our Lady of Loreto.
Further, today a commission of doctors meets regularly in Loreto to study reports of miraculous healings. The commission functions similar to the one in Lourdes. Some have been determined indeed miraculous and “not of natural origin.”
Our Lady of Loreto, pray for us.