Today the global Church will celebrate the optional memorial of Our Lady of Loreto for the first time. Unlike most other Marian feast days, Our Lady of Loreto doesn’t refer to an apparition or a Marian title. It refers to a building. Specifically, it refers to the humble home in which Mary grew up and the extraordinary measures God took to preserve it.
As Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote in the letter announcing the institution of the feast day:
“This shrine recalls the mystery of the Incarnation, leading all those who visit it to consider ‘the fullness of time’, when God sent his son, born of a woman, as well as to meditate both on the words of the Angel announcing the Good News and on the words of the Virgin in response to the divine call. Overshadowed by the Spirit, the humble handmaid of the Lord so became the dwelling-place of divinity, the purist image of the holy church.”
The Story of Loreto
The Sancta Casa of Loreto is not impressive. It is a stone house with three walls and no foundation, measuring about 31×13 feet. It originally stood in Nazareth.
The events that occurred in and around the house, however, are extraordinary. Tradition tells us that this is where Our Lady was born. It’s also the site of the Annunciation and where the Holy Family lived for many years.
We know that the early Christians revered this house as Mary’s home. St. Epiphanius, St. Willibald, and the Venerable Bede all wrote about it. Later, St. Helena even built a basilica over it. St. Louis IX of France was the last saint to visit the sancta casa in Nazareth in 1251, just before the Fall of Jerusalem. St. Helena’s basilica was destroyed in 1263.
This is where the story gets interesting. The Sancta Casa appeared in Italy as early as 1291. Legend says that angels carried the house from Nazareth to modern-day Croatia, then on to Italy. There’s actually a detailed story about two brothers discovering the Sancta Casa and arguing over how to make the most profit from it. The house then disappeared and reappeared on a road next to a ditch in the town of Loreto, off the Adriatic coast.
Some historians believe that a family called the Ageli was responsible for bringing the house over by ship. That’s fine; Catholics aren’t required to believe that angels affect archeology, and there’s strong evidence supporting that theory. But archeologists in the 1960s actually did find the Sancta Casa’s stone is from Palestine, as are minute bits of pollen found in the stone. There is also graffiti on the stone that matches graffiti in St. Helena’s ruined basilica. Finally, measurements of the remains of the foundation in Nazareth perfectly match the Sancta Casa. It’s the same house.
How Loreto Has Shaped the Church
Pilgrims began to flock to Loreto immediately after the Sancta Casa appeared. In 1310, Pope Clement V issued a Papal Bull granting indulgences to pilgrims. Around this same time, a cedarwood statue of the Madonna and Child was placed in the house. The statue became blackened by lamp smoke, turning it into a Black Madonna. It is the famous Our Lady of Loreto statue.
The Sancta Casa has inspired three different basilicas in the course of Christian history, one in Nazareth and two in Italy. The most recent was built under Pope Sixtus V and contains work from some of the most important artists and architectures of the Renaissance. Galileo, Mozart, Descartes, and Cervantes all visited.
Over two hundred saints have made pilgrimages to Loreto. They include Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, Thérèse of Lisieux, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Louis de Montfort, François de Sales, and John Paul II. The latter actually visited twice. He had this to say about Loreto:
“The threads of the history of the whole of humankind are tied anew in that house. 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.”catholicnewsagency.com
The Message of Loreto
Individual communities have celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto for decades. Pope Francis opened the feast to the world on October 7 and placed it in the middle of Advent.
The timing isn’t a coincidence. Loreto reminds us that God didn’t choose a mighty, otherworldly being to bear his son, or even a rich and powerful empress. He chose Mary. He let his son’s mother enter this world in a small stone house in an outpost of the Roman Empire. She did chores there, brushed her hair, had restless nights staring at the ceiling. She welcomed an angel and agreed to give birth to the Messiah in that house. She packed her bags and left from that house to visit her pregnant cousin. She raised Our Lord, made his meals, watched him play with St. Joseph on that floor.
To quote Pope St. John Paul II again, Loreto is “the first temple, the first church on which shone the light of the maternity of the Mother of God.”
God in his mercy left us this ordinary building that became the setting to crucial moments in our salvation. We can touch those walls and look at that same ceiling. All of this serves as a physical reminder that we aren’t uttering empty words to a distant sky daddy; we’re part of a story that has left tangible imprints across the world.
It’s as real as he is.
The Litany of Loreto
This prayer became popular at the Santa Casa in the Middle Ages. Its popularity is due to its focus on each of Our Lady’s attributes, from victorious queen to comforter of the afflicted. See if you can make time to pray it and celebrate Our Lady of Loreto’s first global feast day!
Lord, have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us. Christ hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, pray for us.
Holy Mother of God, pray for us.
Holy Virgin of Virgins, pray for us.
Mother of Christ, pray for us.
Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Mother of Divine Grace, pray for us.
Mother most pure, pray for us.
Mother most chaste, pray for us.
Mother inviolate, pray for us.
Mother undefiled, pray for us.
Mother most amiable, pray for us.
Mother most admirable, pray for us.
Mother of Good Counsel, pray for us.
Mother of our Creator, pray for us.
Mother of our Savior, pray for us.
Mother of mercy, pray for us.
Virgin most prudent, pray for us.
Virgin most venerable, pray for us.
Virgin most renowned, pray for us.
Virgin most powerful, pray for us.
Virgin most merciful, pray for us.
Virgin most faithful, pray for us.
Mirror of justice, pray for us.
Seat of wisdom, pray for us.
Cause of our joy, pray for us.
Spiritual vessel, pray for us.
Vessel of honor, pray for us.
Singular vessel of devotion, pray for us.
Mystical Rose, pray for us.
Tower of David, pray for us.
Tower of ivory, pray for us.
House of gold, pray for us.
Ark of the Covenant, pray for us.
Gate of heaven, pray for us.
Morning star, pray for us.
Health of the sick, pray for us.
Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us.
Help of christians, pray for us.
Queen of angels, pray for us.
Queen of patriarchs, pray for us.
Queen of prophets, pray for us.
Queen of apostles, pray for us.
Queen of martyrs, pray for us.
Queen of confessors, pray for us.
Queen of virgins, pray for us.
Queen of all saints, pray for us.
Queen conceived without original sin, pray for us.
Queen assumed into heaven, pray for us.
Queen of the Holy Rosary, pray for us.
Queen of families, pray for us.
Queen of peace, pray for us.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray. Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord God, that we thy servants may enjoy perpetual health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, be delivered from present sorrow and enjoy everlasting happiness. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen
All facts not referenced in the text were pulled from Stravinskas, Peter M. J. Our Sunday Visitors Catholic Encyclopedia. Our Sunday Visitor Publ. Division, 1991.
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Melissa Keating is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.
Painting, “The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto” (1743), by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, sourced from getty.edu.