In the Italian town of Loreto there stands a house.
It has stood there for over seven centuries and may stand for another seven, yet.
Each day it is visited by the many who come to gaze upon it. The house has attracted, and no doubt shall continue to attract the pious and the penitent, the wondering and the curious. Saints have come; so have many popes; many sinners too; in short, an endless procession of all that humanity has to offer has flowed here.
Each night, when the visitors have gone, there comes a silence upon the stone and the wood. It is a strange silence. One that reflects the greatest moment in history, perhaps the most silent as it is that of the Annunciation; for it is claimed that the house at Loreto is no replica, but none other than the house in which the Holy Family dwelt, the Holy House.
A new book, The House of the Virgin Mary: The Miraculous Story of its Journey from Nazareth to a Hillside in Italy by Godfrey E. Philips has just been published by Sophia Institute Press.
Loreto and its Holy House are names one hears from time to time. I suspect many in the English-speaking world, however, know little about them. Elsewhere it has been different. When an Atlantic storm was tossing the ships of Columbus during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, it was Our Lady of Loreto his frightened men invoked for succour at the time when the basilica was still being built on that Italian hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea. For an English speaking readership The House of the Virgin Mary goes some way to revealing the history surrounding this structure – if, in the end, ultimately, a mystery it remains.
Loreto is a small town a few miles south of Ancona. Its most conspicuous building is the Basilica of the Holy House, within which there is a simple cottage. The walls of that tiny edifice – it measures 31 feet by 13 – have been adorned in marble. Within it, there is an altar, beneath that, a statue, one black with age, of the Virgin and Child. The inscription: Hic Verbum caro factum est, reminds all of the significance of what reputedly took place there.
At the eastern end of the basilica another inscription reads:
“Christian pilgrim, you have before your eyes the Holy House of Loreto, venerable throughout the world on account of the Divine mysteries accomplished in it and the glorious miracles herein wrought.
It is here that most holy Mary, Mother of God, was born; here that she was saluted by the Angel, here that the eternal Word of God was made Flesh. Angels conveyed this House from Palestine to the town Tersato in Illyria in the year of salvation 1291 in the pontificate of Nicholas IV.
Three years later, in the beginning of the pontificate of Boniface VIII, it was carried again by the ministry of angels and placed in a wood near this hill, in the vicinity of Recanati, in the March of Ancona; where having changed its station thrice in the course of a year, at length, by the will of God, it took up its permanent position on this spot three hundred years ago [the inscription dates from 16th century].
Ever since that time, both the extraordinary nature of the event having called forth the admiring wonder of the neighboring people and the fame of the miracles wrought in this sanctuary having spread far and wide, this Holy House, whose walls do not rest on any foundation and yet remain solid and uninjured after so many centuries, has been held in reverence by all nations.”
In essence, these are the claims of Loreto’s simple cottage that stands inside the much grander basilica. They are part of a devotion that has had the approval of countless Pontiffs. That said, it is important to point out that these papal pronouncements are not being related to faith or morals, or to historical facts which can in any way be called dogmatic; theologians have always recognized that there was no intention on the part of the Holy See to define a truth. Inevitably, therefore, the story of Loreto’s Holy House remains a cryptic one, of a building transferred not once but three times until it rested at its current site. In his book, Phillips examines all of this in some detail. He also goes some way to counter the skepticism of any reader.
What is more readily documented is that the great as well as the good have visited the House. Writers such as Montaigne, philosophers such as Descartes, and millions of other pilgrims, king and pauper, have all visited the sanctuary. Mozart played the organ in its church. The various Papal approvals of devotion to the Holy House right to this current century – Pope St. John Paul II visited the shrine no less than five times – is certainly thought-provoking. The list of saints devoted to Loreto is equally impressive: St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Alphonsus Liguori to name but a few. The homeless St. Benedict Labre had a particular devotion to the Holy House, kissing its walls so moved was he by it.
St. Therese of Lisieux in her memoir, The Story of a Soul, had this to say of her visit:
I was indeed happy when on the way to Loreto. Our Lady had chosen an ideal spot in which to place her Holy House. Everything is poor, simple, and primitive… I found Loreto enchanting.
And what shall I say of the Holy House? I was overwhelmed with emotion when I realised that I was under the very roof that had sheltered the Holy Family. I gazed on the same walls Our Lord had looked on. I trod the ground once moistened with the sweat of St. Joseph’s toil, and saw the little chamber of the Annunciation, where the Blessed Virgin Mary held Jesus in her arms after she had borne Him there in her virginal womb. I even put my Rosary into the little porringer used by the Divine Child. How sweet those memories!
The saint went on to add:
But our greatest joy was to receive Jesus in His own House, and thus become His living temple in the very place which He had honoured by His Divine Presence…
God favoured us, for a Priest was on the point of celebrating Mass; we told him of our great wish, and he immediately asked for two hosts, which he placed on the paten.
You may picture, dear Mother, the ecstatic happiness of that Communion; no words can describe it. What will be our joy when we communicate eternally in the dwelling of the King of Heaven?
A more recent saint again, St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, visited the shrine on seven occasions. He said: “I think that all the representations, all the names, all the invocations given by Christians to the Virgin Mary, are wonderful. But in Loreto I am especially indebted to our Lady.”
There are some curious facts about the Holy House.
The stone on which the original walls are built and the mortar used in their construction have never been indigenous to the neighborhood of Loreto. But both stone and mortar are alleged to be chemically identical with the materials most commonly found in Nazareth.
The Holy House does not rest and has never rested upon foundations sunk into the earth where it now stands. The point was formally investigated in 1751 under Pope Benedict XIV. What was then found is, therefore, fully in accord with the tradition of a building transferred whole from some more primitive site.
There are other strange facts in The House of the Virgin Mary. So much is this the case, that when one turns the final page, the Holy House of Loreto continues to be as enigmatic as when one started reading. In fact, it remains as puzzling, perhaps, as when it first appeared so far from the Holy Land. It holds its secrets yet. For those who come as pilgrims, however, it leaves its mark.
Tonight, as its doors are closed again, and once more silence envelopes all, one thing is clear: within that same silence, hearts have been touched, and, doubtless, shall be again.
For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne… and touched heaven while standing on the earth.
Editor’s note: The House of the Virgin Mary is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.