Rev. G. E. Phillips
This history of the Holy House of Loreto is the most decisive work in English defending the authenticity of this most hallowed shrine in all Christendom. Our Lady’s Holy House at Nazareth was taken by angels to Dalmatia (Croatia) in 1291 to prevent its desecration by the infidels. Three years later it took flight again to rest in Loreto, Italy, where it remains. Rev. Phillips provides the facts, and excitement behind the story. Many cures, apparitions, and miraculous conversions, have happened within the limestone walls of the Santa Casa.
Table of Contents
A Catholic’s Attitude with reference to Loreto
What the Pilgrim to Loreto Sees
The Holy House before the Time of its Translation
The Holy House Removed into Illyria
The Holy House Translated to Loreto
The Historians Angelita and Riera — The Hermit and the Sixteen Envoys
First Additions to the Holy House — The Ghibelline Violators of Our Lady’s “Cona” (cuna)
The First Church Built over the Holy House — Popes Pius II and Paul II at Loreto — The Basilica Erected
Il Teramano and Blessed Baptist of Mantua
Alterations Made by Clement VII — Absence of Foundations — Discovery of These at Nazareth
The Materials of Which the Holy House is Built
Papal Utterances with Reference to Loreto
Devotion of the Saints to Loreto — Pilgrimages to it from Tersatto
Some Objections Answered
A Catholic’s Attitude with reference to Loreto
We know not how better to open the subject of the following pages than by setting before the reader the following extracts from two letters of Cardinal Newman, which were addressed by him in January of 1848, to Henry Wilberforce, immediately after his own return from Rome, where he had been ordained priest, and had become an Oratorian.
“What took us to Bologna,” wrote the future Cardinal, “was that we went round by Loreto. We went there to get the Blessed Virgin’s blessing on us. I have ever been under her shadow, if I may say it. My college was St. Mary’s and my church; and when I went to Littlemore, there, by my own previous disposition, our Blessed Lady was waiting for me. . . .
“I went to Loreto with a simple faith, believing what I still more believed when I saw it. I have no doubt now. If you ask me why I believe, it is because everyone believes it at Rome; cautious as they are and sceptical about some other things, I believe it then as I believe that there is a new planet called Neptune, or that chloroform destroys the sense of pain. I have no antecedent difficulty in the matter. He who floated the Ark on the surges of a world-wide sea, and enclosed in it all living things, who has hidden the terrestrial paradise, who said that faith might move mountains, who sustained thousands for forty years in a sterile wilderness, who transported Elias and keeps him hidden till the end, could do this wonder also. And in matter of fact we see all other records of our Lord and His Saints gathered up in the heart of Christendom from the ends of the earth as Paganism encroached on it (i.e., His relics). St. Augustine leaves Hippo, the prophet Samuel and St. Stephen, Jerusalem, the crib in which our Lord lay leaves Bethlehem with St. Jerome, the Cross is dug up, St. Athanasius goes to Venice, there is a general change in location. In short, I feel no difficulty in believing it, though it may be often difficult to realize.”
Such, then, was Cardinal Newman’s attitude with reference to the belief in the miraculous translation of the Holy House, and in that same attitude, we are assured, did he continue to the end.2 It is true, indeed, that his biographer has thought well to append to the letters above quoted a note to the effect that when they were written the “recent criticism as to the history of the Holy House was unknown.” Many, however, we feel sure, will agree with us in thinking that, in thus following the Catholic instinct, which he had imbibed so strongly with the faith, and in quietly accepting the pronouncements of the pontiffs, Newman was really following much safer guidance than any that the modern criticism could have offered. Though strongly opposed to exaggerated ways of speaking on the subject, it was the cardinal’s belief, as his same biographer admits, “that the pietas fidei should prompt to internal submission beyond the sphere covered by strictly infallible decisions”; and it must indeed be evident that our belief in God’s guidance of the Holy See cannot be restricted simply to occasions as comparatively rare as those indicated in the Vatican decree.
When, therefore, in a case such as that before us we find pontiff after pontiff encouraging in every way the belief in the miraculous translation — whilst the same belief, moreover, has been rapturously adopted by a host of saints, including even doctors of the Church — it seems impossible to think that an error could have been allowed by God to receive such authoritative sanction.
On this point the following passage may usefully be quoted from a work, too little known, of the late learned Dr. Northcote: “Although it is quite true that a belief in the identity of the Holy House of Loreto with that in which the Incarnation was accomplished, and its miraculous translation from Galilee to Italy, is no article of the faith, and a man may deny it, if he will, without thereby becoming a heretic, nevertheless, it would be well for anyone who is tempted to do so to realize what he is doing. He is assuming that he is more intelligent than the great body of the faithful who for centuries have venerated this sanctuary and have regarded its history as true. He is assuming that he is more sagacious than the saints, wiser than the supreme pontiffs who have rendered such magnificent testimonies to the truth of its history, and more prudent than the Sacred Congregation of Rites who have approved the office of the translation. Perhaps, also, it would be well for him to weigh the full significance of the following remarks, written by a very bitter enemy when examining this very subject: ‘There are individuals in the Roman Church who look upon certain parts of their system as matters in which they are free to please themselves; but whether in consequence or not, they are certainly none of the holiest. . . . We have discovered that belief and disbelief in the story of the Holy House amongst Roman Catholics go hand in hand respectively with ardent piety and indifferentism’ (Christian Remembrancer, No. lxxxiv N. S.). In other words, a man cannot throw off the spirit of dutifulness and submission to authority from a profound conviction of his own superior knowledge without suffering spiritual loss.”
As to the continuous approval bestowed on the Loreto tradition by the sovereign pontiffs, the following summary of their action with regard to it is taken from the same work of Dr. Northcote:
“Of the sixty-five Popes who have filled the Chair of Peter since the miraculous translation took place, forty-four have in one way or other given their sanction to the story . . . whilst of the twenty-one who do not happen to have spoken on the subject, seven lived before the return of the Popes from Avignon (where, of course, it was impossible that they should have had so accurate a knowledge of what was going on in Italy), and seven others reigned for a few weeks or months.”
Since the above was written, the two pontiffs who have followed have each of them expressed their marked approval of the Loreto tradition. Under the first of these — the singularly enlightened Leo XIII — took place the sixth centenary of the arrival of the Holy House in Italy, and on occasion of it Pope Leo issued an encyclical, in which, without one word of hesitation, he reaffirmed the miraculous translation of it, inviting all the faithful to take part in the celebration of it, and granting a Jubilee Indulgence to those who visited Loreto.
In various ways also our late Holy Father Pope Pius X openly manifested his belief in the tradition, and his great displeasure at the attacks made recently upon it. It will be seen, I think, as we proceed, that these attacks have for their basis no fresh discovery disproving the tradition, and are rested, either upon grounds which are purely negative, such as the asserted absence of contemporary documents, or on unwarrantable accusations against those, by whom the tradition has been transmitted, of undue credulity, if not of actual imposture.
Disregarding, however, these objections for the moment, let us first see what it is that is now shown to the pilgrim to Loreto; and what is the story of the Holy House and its miraculous translation, which has been handed down by its historians.
What the Pilgrim to Loreto Sees
The following description of the Holy House, as it is seen at the present day by the pilgrim to Loreto, is borrowed from a work, now unfortunately out of print, called “Loreto and Nazareth,” by the late Father William Anthony Hutchison of the London Oratory, who died whilst it was passing through the press in 1863. The three sanctuaries of Nazareth, Loreto, and Tersatto had each in turn been visited by him (the first two more than once), and everything had been examined by him carefully and leisurely upon the spot. The following is his description of Loreto:
“On a hillside, on the east coast of Italy, at a distance of about three miles from the sea, and eighteen miles south of Ancona, stands the city of Loreto. On the summit of the hill, towering far above the surrounding buildings, rises the magnificent cathedral church with its great dome and campanile. Unlike any other church, it seems to have something of the nature of a castle, owing to the fortifications with which it is provided, in order to repel the attacks of pirates, who might seek to plunder the sanctuary which the church contains. From its great height and from its position it may be seen, and the music of its bells is often heard, at a considerable distance out at sea.
“On entering the church, there is seen beneath the dome a singular rectangular edifice, of no great height, constructed apparently of white marble, and richly adorned with statues and sculpture. On entering this building, the contrast between the poverty of the interior — at least as far as the walls are concerned — and the richness of the marble exterior is most astonishing. The walls, as seen from the interior, are the plain, rough walls of a cottage, and evidently of great antiquity. Towards the eastern end of the house, but at some little distance from the east wall, stands an altar, with an altar-screen of pillars and arches, which divides the house into two unequal parts. Behind the altar, in a niche in the east wall, is an image of our Lady and Child. It is said to be of olive wood, and partly from the nature of the wood, and partly from age, and from the constant smoke of the lamps, which are ever burning before it, it has become perfectly black. Both the Virgin and Child wear on their heads precious crowns of gold, and the figure is clothed in a rich robe, adorned with brilliants and jewels. This is the famous image of our Lady of Loreto.
“On all sides of the house are suspended silver lamps, which are continually burning; and the contrast between the richness of these lamps, and the roughness and poverty of the walls, is as striking as that already spoken of between the interior and the magnificent marble exterior.
“The peculiar hush and stillness, broken only by the occasional clinking of a rosary, which is so characteristic of an Italian sanctuary, may be especially observed here. Yet the house is usually full of people on their knees praying to the Madonna, and as they leave they may generally be seen affectionately kissing the ancient walls. There is something in the aspect of the building which of itself moves one to devotion; and this effect is intensified when the mind dwells upon the various mysteries of which these walls have been the witnesses.
“Those who have had the happiness of visiting Loreto will, I think, agree in saying that the moments spent in the Holy House were among the happiest of their lives; and if they only spent the time aright, they must have arisen from their knees with the conviction common to all the faithful who have visited it: ‘This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of Heaven.’
“This strange building, then, under the dome of the great church, is the Holy House of Loreto.”
To this description of the Holy House by Father Hutchison it will be convenient here to add a translation of the inscription, which, for the instruction of the pilgrims, was engraved by order of Pope Clement VIII upon the eastern end of the marble wall which encases the Holy House. Placed there by the pontiff, as it was, expressly to inform the pilgrim of the facts, it is a clear and authoritative proof of the Holy See’s acceptance of the miracle of the translation.
“Christian traveller, whom piety or vow has conducted hither, thou beholdest the holy Loreto House, renowned throughout the world for its divine mysteries and glorious miracles.
“Here the Most Holy Mary, Mother of God, was born; here she was saluted by the Angel; here the Eternal Word of God was made flesh. angels transferred this habitation first from Palestine to Tersatto in Illyria, in the year of salvation 1291, Nicholas IV being then sovereign pontiff. Three years afterwards, in the commencement of the pontificate of Boniface VIII, it was transferred into Picenum, near to Recanati city, and placed by the ministry of angels in the wood of this hill; where, having changed its place three times within the space of a year, it at length rested by God’s will three hundred years ago. From that time this Holy House has been held in great veneration among all nations, the admiration of the neighboring people being excited by so extraordinary an event, and the fame of the miracles wrought in it having been spread far and wide. Its walls, with no foundations to support them, remain whole and stable after so many ages. Pope Clement VII enclosed it within a marble casement in the year of our Lord 1534. The sovereign Pontiff Clement VIII ordered a brief account of the wonderful Translation to be engraved upon this stone in the year 1595. Anthony Maria Gallus, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church, and Bishop of Osimo, Protector of the Holy House, caused it to be done. Do thou, pious pilgrim, here devoutly venerate the Queen of Angels and Mother of Grace, that through her merits and intercession thou mayest obtain from her most loving Son, who is the author of life, pardon of thy sins, health of body, and eternal joys.”
Within the Holy House itself a briefer inscription, set in letters of gold upon the reredos of the altar, and placed there, it seems, by authority of Pope Clement VII, by whom the altar was moved into its present position, again reminds the pilgrim of the great mystery accomplished within those very walls: Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est Et Habitavit In Nobis.
We must now endeavour to trace the history of the Holy House from the time when it was the habitation of the Holy Family at Nazareth to its miraculous translation to Loreto.
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