Our WINE pilgrimage group visited the Shrine of the Holy House of Loreto yesterday and, once again, it was a beautiful, almost mystical experience. We arrived just before 10 am from Assisi, a two-hour bus ride, just in time for the 10 am Mass after which we had more than 90 minutes to explore the basilica and the Holy House and have quiet time for further prayer.

We explored in small groups of 3 or 4, admiring the magnificent side chapels and those of the apse but spend much of our time in Mary’s Home. At one point I spotted a basilica volunteer and stopped to ask her where the American chapel was. In wonderful English she replied, “Come, I’ll show you.” When we got to the chapel, Kathy, one of our group was also there, and Sabrina spent the next 15 minutes telling us glorious stories and historic details about the Holy House. We were riveted and felt so privileged by her presence. She also showed us several other chapels, in particular the stunning Spanish Chapel, before we had to meet our group at 12:30. Grazie ancora, Sabrina! Thank you, again!

In the time we had before meeting Sabrina, I know I spent at least 45 minutes in the Holy House, entering on three separate occasions, the last of which was precisely at noon for the Angelus!

I hate to sound trite but truly, it doesn’t get any better than praying the noon Angelus inside the walls of the home where the Annunciation occurred, where the Word was Made Flesh, where the Holy Family lived!

My description of the Holy House and its journey from Nazareth to what is now called Loreto follows – this is the story I wrote after my first visit years ago. I am posting photos I took yesterday at the basilica but visitors are not allowed to take photos of the interior of the Holy House. The two pictures you see I found online – one shows the side walls and the altar with the image of Mary holding Jesus and the second shows the two doors on the side walls, the entryway and exit.

The group is exploring Assisi today but, because of huge connectivity issues and spending hours accomplishing literally nothing but trying to get wifi, etc. I will spend most of the day in my room, writing and posting photos and preparing Vatican Insider for this weekend.  I will join them for lunch in a short while.


Several years ago, as part of a series I was writing on shrines in Italy, I visited the Holy House of Loreto. It was my first trip to the Marché region and to this Marian shrine and it was a never-to-be forgotten weekend. I cannot locate the photos I took during that visit (this was before I had a digital camera where one can preserve photos on a memory card, in a computer and on CDs) but the following is my story.

Pope John Paul once said that “the Holy House of Loreto is not an ‘icon’ of abstract truth, but an event and a mystery: the Incarnation of the Word. It is with deep emotion that, when entering the revered chapel, one reads the words above the altar: ‘hic verbum caro factum est – here the Word was made flesh’.”

The Holy House of Loreto has, in fact, been one of the world’s premier shrines dedicated to Mary for over seven hundred years. According to tradition, the home in which Mary lived, in which the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, announcing she would become the Mother of God, and the home she shared with Jesus and Joseph, was transported by angels to this Italian hill town overlooking the Adriatic on the night of December 10, 1294.

In the third century, Mary’s dwelling in Nazareth was already used as a place of worship. The site of the Incarnation then consisted of a grotto (venerated today in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth) and an adjacent three-walled house over which a synagogue had been built. By the fifth century a more solid basilica had been constructed, and by the 12th century it was protected by the majestic basilica of the Crusades.

Tradition says that, when the Crusaders, protectors of holy places, were expelled from Palestine in 1291, the safety of the Holy House was in doubt. It was thus transported – and legend says angels had a hand in this – first to Illyria (modern day Croatia) and then in 1294 to Loreto, a laurel-covered hill in what were then the Papal States. The name Loreto comes, in fact, from the Latin “laurus,” meaning laurel. The adjective is “lauretan.”

According to Capuchin Father Giuseppe Santarelli, author of numerous books on this shrine, recent findings show that the so-called “translation” (the move) of the house to Loreto occurred not through angelic ministrations but through human intervention.

A recently discovered document from 1294 in fact testifies that one Niceforo Angelo, ruler of Epiro gave his daughter, as part of her dowry for her marriage to the son of King Charles of Naples, numerous precious possessions, including “the holy stones carried away from the House of Our Lady, the Virgin Mother of God.” Other documents from the same period assert that a 13th century family named Angelo or Di Angeli, saved the stones of the Holy House of Nazareth from destruction by Moslems and had them transported to Loreto in the Papal States for safekeeping.

“Angelo” means angel in Italian and Di Angeli means “of the angels.”

That part of Our Lady’s house which can be seen today – the original three stone walls – is encased in a rectangular, ornately sculpted marble enclosure called a screen which was commissioned by Pope Julius II in the 16th century and built according to a design by Bramante. The western external wall forms the backdrop for the shrine’s main altar.

The house itself is quite small, about 12 by 28 feet. Today there is an altar where the original house opened on to the grotto. Above the altar is a small statue of Our Lady with Child, clothed in the traditional dalmatic. The original 14th century statue, carved from cedar wood from Lebanon and darkened over the centuries by candle smoke, was destroyed by fire in 1921. The current statue was carved from a Lebanese cedar from the Vatican gardens, and was painted to resemble the earlier Madonna, though it is somewhat darker.

The three original stone walls are barely nine feet high: the masonry above them was added at a later date to accommodate a vaulted ceiling to make it more suitable for worship.

Archeological studies have revealed that the house had no foundations and was set high on a public road. Studies have also shown that the stonework is indigenous to Palestine and that the walls bear graffiti – words that are written or etched in stone – similar to writings in Palestine, and especially Nazareth. One, for example, bears an inscription in Greek, with two words that seem Hebrew (‘lamed’ and ‘waw’) that say “Oh Jesus Christ, Son of God.” This same invocation has been found in the Grotto of Conon in Nazareth, alongside the Grotto of the Annunciation.

About sixty graffiti have been found, many of which are considered by experts to be similar to those of the Judeo-Christians in the Holy Land, including Nazareth, of ancient times

The technique used for the outer finish of some of the stones is similar to that employed by the Nabateans and widespread in Palestine at the times of the Romans.

Five crosses made of a red material were found walled up among the stones of the Holy House. It is believed they belonged to crusaders or to knights of a military order that defended holy relics.

Still visible on the north wall, one of the two longer walls, is the wood lintel where the original door used to be. Today, pilgrims enter and exit by two small doors created in the north and south walls.

Entering the Holy House imbues the visitor with an indescribable sensation. When I was there, the silence was deafening. There is a definite feeling of awe – intellectual, physical and spiritual. Some pilgrims (because of limited space, only a few people enter at a time) appear to be in a trance. Yet others, like I did, gently finger the markings on the 2,000-year old walls, or simply lean against them for a time – as if to draw strength, as if to feel the presence of Mary and the Holy Family, as if to draw inspiration for prayer and – perhaps just once in a lifetime – to say the perfect prayer.

These hallowed walls seem like umbilical cords to our past. Walls which, if they could talk, would let us hear Mary at prayer, Joseph telling Mary about his work day, Jesus as he cries, talks or walks for the first time, the Holy Family around a table as they eat their nightly meal, perhaps with a guest. This was a family’s home – and so you wonder: Were there both tears and laughter? Hot, dusty days? Cold, winter nights? Sleepless nights? Did the Holy Family ever wonder where their next meal would come from?

What we know for certain is that this was a home filled with love.

While millions of pilgrims visit Loreto each year, no one knows precisely how many have come since that December night in 1294. Just as the pilgrims are countless, so too are the miracles and conversions linked to Loreto. Over the years many thousands of votive offerings have been left by the faithful “for graces received,” although only a few hundred are actually on display in the magnificently frescoed Treasure Room.

The imposing Basilica of the Holy House was begun in the latter half of the 15th century. Enormous bronze doors, set in the Renaissance-style façade, welcome us to the interior, which is in the form of a Latin cross, with a nave and two aisles. Twelve side altars fill the right and left walls. As we reach the Holy House, the basilica widens to reveal 13 stunning chapels built around the north, east and south sides of the shrine. These chapels were built with the offerings of the faithful including those from France, Croatia, English-speaking American Catholics, Germany, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland.

The art work – frescoes, sculptures, marble work, and stained glass windows – are of such striking, exquisite beauty as to leave the visitor breathless. Make sure you have an excellent guide – or an excellent guidebook.

American, German and Spanish Chapels

The basilica is at the eastern end of the Piazza della Madonna and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and the Adriatic. It is flanked by an 18th century bell-tower and 16th to 18th century buildings that house a museum, administrative offices and those of the pontifical delegate to the shrine and the Universal Congregation of the Holy House. The latter was founded in 1883 for the purpose of spreading knowledge of and devotion to the Holy House of Loreto.

The feast of the Shrine of the Holy House is December 10th.

Loreto is a pontifical shrine, has a special juridical status and is administered by the Prelature of the Holy House. The prelate and pontifical delegate today is Archbishop Fabio Dal Cin.

Pope John Paul visited Loreto three times (1994, 1995, 2004). Pope Benedict visited Loreto in 2012 for the first time as Pope but he had been there on seven previous occasions between 1985 and 2002. In 1985, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he went on pilgrimage with the personnel of the Congregation. In 1988 the cardinal attended a three-day celebration during the Marian year. In 1991, he was in Loreto for a town twinning between Loreto and Altoetting, the shrine in Bavaria visited last year by Pope Benedict. In 1994, the cardinal went on pilgrimage with his personal secretary at the time, Msgr. Josef Clemens, in 1995 he went for an International Mariological Congress and in 1999 he went on a private pilgrimage with his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger. His last visit as cardinal was in November of 2002 when he stopped in Loreto as a guest of the then prelate, Archbishop Angelo Comastri, on his way to give a speech in Ancona.

Here’s one lovely story I found about the Journey of the Holy House of Loreto:

Now, in more detail, here is the story of the first stage in the journey of the Angels who carried the Holy House, high above the mountains and deserts of the Holy Land, across the expansive Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas to Illyria.  On May 10, 1291, it quietly set down in the little hamlet of Tersatto, in Illyria now known as Croatia), far from the battle cries of Palestine.

It was early in the morning, when the local people discovered, to their great surprise, a house resting on the ground.  There was no foundation under it!  Curious to see what it was, they ventured inside.  They found a stone Altar.  On the Altar was a cedar statue of Mother Mary standing with Her Divine Son in Her arms.  The Infant Jesus had the two first fingers of His Right Hand extended in a blessing, and with His Left Hand, He held a golden sphere representing the world.  Both Mary and Jesus were dressed in robes.  Golden crowns were poised on both their heads.

The villagers were awestruck, but confused, until a short time later, Our Lady appeared to the local Priest and said,

“Know that the house which has been brought up of late to your land, is the same in which I was born and brought up.  Here, at the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel, I conceived the Creator of all things.  Here the Word of the Eternal Father became Man.  The Altar which was brought with this house was consecrated by Peter, Prince of the Apostles.

“This house has come from Nazareth to your shores by the power of God, of Whom nothing is impossible.  And now, in order that you may bear testimony of all these things, be healed.  Your unexpected and sudden recovery shall confirm the truth of what I have declared to you.”

The Priest, who had suffered for years from an illness, was immediately cured.  He promptly told all the people, and word of this Gift from God, spread throughout the countryside.  Pilgrimages began coming immediately to the Holy House of Nazareth, in Illyria.  God had chosen to bring it to this little village, and the villagers lovingly responded by erecting a modest, quite primitive building over the house, to protect it from the elements.

However, the joy, the Croatians had experienced at having this most precious gift in their midst, was short-lived.  Three years and five months later, on December 10, 1294, the Holy House disappeared overnight from Croatia, never to return.  Saddened by the loss, Nicholas Fangipani, a devout man from Tersatto, built a small church, a replica of the Holy House, on a hill where the original had stood.  He placed an inscription:

“The Holy House of the Blessed Virgin came from Nazareth on the 10th of May, in the year 1291, and left on the 10th of December, 1294.”

The people from Croatia continued venerating Our Lady in their replica church.  So great was their devotion that Pope Urban V sent the people of Tersatto an image of Our Lady in 1367, which was said to have been painted by St. Luke, the Evangelist.

The people from Tersatto, or Fiume, as it was also called, grieved over the loss of the Holy House and the image of Our Lady.  A Franciscan recalled a group coming across to Loreto from Dalmatia as late as the 16th Century.  He wrote: “In one particular group, there were about 500 pilgrims from Tersatto, with their Priests.  They began their procession into the church of the Holy House on their knees, crying and weeping.  As they approached the Holy House, they wailed in their own tongue, `Come back to Fiume (Tersatto) O Mary, come back to Fiume, O Mary O Mary.’