The Holy House of Nazareth
by Zsolt Aradi
The history of Loreto presents to believers and honest disbelievers one of those eloquent questions of faith ever posed to rational skepticism.
This is the most sacred and most important shrine of the Virgin. It is said that the House of Nazareth, the home of the Holy Family, had been brought by angels from Nazareth to the Dalmatian coast and later, by the same angels, transported to Loreto where it stands today enclosed in a huge Basilica. In the center of the House of Nazareth, there is a replica of a wooden statue of the Madonna. The original one, made of cedar of Lebanon, arrived at Loreto together with the house but has been destroyed.
The history of Loreto is based partly upon tradition and partly on historically recorded facts. We know from the visits of the reliable persons of the Holy Land, whose journeys were carefully recorded in documents, that the Holy House of Nazareth was intact in Palestine at a relatively late date. St. Louis, King of France, heard Mass in Nazareth in 1253 in the same chamber where the angels announced the coming of Christ to Mary. In 1291, however, Dalmatian shepherds found a curious-looking building in a field at Tersatto where, the evening before, there had been no building, nor building materials. The house had an ancient altar, a Greek cross and a strange statue of a lady. The parish priest of Tersatto did not hesitate to declare that this was the home of the Holy Family from Nazareth and further explained that he had been warned by a premonition of the origin of the house. The Governor of Dalmatia immediately dispatched his emissaries to Nazareth, and they reported that the Holy House had indeed disappeared from there. The length and breadth of the walls of the dwelling found at Tersatto corresponded with the foundations beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This basilica had been built over the original Holy Home in Nazareth. Tradition says that the investigation disclosed another bit of valuable evidence: the house found at Tersatto was built of limestone, mortar and cedar wood. These materials were commonplace in Nazareth, but almost unobtainable in Dalmatia.
While this investigation was going on in 1294, the house suddenly reappeared on the Italian shores of the Adriatic, in a forest called Lauretum. It did not long remain there because as the story goes the visitors and pilgrims to the house were often attacked by robbers. Soon enough, people found the House of Nazareth transported out of the woods into an open meadow. For the last time it was lifted up again by the angels when two members of a family who had arrived to express their devotion ended by exploding into heavy arguments with each other. The house disappeared once more but at last it rested on a road close to the Italian town of Recanati. There it stands today.
Most of the evidence about the translation of the Holy House came to light through a commission of inquiry set up by Pope Boniface VIII, who sent his investigators to Tersatto and Nazareth, as well as to Loreto. He himself, as well as other popes, declared that the history and traditions of Loreto are "most worthy of belief." Later the Sacred Congregation of Rights appointed December 10th as the Feast of the "Translation of the Holy House."
Since 1294, pilgrims from all over the world have crowded the roads to Loreto. Forty-seven popes have knelt there during their pontificates and many others came to pray before they were elevated to the Holy See. The litany to Our Lady, that most beautiful and poetic expression of her virtues and her meaning for heaven and earth, is called the Litany of Loreto. Italy has, perhaps more than any other European country, been the scene of civil strife, wars and revolutions from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The country was divided with city fighting city, group pitted against group and man against man. Those six centuries of Italian history are the most dramatic in the formation of Europe. As armies marched from North to South and South to North, no harm was ever done to the House of Loreto and to its mystical image.
It was again the sad privilege of the French Revolution to desecrate this most sacred image of Our Lady. The French Revolutionary Directory took all the treasures of Loreto, including the image, to Paris and exposed them to profane curiosity. Napoleon III gave the statue back to Pope Pius VII, who enthroned it first in the Papal Palace at the Quirinal and with great solemnity restored it to Loreto in 1802. An accident in 1921, however, destroyed the original statue and a new figure, about three feet high, was carved from the wood of a cedar grown in the Vatican gardens.
Pope Pius XI enthroned it in September 1924 in the Sistine Chapel, then, with his own hands, crowned the Holy Child and His Mother whereupon the figure was exposed for a day in the Basilica St. Maria Maggiore in Rome whence, with great solemnity, it was carried to Loreto. On feast days, the figure of Our Lady and the Holy Child is dressed in a robe of gold and silk. The jewels on the robe are the marriage jewels of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and are of inestimable value.
There are, of course, many persons for whom it is hard to believe that the "translation" of the Holy House from Nazareth to Tersatto, and thence to its present location, is not pure fantasy. There is certainly one extraordinary proof to sustain the tradition. No house could stand for a long time--and certainly not for centuries--on the surface only, without having any foundation. Yet the fact remains that the house is not artificially sustained and has no foundation at all. This can be proved by anyone who visits the shrine. During World War II, the shock of airwaves destroyed many more solidly built houses, ancient and modern, as well as castles. The vicinity of Loreto and the city of Loreto itself were bombed several times during the conflict. But the House of Nazareth, where the angel announced that the Word would be made Flesh, still stands erect and unshattered--the keystone of Christianity.
This item 2987 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org