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Rome Diaries - Week 105

May 19th, 2010

The Holy House of Loreto has been on my list of places to visit for a while.

Tradition has it that angels lifted Mary’s house in Nazareth up and away after the

Crusaders lost their fight for the Holy Land. Eventually the building was set down in a

grove of laurel trees (“loreto” in Italian) near Ancona. Even some of the faithful suspend

their belief about this miracle, but the efforts made by Europeans to be in this place

were heroic and inspirational. The cultured skeptic Montaigne came here and mentions

Loreto in his Essays (ch. 15) as a prime example of such “difficuty” giving esteem to

things. When the Holy Land was lost to Christians, the desire to possess some piece of

it was strong. It could be that a certain Crusader removed stones from Nazareth,

believing them to be the House of Mary. Records show that the Angelis family, nobles in

what is now Croatia, gave such a gift as part of a dowry. When the stones arrived in the

harbor of Recanati (1294), the local bishop may have appropriated the relics and built a

chapel of them to house a revered image of Mary (which was destroyed by fire in 1921).

Whatever the means of its arrival in Italy, the chapel at Loreto, its stones rubbed black

from crowds of believers, is a place of pilgrimage. Today I have the chance to make a

one day trip (totaling five hours of driving) to see it. After travelling through the six-mile

tunnel beneath Gran Sasso, highest peak of the Apennines, the road swings up the

Adriatic coast to the fortified hilltop church of Loreto; beyond the gorgeous decorations

of 16 th century popes, lies a small room filled with people singing and whispering prayers

to Mary. A ruined medieval fresco attached to the limestone walls adds to the ferver.

Although the black Madonna statue, sparking with diamonds, is less than a hundred

years old, it is the focus of prayer, while the holy stones quietly do their work of

transporting pilgrims to Nazareth. In 1796, during his invasion of the Papal States,

Napoleon confiscated the famous treasury of Loreto (the pope having secured what he

could). Judging from the tapestries, paintings and ceramics that remain, the Madonna

was inundated with valuables. One charming section of ex votos depicts, on wooden

planks, the miracles received: a child saved from a fire, a family who survived a robbery,

a man restored after being crushed by a wagon. Even Christopher Columbus sent an

official representative to thank Mary for saving him from shipwreck. By the 19 th century,

the church was in need of renewed decoration, so a vibrant, pastel-hued neo-gothic

style prevails in the chapels surrounding the House. For the most part, these chapels

compliment Melozzo da Forli’s masterful Sacristy of St. Mark (1477-1480), its dome

alive with angels quite large enough to transport a house. Perhaps the most opinoniated

and articulate saint ever to visit the House was the fourteen year-old Theresa of Lisieux

(1873-1897). She captures the thoughts of many pilgrims to this place, even now:

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; the women still

wear the graceful dress of the country and have not, as in the large towns, adopted the

modern Paris fashions. 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!

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. According to

Roman custom the Blessed Sacrament is reserved at one Altar in each Church, and

there only is it given to the faithful. At Loreto this Altar was in the Basilica--which is built

round the Holy House, enclosing it as a precious stone might be enclosed in a casket of

white marble. The exterior mattered little to us, it was in the diamond itself that we

wished to receive the Bread of Angels. My Father, with his habitual gentleness, followed

the other pilgrims, but his daughters, less easily satisfied, went towards the Holy House.

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? It will be undimmed by the grief of parting, and will know no end. His

House will be ours for all eternity, and there will be no need to covet fragments from the

walls hallowed by the Divine Presence. He will not give us His earthly Home--He only

shows it to us to make us love poverty and the hidden life. What He has in store for us is

the Palace of His Glory, where we shall no longer see Him veiled under the form of a

child or the appearance of bread, but as He is, in the brightness of His Infinite Beauty.

(from her Autobiography, ch IV)

May 28th, 2010

I’ve not been to St. Peter’s Square in a while. Now it’s covered with billboards

for ENI, the Italian-based energy company. The main image is a woman with a plant in

her hand -- something eco-friendly. For such placements, to be sure, a monetary

compensation is charged. In the old, old days, needed funds were obtained from the

selling of Cardinal’s “hats” and, yes, indulgences. Squeezing money out of image

advertising seems an improvement.

Rome Diaries - Week 105
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