In some Christian calendars, today is the anniversary of a miraculous event which, at the height of its glory, according to one commentator, drew “the ridicule of one half of the world and the devotion of the other” .
Despite a childhood during which I must have been surrounded by many members of this latter community, the phenomenon had sort of missed me until a few years ago, when I heard about it for the first time while visiting Croatia.
But the main event is celebrated in the Italian city of Loreto: the supposed final resting place of the house of the Virgin Mary, after she left Nazareth in the Middle Ages, or earlier, and traveled west.
How did a house go from the Middle East to Italy? Now, according to the original lore, he was transported there by angels. But when this version began to attract skepticism even among devotees, the Vatican came up with a more rational alternative, namely that the building had been transported from the Holy Lands on a crusader ship.
This did not weaken the faith of the most enthusiastic believers, however, and the cult of Our Lady of Loreto as the patron saint of aviators has survived until modern times. When Charles Lindbergh flew over the Atlantic in 1927, he had his medallion on board. Just like the crew of Apollo 9, one of the preparatory missions for the moon landings.
But if the Holy House did travel by air, then like many long-distance flights, it had a stopover en route. Hence the Croatian angle. Because tradition also wants the house to have landed for the first time in Trsat in northern Dalmatia, and spent three and a half years there, from 1291 to 1294, before a continuous flight across the Adriatic.
Skeptics noted that in Trsat, the destination was conveniently located near the powerful Francopan family, who owned a castle there (later the home of one of Ireland’s Austrian wild geese, Marshal Laval Graf Nugent von Westmeath). If the Francopans were involved in the choice of the landing site, it is not clear why they allowed such a prestigious relic to leave.
The dating of these events suggests that they coincide with the beginning of the literary career of a certain Dante Alighieri. Dante will immortalize another pilgrimage of the time (the great gathering in Rome of Easter 1300) by making it the date of his Divine Comedy. In the process, he helped establish the popularity of a concept then recently approved by the Vatican: Purgatory.
But it must have been too early for him to notice the cult of Loreto, which did not become popular until the 14th century and subsequently attracted pilgrims such as Galileo, Descartes, Cervantes and Mozart, among countless others.
Less respectful visitors, including Napoleon’s troops, who ransacked the church in 1797 and may have looted its then considerable treasures (although it is also said that these were used by the Vatican to pay for debts imposed by Bonaparte).
As for the credibility of the history of the Holy House, not everyone fell on the radically opposed camps mentioned in the opening paragraph. Writer Rebecca West, for example, born in England to a Scottish mother and an Anglo-Irish father, ranked solidly in the middle.
Detailing the Croatian episode of her magnificent history of Yugoslavia between the wars, she writes: “It’s a story that enchants me. This gives new meaning to the expression “God moves in a mysterious way”; and the image of the little house floating in space is a fine example of the absurd function of religion, of its power to brighten up the soul by asserting that the universe is sometimes freed from the burden of necessity, which inspires all the best miracles.
On the other hand, West noted that the cult “has often made reality sad.” She quoted an English priest who visited Loreto in the early 19th century and said that “many of the more sane of her faith were extremely grieved” by the legend.
Rather, they thought that the house of the Virgin Mary was a “chalet or a log building long buried in a pathless forest, and unnoticed in a country almost turned into a desert by a succession of civil wars, invasions and revolutions” .
West had none of these. Even noting the suspicious proximity of the Croatian site of the Holy House to the local castle, she concluded cryptically: “We have to admit that sometimes human beings simply lie, and indeed it is necessary that they do not know what is the poetry that make up their works.