As we move into Advent, we feel a special affinity to Mary, as she waited for the birth of her son. This is, in part, why Pope Francis instituted a new optional memorial feast last year. On Dec 10, we have the option of celebrating Mary as “Our Lady of Loreto.” But did you know that Mary has a special tie to aviation? And to astronauts — which is especially interesting to note, since NASA sent its first astronauts into space since 2011 on Nov. 15. And, while not as many people will fly home for the holidays this year, airplanes may still figure into the season.
Many are familiar with the Litany of Loreto, one of the most popular litanies of the church. It dates back to the 16th century and seems to have grown out of older litanies to the saints that were part of the very early church.
This litany is named in honor of the Holy House of Loreto in Italy. According to tradition, this house is the same house that belonged to SS. Joachim and Anna, the grandparents of Jesus. In this house, Mary was born and was visited by the Archangel Gabriel. Later, after returning from their flight into Egypt, the Holy Family was said to settle here.
So what is this house doing in Italy? Weren’t the Holy Family residents of Nazareth, in what is now Israel?
This is where airplanes — well, aviation — come in.
In the past, as is still true today, the Middle East was prone to armed conflict.
In the fourth century, when St. Helen — the mother of the Emperor Constantine — traveled to the Holy Land to find sites related to the life of Jesus, she began a church at Nazareth. The Basilica of the Annunciation stands there today.
However, tradition says that the Holy House of Nazareth was threatened by destruction during a Saracen invasion in A.D. 1291. To save the house, angels carried it to Dalmatia on what is now the Balkan Peninsula. The little stone house stayed there for three years and was again removed by angels because of unrest in the Kingdom of Albania. The house was taken to Loreto, which is about 150 miles northeast of Rome.
The house — 30 feet by 13 feet — today is surrounded by a marble basilica. There have been many questions about the movement of this Holy House, locally called Santa Casa di Loreto. Two things that have been noted are that the house does not rest on any foundation. Also, the stones of which it is made do not match the stones in this region of Italy. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “the stone on which the original walls of the Santa Casa are built and the mortar used in their construction is not such as are known in the neighborhood of Loreto. But both stone and mortar are, it is alleged, chemically identical with the materials most commonly found in Nazareth.”
In 2018, the Catholic News Agency reported that archaeologists had made excavations at both Nazareth and Loreto and “found similar materials at both sites. The stones that make up the lower part of the walls of the Holy House in Loreto appear to have been finished with a technique particular to the Nabataeans, which was also widespread in Palestine.”
(The Nabataeans were an Arab group that formed a Middle East kingdom in the centuries around the time of Christ. Their capital was Petra, now part of Jordan.)
There is another, more mundane theory, that still shows a great deal of faith and the fervor of devotion of the Angeli family, descendants of the Emperor of Constantinople. This theory says that the Angelis had the Holy House dismantled and moved at their own expense.
Wedding gift of stone
In 1900, Pope Leo XIII’s archivist, Giuseppe Lapponi, discovered records that indicated this family’s involvement in the house now at Loreto. This information was not published until 1985. However, the Marian Library at the University of Dayton notes that “allegedly, in 1294, Niceforo Angeli sent the bricks to Italy as a wedding gift for his daughter, Ithamar (or Margherita). Ithamar’s wedding to Philip of Angio, son of Charles II, King of Naples, took place in October 1294. The arrival of the Holy House dates to Dec. 10, 1294.”
The Angeli family name means “angels,” so that would give a different aspect to the transportation link, but still link it with angels.
Whether flown by angels or transported by an angelic family, the link to flight continues. For more than a century, Our Lady of Loreto has been the patron of aviators. On March 24, 1920, Pope Benedict XV named her the “universal patron saint of all those who travel by air.”
Vatican records also say that an image of Our Lady of Loreto was on the “Spirit of St. Louis” in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight. And a medal of Our Lady of Loreto was placed on the March 1969 flight of Apollo IX by Commander James McDivitt.
Whatever the tradition of the Holy House means to you, the important thing to remember — especially as we traverse Advent — is the words carved on the altar along its eastern wall: Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est (“Here the Word was made flesh”).
Sources: vatican.va; udayton.edu; catholicnews.com; cruxnow.com; catholicnewsagency.com; fisheaters.com; the Catholic Encyclopedia; ewtn.com; catholicculture.org; thecatholictravelguide.com; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions and Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History