The five days from December 8th to December 12th hold a special place in the hearts of those who have a personal devotion to Our Lady. During this brief time span the Church celebrates three feasts dedicated to the Mother of God, all of which are in some way associated with miraculous events.
The most famous of these is the first, the of Feast of the Immaculate Conception – the title under which Mary is the Patroness of the United States of America, and a holy day of obligation in our land. Only slightly less famous is the feast that concludes the five days, that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Under this designation Mary is the Patroness of the Americas and, because of her depiction as a young pregnant woman, Patroness of the Unborn.
Directly between these two monumental Marian feasts sits a lesser known holy day that just this past October, with very little fanfare, became a fixed celebration on the General Roman Calendar of the Catholic Church. As of this fall, with a solemn declaration by Pope Francis, the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto became a permanent memorial to be celebrated on each December 10th throughout the Catholic world.
Although a mixture of fact and legend, this feast is one that has been recognized as a part of the personal piety of the recently canonized Saints John XXIII and John Paul II as well as Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. From John XXIII visiting and praying at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto as a prelude to the opening of the Second Vatican Council to the recent declaration by Francis of the new status of the feast day, modern popes have associated themselves with a shrine whose story seems more tradition than history, yet there is always the hopeful feeling that maybe, just maybe, the legend is fact.
The story of the shrine at Loreto goes back over two thousand years and almost as many miles. Inside the basilica of the shrine in Loreto, Italy, stands a smaller structure that is said to be the house where the Blessed Mother was born, where Gabriel appeared to her, and where the Holy Family dwelt. Thus, tradition holds that this humble dwelling originally stood in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth.
The tale of the legendary journey reveals why Our Lady of Loreto is the patroness of aviators, since, as the story goes, the house was transported through the air by angels from the Holy Land to this northern Italian town. Those less prone to exuberance, like the custodians of the shrine, point to the less miraculous, yet more probable, transport having occurred by boat through the work of a person whose family name happened to be Angeli.
Either way, this small house, while measuring a mere 350 square feet, looms large in the perennial message of popes concerning the link between the Holy Family and the institution of the family today, especially in its relation to an often hostile world. Voicing again one of the major themes of his pontificate, Pope Francis used the occasion of his signing the recent document on young people while at Loreto to declare:
“The house of Mary is also the home of the family. In the delicate situation of today's world, the family, founded on marriage between a man and a woman, takes on an essential importance and mission. It is necessary to rediscover the plan traced out by God for the family, to reaffirm its greatness and irreplaceability at the service of life and society."
Just as God has a design and a plan for “the family” so also He has a design and a plan for each and every individual family. These words of the Holy Father can, especially during Advent, remind us of the grace that each family can bring to a world desperately in need of the peace that can only come when we look to the example of the woman who, in that very house in Loreto, answered God’s invitation to bring the Prince of Peace into our violent and fallen world.