The feeling of déjà vu is a curious one – that funny feeling you’ve been to a place before, or have met a stranger you inexplicably think you know.
The recent joint pilgrimage undertaken by the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Society of Mary to Loreto prompted a number of occasions when I felt I was experiencing afresh and in a different place something I had seen in another form elsewhere.
The reason for that must unquestionably be the overlap between the stories that lie behind the foundation both of the shrine of Loreto and the shrine at Walsingham.
Both places have a Holy House which lies at the heart of the experience of the pilgrim. You enter the Holy House and know yourself to be in the house of Jesus and Mary and Joseph. An image of the Mother of God and her divine son is enthroned over the altar as a reminder and celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation. In both places dozens of pilgrims file in and out of that Holy House bringing their joys and sorrows, their petitions and their thanksgivings.
Yet the story of Loreto’s foundation is slightly different from that of Walsingham. The Holy House of Loreto is supposed to have been brought by angels from the Holy Land in the Fourteenth Century during the Crusades, when it was feared the holy sites of Nazareth might be destroyed.
Modern scholars wonder whether this story arose from the fact that a family whose name was Angelos (“angel” in Italian) may have brought the house brick by brick from Nazareth before the town was lost to Muslim armies.
Whatever the case, we can be pretty sure that the bricks which form the core of the present Holy House of Loreto come from the building that had been venerated since the earliest of times as the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth.
When the house was rebuilt in Loreto, extra bricks were added creating a slightly larger, taller structure, but if you subtract those stones, you discover the House of Loreto would miraculously have exactly the same proportions at the Holy House revealed to Richeldis in Walsingham.
The most amazing thing that struck me about the shrine church in Loreto was the way in which the whole building was dedicated to showing how Mary’s role in the story of salvation was foreseen in God’s providence and revealed in the scriptures.
The building is a treasure house of biblical imagery and typological connections expressed in beautiful images, paintings, and statues. All around the Holy House, for example, are marble statues showing the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures along with the Sibylline oracles of antiquity pointing forward to the birth of Christ.
The great titles of Our Lady enumerated in the litany of Loreto all speak of Mary in terms of rich imagery from the Old Testament scriptures: Ivory Tower; Mystic Rose; Ark of the Covenant; Gate of Heaven. We see in these Marian titles of Loreto the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises to his people Israel.
To claim these titles for Our Lady is not ultramontane whimsy, nor some sort of ill thought through saccharine piety. Rather, it is deeply to root our claims about Christ and his Mother in the assertions of scripture, and the loving purposes of God revealed to his pilgrim people in ancient times.
Let us hope this pilgrimage can be the first step in a closer relationship of prayer, witness, and trust between our own shrine of the Holy House of Nazareth in Walsingham, and her sister in Loreto.
Fr Peter Anthony, Vicar of the Parish of Kentish Town