For the first time since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis will visit the sanctuary of Loreto, Italy, on March 25. There, he will sign his apostolic exhortation in the form of a letter to young people, probably titled “Christ is alive, our hope.” Many of the predecessors of the Argentinian pontiff have visited this sanctuary, considered to enshrine the house where the Holy Family lived in Nazareth.
Located near Ancona in the Marche region, the sanctuary of Loreto contains the “Holy House.” According to tradition, angels carried the abode of the Virgin from Nazareth to this Italian town in the 13th century.
It is between these walls that Mary would have received the visit of the angel Gabriel and pronounced her “fiat.” It’s also where Christ would have grown up. Other sources report that a boat brought the house stone by stone; after a stop in what is now Croatia, they arrived safely in Italy on December 10, 1294.
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For his visit to this shrine, the Sovereign Pontiff has chosen March 25, the day of the Feast of the Annunciation. On this occasion, he will sign his apostolic exhortation following the synod on youth, held last October at the Vatican. Then, he will offer this magisterial document to the Virgin. In doing so, the Bishop of Rome wants to entrust to the Virgin all the young people of the world. The pope has said before that young people should go to the “school of Mary,” to learn from her. This desire manifests itself especially in the choices of the themes of the annual World Youth Day in recent years, all of which have been related to the Virgin Mary.
In Loreto, Pope Francis will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. While this is the first trip to Loreto by the current head of the Catholic Church, many of his predecessors also went there on pilgrimage. Pope St. John XXIII (1958-1963) wasn’t the first to visit, but he is the one who instituted the current tradition of papal visits. On October 4, 1962, the “Good Pope” boarded a train put at his disposal by the Italian government for his journey to the sanctuary. Through this one-day trip, the pontiff wished to entrust the Second Vatican Council to the Virgin Mary.
For his part, the very Marian Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005) distinguished himself by making no less than five visits to Loreto: in 1979, in 1985, in 1994, in 1995 and finally in 2004, during which visit he beatified some members of Catholic Action. This Sovereign Pontiff greatly contributed to the fame of the sanctuary, seeing in the popular devotion surrounding this place a sign of God’s approval. In 1965, Pope St. Paul VI created, through a papal bull, the post of a delegate to administer the sanctuary and a prelature, giving it even more visibility.
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The last pilgrim pope in Loreto, Benedict XVI, visited the sanctuary for the first time in 2007 to preside at the closing mass of a gathering of Italian Catholics. On this occasion, he urged the many young people not to hesitate to go “against the current.” Five years later, on October 4, 2012, the predecessor of the current pope returned to Loreto to entrust to the Virgin two ecclesial events which were on the horizon: the synod on the new evangelization, and the Year of Faith. This journey took place 50 years to the day after the historic journey of John XXIII.
While the Argentine pope is not the first pope to come to pray in Loreto, he will be the first to celebrate Mass inside the “Holy House” since Pius IX, 162 years ago. The “Holy House” is now located inside the shrine’s church itself. In this sense, the visit of Francis is “historic,” said Bishop Fabio Dal Cin, prelate of Loreto.
Of course, nothing proves that this structure formed by three walls is a true vestige of the house of the Holy Family. One detail, however, is striking: the stones of the building are not of the geological type of the Loreto region, but are similar to those carved by the Nabataeans at the time of Jesus. In addition, during renovations, five crosses of red cloth from the Crusader period were found.
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