Bishop Robert Ladds looks back on the events of the 80th Anniversary Year pilgrimage made by members of the Society of Mary

The Society of Mary was founded in 1931 by the bringing together of two earlier devotional societies. Soon after its foundation, Members of the Society made a Pilgrimage to Rome. In this 80th Anniversary Year it was appropriate that the major Pilgrimage was again to Rome, linking this with visits to Loreto and Subiaco.

Centuries of devotion

Loreto, close to the Adriatic Coast of Italy, is a hilltown 127 metres above sea-level and set as its crowning feature is the fifteenth-century Basilica della Santa Casa; its façade, framed by the Piazza della Madonna, greets arriving pilgrims. Within the Basilica, the Holy House stands under the Dome; clad in marble and adorned with carvings and statues of saints and prophets. But to mount the steps and enter into the House is to experience a transformation. Three primitive brick walls form the back and sides of a small structure, much like that of the Holy House at Walsingham. The east wall is the Altar and the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto.

Legends of miraculous transportation from the Holy Land, at the hands of angels, during the turmoil of the Crusades around 1290, may have their foundation in the record of the de Angeli family, when the ‘stones from Nazareth’ appear as a dowry. Modern research shows that similar three-walled brick structures were built against caves in first-century Palestine. What is far more significant and palpable, however, is the holiness of this place; the focus of prayer, worship and pilgrimage. Pilgrims have come to Loreto for 700 years.

The Holy House

Our pilgrims were warmly welcomed and provided with a chapel for Mass in the crypt immediately below the Holy House. Two days gave time to explore the small town, visit the museum and glorious art gallery and delve the intricacies of the fortified Basilica. But it was, though, the Holy House that drew everyone back again and again for prayer, quiet and inspiration. The words inscribed above the altar are a call to the very heart of faith in the Incarnation: Hic verbum caro factum est – Here the Word was made flesh.

St Benedict

As a young man, Benedict came to the Dolomites around Subiaco and there found a spirituality and way of life – a spiritual insight that gave rise to the Rule of St Benedict, to Benedictine communities throughout Christendom and to teachings that are the bedrock of western Christianity.

The Monastery of St Scholastica is one of only two – the other being Montecassino Abbey – that remain where St Benedict founded them. The monks of St Scholastica offer pilgrims modern accommodation, good Italian food and wine. They care for the Monastero di San Benedetto, built around the Cave of St Benedict, clinging to the mountainside as a martin’s nest to a wall.

Within, passages and stairs, over three levels, lead to chapels and chambers, every surface painted with vivid frescos of biblical scenes, heaven and hell, angels and saints; including St Francis of Assisi, who visited Subiaco.

The Pilgrimage Mass took place in a chapel with its gallery overlooking the Cave and, on a bright sunny day, a large casement flung open to the view across the valley that the eyes of Benedict must so often have look upon in his years of contemplation as a hermit.

To Rome and the privilege of staying at the Casa del Clero, on Via della Scrofa, close to Vatican City. Privilege upon privilege; the House Chapel for Mass. We experienced perfect weather for Rome, and a balance of worship, organized visits and time and space for so much more.

Santa Maria Maggiore

Central in our worship was the visit to the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to sing Lauds on the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. There are 25 other churches in Rome dedicated to Our Lady, but the name given the Basilica is justified by both its dimensions and its beauty. The fifth-century mosaics are incredible works of early Christian art with two purposes. They properly glorify her who, through her obedience and humility, glorified God. They show Our Blessed Lady as Theotokos, the God-

Bearer. They reveal the true, inner and Immaculate beauty of Mary that makes her the fit and only Mother of God Incarnate.

Secondly, these mosaics use the dual images of the Old and New

Testament to place Mary in her rightful place in the history of our salvation. From the nave can be traced the story of God’s saving action from Moses and the Crossing of the Red Sea through to the triumphal arch and the revelation of God’s love in Christ – that wonderful and loving plan of God, fulfilled in the birth of our Saviour through Mary, that is triumphant over sin and death. It is Our Lady’s purity, humility and meekness that is triumphant over riches and power. These are the triumphs that this triumphal arch celebrates.

Remarkable architecture

Surely the Athenian columns supporting the nave, and remaining from the first Basilica, are among the most remarkable aspects of the architecture of this place. Thirty-six are marble and four are granite and their gilt-bronze capitals unite them. How evocative, united and beautiful they stand; like those columns God directed should be set up to form the Holy of Holies of the Temple to contain the Ark of the Covenant and make known the very presence of God. It was our Blessed Lady who was to be the one, true Ark of the Covenant; her blessed womb containing, not the stone tablets of the law, but the living God. These columns are a parable of her calling.

Kneeling before the reliquary

At the very heart of the Church, under the high altar, is the Crypt of the Nativity; within it, the crystal reliquary, in itself a thing of great and astounding

beauty designed by Giuseppe Valadier. But of far, far greater beauty is what it contains. Within are simple fragments of wood from the holy crib of the nativity of the Son of God, the Son of Mary. Perhaps there was

nothing more fitting for those of the Society of Mary, who came as pilgrims on the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, than to kneel here, before the wood of the crib – to kneel and know the staggering and inestimable truth that God became Man.

Mass at the Catacombs of St Callistus brought close the fortitude and sacrifice of the first Christians, a sense brought home by the time of devotions at the Scala Sancta – the Holy Stairs, the steps that led up to the Praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, on which Jesus Christ stood during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs, brought to Rome by St Helena in the fourth century, have been precious to Christian pilgrims drawing close to the Passion of their Lord. The 80th Anniversary Pilgrimage; a Pilgrimage indeed! ND