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Rome Notes: History of the Holy House of Loreto, New Saints for the Church

Marvelli and Suriano Members of Catholic Action

by Delia Gallagher

This Sunday, Sept. 5, the Pope will make his fifth visit to Loreto, site of the house in which the Holy Family once lived, to beatify three new blesseds of the Church.

The house in question is the one from Nazareth, where Mary was born and raised, and pronounced her "fiat" to the Angel Gabriel's announcement. It is also considered the house where the Holy Family lived. According to Catholic tradition it was "transported by the angels" around 1291 from Palestine to Dalmatia, Croatia, and is now found at Loreto, on the eastern Italian coast.

I remember an old joke told to me by an evangelical friend at the Vatican: "Some Catholics believe not only that Mary was assumed into heaven, but that her house was too." Well, not quite.

The story of the house is not one of doctrine, of course, but of long and venerable tradition.

The original house in Nazareth lay protected for many years in an underground crypt thanks to Constantine, who, in 312, built the first Basilica over the holy spot. It remained a place of peaceful pilgrimage through the beginning of the crusades (in 1219 St. Francis of Assisi visited). Defeated in 1291, Christians were forced to withdraw from the Holy Land and destruction of the house by the Turks seemed imminent.

It is then, in May 1291, that the house appeared in a field in Tersatto, Dalmatia, most likely brought by Christians fleeing the Holy Land. It remained in Dalmatia for three years until it was again "transported" across the sea to Italy, first to an area near Lecanati and finally to its last home a few miles away in Loreto.

Whether it is the original house is disputed. However the dimensions of the house, 31 feet by 13 feet, seem to match those in Nazareth and the materials used for its walls are similar to those used in Nazareth and very dissimilar to Italian building materials.

Like the Icon of Kazan, however, the importance of the house lies less in its authenticity than in its history.

It has been a place of pilgrimage for over 2,000 of the Church's most celebrated members: St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales, St. John Capistrano, St. Clement Hofbauer, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, St. Louis de Montfort, St. John Bosco, St. Thérčse, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Cabrini and St. Gianna Beretta Molla.

At the Vatican, Our Lady of Loreto is credited for restoring health to Popes Pius II, Paul II and Pius IX. More than fifty Popes have testified to the authenticity of the house at Loreto and in 1669 the Litany of Loreto was approved for use in the Mass, one of only five approved public litanies.

Many in the English-speaking world will have heard of, if not been educated by, Loreto Sisters. Interestingly, the Loreto Sisters were formed in Ireland, not Italy, by Irish IBVM (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary founded by Englishwoman Mary Ward) nun, Frances Mary Teresa Ball (1794-1861) who established an IBVM house in 1822 in Dublin and called it Loreto House. The Loreto Sisters, now numbering more than one thousand, have houses and schools on 6 continents and in 16 countries including Australia, the United States, Canada, England, India, Mauritius, and Gibraltar.

Not surprisingly, Our Lady of Loreto, known as the "flying house," is the patron saint of aviators.

***

He was a childhood friend of filmmaker Federico Fellini and an employee of FIAT, the Italian car manufacturer, and on Sept. 5 in Loreto, Alberto Marvelli will be named a blessed of the Church by Pope John Paul II.

Born on March 21, 1918, Marvelli lived for only 28 years, when he was killed by an army truck while riding his bicycle on a dirt road in Rimini, Italy.

One of seven children, Marvelli was raised in a deeply religious family, which although well-off, often had little to eat, such was the price they placed on giving food and clothes to the less fortunate.

Marvelli wrote of his mother in a diary entry Sept. 12, 1939, "With what severe efficaciousness she guarded our spiritual and material life. In the example of Christ she was the same with everyone: family, strangers and the poor. No one who knocked at our door was sent away empty-handed. Even when she had nothing and was trying to save, she always found something for the poor."

Educated by the Salesians in impoverished post-war Italy, Marvelli became active in political and social movements of the time. He joined the Italian lay movement, Catholic Action (see below) and spent his days cycling from school and Mass to the offices where he worked to provide housing to those who had lost their homes in the war.

His diary entries and the witness of those who knew him, speak of a young man with a rich interior life, always searching to imitate Jesus in his work with the poor, and equally involved in sports, friendship and work in political life.

Marvelli writes: "We have been at war for eight months: All men speak of peace, desire peace, but few are like the Pope, who work for peace, to maintain it, to bring it back. To me, this war seems unnecessary; it could have and should have been avoided."

Msgr. Renzini, pastor of St. Cross Church which Marvelli frequented, remembered a telling episode: "In a conference with a group of graduates, the speaker finished his talk with the episode of St. Francis who kissed a leper. The Bishop jokingly asked, who, today, would kiss a leper? We all looked at each other and had the same thought: someone even whispered the name of Marvelli."

In those same years as Marvelli was expending himself up north to aid the fall-out of the war, a young girl down in Sicily was being held against her will in her family house: they, determined she would get married and she, determined to be a nun.

Pina Suriano never saw her dream of religious life fulfilled but she, too, will be beatified by the Pope this Sunday at Loreto.

Born Feb. 18, 1915 near Palermo, Suriano, like Marvelli, exhibited an extraordinarily rich interior life from an early age. Though her family did not encourage her vocation, Suriano was determined to work as a lay person for the Church and became involved with Catholic Action, the same group to which Marvelli belonged.

A charismatic girl, Suriano organized a group of "little sisters" as she called them and nourished hopes that they would be able to form a religious institute. This, like her religious vocation, never came to pass since the priest Suriano had asked to head the group became involved in a scandal and was dismissed from the diocese.

Suriano wrote in a letter to Padre Pio when she was 32 years old, "How painful it is to have a dream and never realize it...there are no words to describe the torture of a heart that suffers the inability to realize its vocation."

After 7 years of failed attempts to become a religious, or to fulfill her vocation through a lay institute, Pina Suriano decided, together with 4 of her "little sisters" to dedicate herself as a Victim for Jesus. At Easter, 1948, she wrote to her spiritual director to request permission and included a program of thirteen points.

She writes: "The first offer that I make to the Lord will be bitter pain, the great torture of my soul (for the unrealized vocation). I will be happy, if this is the will of the Lord, that the religious life remain for me a dream...I will thank the Lord and remain happy even in the midst of this martyrdom...I will be ready to suffer all physical, moral and spiritual torment..."

Not long after she took her vows of Victim in March 1948, Pina Suriano developed a form of rheumatoid arthritis which lead to a heart defect and a fatal heart attack on May 19, 1950. She was 35 years old.

***

Both Pina Suriano and Alberto Marvelli were members of the Catholic Action lay movement, founded in 1868 under Pope Pius IX.

The movement is the largest lay Catholic organization in Italy (over 400,000 members) and has branches in nearly 50 countries throughout the world, all of whom will be represented at Loreto this week. (Catholic Action, though active in some parishes in the United States, is not organized at the episcopal level there and so there is no U.S. delegation to Loreto).

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and recently canonized St. Gianna Beretta Molla were also members of Catholic Action.

The Pope decided to hold the beatifications this Sunday in Loreto at the invitation of the Catholic Action group (it will be his only trip within Italy this year) who are sponsoring a week-long congress to mark the occasion.

Pope John Paul II's support for Catholic Action is connected to his unceasing call to lay people to "have the courage of the future."

"The Pope speaks of a new season for the Church," said H.E. Msgr. Stanislaw Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, co-sponsor of the Congress in Loreto, "Catholic Action is among the protagonists of this new season."

Whether through Catholic Action or any number of the many other Catholic lay movements, Pope John Paul II encourages lay people, and particularly youth to become involved in the future of the Church.

"There are many indications which cause one to hope in the kairos of a new springtime for the Gospel!" the Pope said on Tuesday, Aug. 31 in a message to the participants at Loreto.

"All faithful lay people can be involved in this important work if they are aware of their own baptismal vocation and of the three duties which it imparts - priestly, prophetic and regal. Trusting in the grace of God and strengthened by a living sense of belonging to the Church as a 'house and school of communion,' lay people are prepared to listen to the teaching and directives of their pastors in order to be efficient collaborators with them in the building of the ecclesial community of which they are a part."

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Saints, Loreto, Pope, Catholic, Action

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