The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto

The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto February 17, 2020

I am presently teaching a graduate course at Baylor on Global/World Christianity. My aim in such courses is always to learn as well as to teach, and one book I have profited from is by Karin Vélez, in her mind-stretching study of The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2018). I chose this as one of my best books of 2019 in the list I do annually for Christian Century. It’s also one of several books I review in a new essay I have out in Journal of World History.

The book tells us a lot about missions, missionaries, and the relationship between the senders and recipients of the new faith. Reputedly, the House of Loreto was the original home of the Holy Family in Palestine, which was miraculously transported to Italy after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in 1291. As Catholic empires spread worldwide, they took with them devotion to the House of Loreto, and Vélez studies three seventeenth century shrines in the New World, one among the Huron in Québec, another in the Amazon River basin between today’s countries of Bolivia and Peru, and a third on a peninsula in Baja California.

Among the core lessons of Vélez’s book, she underplays the central role that historians commonly attribute to the Jesuit order as the ultimate exponents of Catholic globalization. As she shows, other orders were scarcely less active, and the Loreto devotion itself was a grass roots affair, sponsored by the pious laity and converts. So much of the cult’s spread was decentralized and even accidental, the work of “unofficial authors, inadvertent pilgrims, unlicensed architects, unacknowledged artists, and unsolicited cataloguers.”

And if it had not appealed to recently converted peoples, then it would have had nothing like the lasting impact it did. As she writes,

Movers ranged beyond French, Spanish, Portuguese, and central European Jesuits to include Monquí pilgrims from Baja California, Moxos house builders in Bolivia, Huron female mission leaders in Canada, Inka procession organizers in Peru, Slavic migrants in the Adriatic basin, and German atlas makers, among others featured here.

Throughout, Vélez finds that local native peoples were overwhelmingly responsible for supporting and fostering the shrines. The Iberians imported the cults; native people appropriated them, wholeheartedly. Here is a key passage: “Vast and voluntary participation was key to Catholicism’s movement and survival. Real, repeated self-enlistment, viewed by today’s more skeptical audiences as miraculously unlikely, did contribute profoundly to the global diffusion of religion.”

She compares the Catholicism of her era to Wikipedia. Huh? Once the initial shock of the comparison has waned, we see she is exactly correct: both are “additive,”  based on grass roots participation and enthusiasm, “not just trained authorities sitting far away in some elite metropolitan center.”

Historian Jan Machielsen did a fine review of the book in the TLS, which confirms that

Catholicism did not go global by the sword, at least not alone. Elite churchmen play only a small role in the spread of the cult of the Virgin of Loreto. Citing The Da Vinci Code, Vélez warns us against the image of Catholic priests as “conspirators with subversive agendas … plotting to manipulate people.”

Jan Machielsen’s review, by the way, bears the groaning title “Virgin Atlantic.” Hear that, and try to sleep tonight.

Anyway, Vélez is tackling authentic lived religion, the hardest and most essential aspect of the study of any faith. And she is doing something that is exceedingly difficult even for the most skilled historian, namely realizing how vital it is to get beyond merely written sources if we are to appreciate the popular appeal and survival of any faith.

Let me also add something about devotion, never a subject that objective historians can access easily. I quote the review by R. J. Clines,

The story of the Holy House is instructive, as it points to the three-pronged nature of early modern global Catholicism and of Jesuit missions that rendered the faith best able to spread and adapt: first, it always made room for additions and diversity; second, it hinged on personal experience and introspective devotion; and, third, devotion and belief were always a bit beyond the control of authorities.

So many lessons here. In a modern context, we look for instance at African preachers importing US-style televangelism and revival crusades. So are these methods being dropped on unsuspected and unsophisticated local people? Not a bit of it. Institutions and ideas work if they speak to local audiences, and they don’t otherwise. You always have to study the audiences, and not just the people on high. You need vast and voluntary participation.

Leadership is always a function of followership. And so is successful mission.



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