Mary’s Many Titles: Their Origins and Implications, Part 2
While continual miracles of the House of Loreto are so evident, that albeit others were wanting, as they abound; yet those alone might make sufficient proofs to any creature, of the presence of Almightie God; in so much that there is none (though desperat and wicked) but if he visit the house of Loreto may not easily perceive Almightie God to be present with his B[lessed] Mother, in his Mother’s litle House.
— From the Journal of Orazio Torsellino, Jesuit pilgrim, 1710
In the last piece, we spoke of the Holy House in Loreto, brought from Nazareth to Italy in 1294 by a crusading family, the DeAngeli. The family name gave rise to the tale that the house had been transported there by angels, “as is piously believed,” Pope Julius II cautiously wrote in 1507. Nonetheless, belief that it was the home of the Holy Family is supported by modern research, confirming that it is built of two types of limestone found in Nazareth but not in Loreto. The mortar between the stones is typical for first century Galilee but not for Italy. And the walls exactly fit the dimensions of foundations excavated in front of the Virgin’s Grotto in Nazareth.
In the 17th century, Pope Innocent XII instituted the feast of the Translation of the Holy House for December 10, but it was removed in 1969. In October 2019, Pope Francis restored observance of an optional memorial on December 10 honoring Mary as Our Lady of Loreto, again, to the calendar of the Universal Church.
The famed Litany of Loreto, dating to between 1150-1200, approved in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, is practically a roadmap of Mary’s role in Scripture. It is one of only six litanies approved by the Church for public recitation.
The Six Litanies Approved for Public Recitation in Catholic Churches
The Litany of the Saints
The Litany of Loreto (aka, The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus
The Litany of the Sacred Heart
The Litany to St. Joseph
The Litany of the Precious Blood
The faithful who pray any of these litanies, under the usual conditions, receive a partial indulgence.
Now, back to explanations of the titles given Mary in that litany; she is called “Virgin most faithful,” a virtue demonstrated by Mary at Cana when having informed her Son that the wedding party’s wine was running out and not hearing a “yes,” Mary still unhesitatingly told the attendants, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). Mary’s unfaltering fidelity continued even to Calvary. “Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother” (John 19:25). There the queen mother bravely took her place beside her royal Son’s ignominious throne.
The poetically allegorical titles in the litany are rooted in Scripture. The “Mystical Rose” identifies Mary as the “Rose of Sharon” (Song of Songs 2:1), the rose without a thorn.
Mary is the “Mirror of Justice” since justice originates with God’s Word, incarnate in Mary’s womb. If Jesus is our sun, Mary is our moon, her actions reflecting His infinite righteousness. Intimately bracketed with that designation is “Seat of wisdom,” affirming that Jesus, divine wisdom personified, made His home with her. We may even smile, calling to mind an image of the Christ Child happily sitting on Mary’s lap, hugging and kissing her. Many pieces of art depict this happy scene.
In Jerusalem, the ancient citadel called the “Tower of David” was a major defensive structure, the mighty stronghold of the city. As Mary vigilantly guarded her Son from harm, she does the same for all who call on her to defend them from the Evil One. “Your neck is the Tower of David, a display of trophies, a thousand bucklers hang on it, all of them worn by heroes of war” (Song of Songs 4:4). The image of strength is followed by an image of purity and beauty. “Tower of ivory” is also affirmed by Scripture: “Your neck is like an ivory tower; your eyes are pools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4).
“House of gold” describes Mary’s womb, as well as her person. The temple of Solomon was overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:22). From all eternity the unsullied, sinless virgin had been prepared to be a worthy tabernacle for the precious Word made flesh.
The metaphorical title, “Gate of Heaven,” answers the prophecy of Ezekiel 44:2-3: “This gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it. And it shall be shut for the Prince. The Prince Himself shall sit in it.” The Incarnate Word entered the world through Mary’s womb, making her the gate of heaven. Mary’s cooperation with God allowed Jesus to heal humanity’s first corruption, “For the curse of old inflicted, peace and blessing to restore,” as the Hymn of St. Casimir tells us.
Mary is also “the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16). As the star which precedes the rising of the sun, so Mary preceded the birth of God’s Son. As such, Mary, the “Morning Star,” shines her reflected brilliance on darkened lives, leading the way to the splendor of Jesus her Son, the radiant “daybreak from on high” (Luke 1:78).
The Latin word sanus means “health.” In all her apparitions, the Blessed Mother bids her children turn away from sin to be purified by her Son. So, then, the next four titles are all related to the Virgin Mother’s maternal concern. As the “Health of the sick” Mary is always ready to reach out with love to comfort those ailing in body and soul. As an old Irish prayer puts it, “O Lady, physician of the most miserable diseases, behold the many ulcers of my soul.”
St. John Damascene (d. 749) described Mary as not only caring for the innocent, but also as giving shelter to the wicked who implore her aid. For them, Mary is the “Refuge of sinners” who repent and seek forgiveness from her Son. Closely related to this concept of Mary, our protective Mother, as “Comforter of the afflicted,” “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” and most assuredly, “Help of Christians.”
In 1814, Pope Pius VII declared May 24, the anniversary of his return from exile, to be henceforth the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians. We’ll come across Pius VII one more in the next installment.
A number of titles given Mary in the Litany of Loreto are hers by right as queen mother of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Mary is, therefore, the “Queen of Angels” in the heavenly realm, as well as “Queen of Patriarchs,” and “Queen of Prophets,” all of whom served God in the Old Covenant. Likewise, in the New Covenant, Mary is “Queen of Apostles,” “Queen of Martyrs,” “Queen of Confessors,” and indeed, the “Queen of all Saints.”
Next week we’ll discuss the many fascinating stories behind how and why, by papal decree, additional titles were bestowed on Mary in the Litany of Loreto.