Libermann’s Pilgrimage to the Holy House of Nazareth at Loreto
15th November to 15th December 1840
Talk by Fr. John McFadden, Superior of the General House in Rome, on the 2nd of February 2018.
he was indeed going through some kind of dark night of the soul, where nothing at all was clear to him regarding his future and most importantly, regarding the ‘Work for the Blacks’, which many of those who knew Libermann considered as a hopeless cause alreadyLibermann has been in Rome since the 6th of January 1840 (Coulon p.97) in the hope of having his ‘Work for the Blacks’ recognised and supported by the Holy See. He has taken a leap into the unknown by giving up his position as novice master of the Eudists at Rennes. He knew this clearly himself and was well aware of the great risk he was taking:
“I have left Rennes”, he wrote to his brother Samson on 12th December 1840 from Lyons, “I have now no man, no earthly creature, in whom to place confidence. I have nothing, nor do I know what will become of me, or how I shall even live…Many of those who loved and esteemed me will disapprove of me. I shall perhaps be treated as a senseless, proud man…Consider me as a man dead and buried. Pray to God for the good of my soul and for the accomplishment of his most holy will”. (Lee pp 151-152)
You can see from the tone of this letter that he was indeed going through some kind of dark night of the soul, where nothing at all was clear to him regarding his future and most importantly, regarding the ‘Work for the Blacks’, which many of those who knew Libermann considered as a hopeless cause already.
A further serious setback for him came when his closest collaborator at the time, the one who accompanied him from France and who was helping to finance his stay in Rome, gradually also came to lose confidence in Libermann and his project – this was the sub-deacon Maxime de la Bruniere. While he was with Libermann they could afford to stay in a hostel for the clergy, but when he abandoned Libermann, at the end of March the latter had to seek out alternative and cheaper accommodation.
He was in fact, on the point of going back to France due to lack of funds (cf. Letourneur p.77), when, in the beginning of June (cf. Coulon p.97) he found the humble attic on the top floor of the house of the Patriarca family near to Piazza Navona (long-since demolished).
It is this attic which Libermann’s secretary later on, Fr. Louis-Marie Lannurien, rescued when it was being demolished and had re-constructed on the roof of the French Seminary. When we eventually decided to hand over responsibility for the seminary to the French bishops, the same attic was dismantled once again and reconstructed in the grounds of our Generalate in Rome. It is believed the roof tiles and beams, the floor tiles, and the door are original.
Already both Libermann and de la Bruniere had been given a very brief audience with the Pope at the time, Gregory XVI, an audience procured by his former acquaintance Dr. Drach, another convert from Judaism who had been given a job in the library of Propaganda. The audience, on the 17th February 1840 (Lee p.159) was very short, but the Pope is reported to have laid his hand on the humble acolyte’s head and foretold that one day he will be a saint – “Sara un santo”.
De la Bruniere and Libermann had worked on a preliminary report (7pages in length;cf Coulon p.97) outlining the project for the Black Race, and this was presented to Mgr. Cadolini, the Prefect of Propaganda Fide on the 27th of March for them to study. Meanwhile, the Prefect of Propaganda had sent messages to Paris to find out more about Libermann and to ascertain if he was a man of integrity and if his proposed work was worthy of support. All the reports that came back were positive, so Libermann received a letter from Propaganda in support of his project and encouraging him to seek ordination to the priesthood.
It has often been remarked how quickly Libermann received such positive support for the project from the authorities in Rome. It may be because the Vatican was anxious to be seen to be doing something to respond to the emancipation of slaves which had already been enacted in the French and British colonies. On December 3rd 1839 Pope Gregory had in fact issued an encyclical entitled “In Supremo Apostolatus” welcoming the movements for the abolition of slavery; he himself was a former Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda, so he was au courant with the matter.
It was after this highly encouraging letter that he set out on the pilgrimage to Loreto.
The Holy House of Nazareth in Loreto
Loreto is a town very near to the Adriatic coast of Italy, to the north east of Rome and about 270 kilometres from the Eternal City (Nicolas p.19). It had been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, and during that time in fact, the most important Marian shrine in the western Church (Lourdes and Fatima of course were to come later).
Legend has it that the house in which Mary received the greetings from the Archangel Gabriel had been transported miraculously by angels from the Holy Land, to protect it from desecration by the Moslems, in the year 1294.
This legend would have been believed without question by Libermann and the generality of Catholics from the Middle Ages onward. In modern times it started to be questioned and a more scientific approach was made to establish the authenticity of the story.
Archaeologists established that the three walls which constitute the house (it backed into a cave) were indeed of stone from Nazareth, in contrast to all the houses in Loreto which were constructed of brick. In the walls, five red cloth crosses were found indicating the involvement of crusaders, for the red cross was their sign and symbol as they fought to free the Holy Land from the Moslems. Coins of the thirteenth century were also found in the foundations; this is a tradition carried out even today in significant new buildings when coins from the year of construction are often cemented into the foundations. (cf. Laurentin Chretiens Magazine p.19)
In 1900 a document was found in the Vatican archives stating that a family called Angeli, descended from the Empress of Constantinople, were responsible for bringing the walls to Italy to save them from desecration by Moslems. And here some confusion may have arisen, because the phrase in Italian that the house was carried by the Angeli, is exactly the same as saying they were carried by angels ! (ibid. p.20)
Trasportata dagli Angeli
It is to be noted that the Holy House of Nazareth now enshrined within the great basilica at Loreto, is Mary’s maternal home, not the house that she moved in to when she married Joseph. It is the place therefore where the Archangel Gabriel announced to her that she was chosen to be the Mother of our saviour- in short, it is the place where THE WORD BECAME FLESH. This had a very strong attraction for Libermann himself, the very place where the immediate plan of God for our salvation was realised.
What he was really seeking when he went to Loreto then, was confirmation from Our Blessed Lady that he was indeed called to take up the leadership of the new SocietyIt is interesting to analyse Libermann’s motives for wanting to go to Loreto. The place had a reputation for miraculous healings and it was here that Mgr. Olier, founder of the Sulpicians, in 1628, while a student for the priesthood in Rome, made the pilgrimage from Rome on foot; he went in order to seek healing from a serious eye ailment and he was cured. In appreciation for this, he had a small replica of the house put up in a garden at Issy which Libermann was very familiar with; so his fascination with the Holy House of Nazareth stemmed from this link. That it was also a tangible link with the land of his own ancestors had also a great influence on his desire to make a pilgrimage there.
At first he did not intend to go alone; some other supporters and acquaintances had provisionally agreed to accompany him, but for different reasons they pulled out and he had no other choice than to set out alone. This in itself had potential dangers from wild animals such as wolves, as well as armed robbers who were known to frequent the route. On top of all this, he set out on 30th of November 1840 – in the middle of winter. He was prepared to face the rigours of cold days and nights as he crossed over the long mountainous spine of Italy known as the Appenines.
Perhaps more importantly, Libermann was still seeking confirmation of the next step in putting the work for the Black race on a sure footing. The big question for him now was, should he seek ordination to the priesthood ?
He was still in quite a quandary about this and on several occasions expressed his deep desire to retire completely from the affairs of the world and live in total obscurity like a hermit, hidden from the world, spending his time in prayer and contemplation. (Nicolas p.15)
The supportive letter from Propaganda indicated to him that he could go ahead with his foundation of a Society of priests for the evangelisation of the Black race, as long as he got ordained to the priesthood.
Still an acolyte in minor orders because of his epilepsy (a serious impediment to ordination at the time) he had nonetheless received the go-ahead from the highest quarter in the Church and felt this was a very positive sign for him to follow up.
What he was really seeking when he went to Loreto then, was confirmation from Our Blessed Lady that he was indeed called, not to the contemplative life, but to take up the leadership of the new Society of which he was in the process of composing the Rule. He was also desirous to know more clearly that he was being chosen for ordination to the priesthood.
After receiving the encouraging letter from Propaganda concerning his project, Libermann had gone on to write what is now known as the Provisional Rule of the Society of the Most Holy Heart of Mary. From September 1840 until the middle of November he had occupied himself in writing his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John. His spiritual director back in Paris, Fr. Pinault, gave him the go-ahead to undertake the pilgrimage on foot, begging his food and lodgings as he went along. He had some money with him and also his passport to indicate that he was a bona-fide pilgrim and not a vagrant. There were police checkpoints to pass through on the way, so this was important.
Since Loreto was a popular place of pilgrimage, efforts had been made over the centuries to keep the road from Rome to there in good repair – even the Popes made their contribution because, after all, Loreto was within the Papal States for most of the time.
Some of these notes I have taken from an account written by confrere Francois Nicolas who, together with two other confreres, Maurice Gobeil from Canada and a Fr. Heyraud (who was the driver), attempted in November 1989 to retrace Libermann’s path to and from
We know some of the barest details of Libermann’s journey, because he made some notes in pencil on some flimsy pieces of paper which still exist in the archives in Chevilly; however, the notes are incomplete and some places he names are not easy to recognise. In general, he would have followed a well-worn route: through Civita Castellana, Narni, Terni, Spoleto, Foligno, Camerino, San Severino, Recanati and then Loreto. On his return journey, he made an 80 km detour to Assisi to visit the tomb of St Francis.
It is estimated that Libermann set out from Rome alone on the 13th of November, the anniversary of his conversion. (Letourneur p.114).
The delay in Libermann’s decision to ‘hit the road’ was caused by one of his advisers, Fr. de Villefort, who said it was necessary for him to be in Rome while negotiations were going on over the setting up of the new Society between Rome on the one hand and Paris on the other.
Once on the road, he seems to have averaged 30 to 35 kms. per day; one commentator has remarked that he must have been well-fed in the Patriarca family’s house to have achieved such a speed. It is estimated he arrived in Loreto on Saturday 21st November, the Feast of the Presentation. So the journey to Loreto took him nine days all told.
He remained in the town for a week, obviously spending the time there in the basilica, praying for guidance and for enlightenment in the great enterprise on which he had embarked, and seeking confirmation that this was the way forward for him.
Francois Nicolas has opined that Libermann set himself a programme of prayer very close to that which he proposed to the so-called ‘Bands of Piety’ he set up while at Issy for those going on the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Chartres, because Libermann himself gives no indication as to how he passed his eight days in Loreto. These proposals are found at the end of the collection ‘Ecrits Spirituels du Venerable Libermann’ (Nicolas p.24).
The spirit in which the pilgrim is to journey he describes thus:
“Travel with the intentions of our Good Mother in mind, for she has called us to herself in what concerns her, to commend to her our own concerns, to co-operate with her immense charity for the sanctification of souls, by means of the attitude of abandonment in which we offer to her all our prayers and good works, uniting ourselves to her as good children, so as to become one with her…Mary is not ungrateful and she never forgets those who completely forget themselves for her”. (Nicolas p.25)
There are 39 articles in this work, some of them rather long; each day is composed of daily Mass, prayer, the rosary, the psalms and scripture reading, as one might expect. Nicolas suggest that Libermann probably undertook one or two all-night vigils in the Holy House, as it was a facility which was regularly granted to pilgrims. (p.26)
An example of the proposals is no. 26: “On entering a town or a village, you will go straight to the church to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament…if the church is locked, you will adore Our Lord in a spirit of love and affection, kneeling down in front of the church door”.
Though seeking a definitive cure from his epilepsy was not the major reason for him undertaking the pilgrimage, Libermann was to confide later on to a close friend ( Abbe Vaugeois a one-time Spiritan who left us because of family reasons) that it was in fact while he was there that he heard ‘an interior voice’ telling him he was cured and that he felt this healing ‘in the depths of his being’. (Latourneur p.119)
Paul Coulon, however, a Spiritan expert on Libermann, is clear that he did experience a couple of small seizures after he returned to France, but they were not of the same calibre as the seizures which he had had previously. (In a private conversation with me).
Cardinal Pitra, Libermann’s first biographer and someone who knew him well in his lifetime, records the great happiness Libermann had in being in the same spot where THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH and of coming so close to elements of the land of his ancestors. (Nicolas p.25)
According to Pitra, the two intentions Libermann put before our Blessed Lady in Loreto, and which he saw as being intimately connected, were approval for the new missionary society of the Most Holy Heart of Mary, and the question of his priestly ordination.
In the course of his time at Loreto then, he became convinced that he was entirely cured of his epilepsy and that he would eventually progress to priestly ordination. (Nicolas p.25 citing M.Collin).
On Monday 30th November, in the afternoon, Libermann began his return journey on foot back to Rome. Nicolas (p.26) notes a distinctive change in the notes Libermann left of his return journey, which are more accurate in the place names given, the stops he made, the distances covered and the accompanying dates. An indication of greater confidence in himself and in the future path his life will take.
At Foligno, he made a detour northwards to take in Assisi to visit the burial place of his patron, St. Francis, to whom he had a great devotion. He stayed in Assisi four days visiting the places associated with St. Francis as well as St. Clare and started his return to Rome on the 8th of December.
He made another small detour to visit the tomb of another St. Clare, this time St. Clare of Montefalco, who died in 1308 and was canonised in1881. According to Nicolas (p.27) it was on this part of the journey that he actually took a carriage for about 50 kilometres, because, according to his calculations, he could never have covered the distances quoted on foot.
Reaching a small village called Strettura after Spoleto, he could find no place to stay but was lodged by a poor family who took him in for the night. They had a child (not known if it was a boy or a girl) who was groaning in great pain and who was unable to swallow anything. Libermann calmly made a potion out of some leaves and seeds he had picked up at Clare of Montefalco’s tomb, and applied the salve to the child’s lips. Immediately it became calm and began to sleep. Libermann was anxious to stress to the family that it was their faith in St. Clare which healed the child and not himself. He left very early the next morning leaving some money to cover his stay.
He arrived back in Rome on the evening of Tuesday 15th December. Years later, (in 1853) Fr. Lannurien (who purchased the property where the French Seminary exists), interviewed Signora Patriarca concerning Libermann’s condition when he returned from his pilgrimage. She confirmed that his clothes were badly worn and his shoes in pieces. She did her best to repair them.
I believe I ought to abandon myself to Providence, and if events so shape themselves that I may be ordained, I will advance without hesitation… Let us leave all in the hands of Our LordThere were four letters awaiting his return to Rome – Our Lady of Loreto was answering Libermann’s prayers in a real and effective way. One of these, from his brother Samson in Strasbourg, told him that the bishop there was ready to ordain him to the sub-diaconate; another letter from the archdiocese of Paris confirmed that everything had been regulated properly for this step; a third letter from Eugene Tisserant informed him that he was going to be ordained a priest and would soon leave for the island of Mauritius with Fr. Jacques Laval; the fourth letter was from his spiritual director in Paris, Fr. Pinault, with 500 francs for him to pay for his return to France. (Nicolas p.29).
It remained for Libermann only to put his affairs in order, complete the Provisional Rule and attend the Christmas celebrations in the city. He went with the Patriarca family for the Christmas Mass at St Mary Major where a piece of wood is conserved reputed to be from the manger of Bethlehem.
A letter to Fr. Carron written on New Year’s Day 1841, gives us a clear picture of Libermann’s state of mind at this time:
“I confess to you my dear friend, that I always doubted whether Our Lord wished me to be a priest, and that I cannot persuade myself of it even now that everything seems certain. Nevertheless, I believe I ought to abandon myself to Providence, and if events so shape themselves that I may be ordained, I will advance without hesitation…..Let us leave all in the hands of Our Lord. These good men have engaged me in their holy undertaking. I must continue what we have begun. I must sacrifice my repose and my personal tastes. This is the only reason that impels me to seek ordination and actuates me now in setting out for Strasbourg. But I can assure you that it costs me much to plunge again into the midst of men and to expose once more my salvation. The best thing a poor fellow like me could do would be to hide himself in some corner of the world where he would be overlooked and forgotten by all, where he would have no social contact with anyone, and might thus pass this wretched life in retirement and poverty, waiting for the great day of Our Lord. That would be my greatest desire, but it does not seem to be the will of God. Though bruised and grieved, I must go on; the Master wills it”. (quoted in Lee p.191-192).
He finally left Rome on 8th January, 1841, taking the boat from Civitavecchia to Marseille on the 9th.
Things moved fairly quickly after that.
The above letter indicates clearly Libermann’s deep dependence on Divine Providence and co-operating with it. He waited for God’s moment, patiently and confidently, in prayer and peace, ready to accept whatever signs and indications would be sent his way. His pilgrimage to Loreto, helped him put these things into greater clarity, so that now, on his return to France, he is assured that the work for the Blacks has received both divine and ecclesiastical approval, and the same goes for the question of him being ordained a priest or not.
On Ash Wednesday 1841, he became a seminarian again in Strasbourg; on the 15th of June he received the sub-diaconate; on the 10th August, feast of St Lawrence the Roman martyr, he was ordained a deacon. (cf Lee pp. 193-196).
Bishop Mioland of Amiens, on the other side of France, was encouraged to offer a diocesan country house for the work for the Black race (La Neuville) and the bishop was also keen to ordain Libermann to the priesthood. So it was that on the 18th of September, he was ordained priest in the bishop’s private chapel in the cathedral of Amiens. On the 27th September, the novitiate opened in La Neuville of the infant Society of the Most Holy Heart of Mary.
The rest, they say, is history !
Lee G. C.S.Sp : The Life of the Venerable Francis Libermann, London, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1937 edition.
Coulon, Paul C.S.S.p.: Libermann 1802-1852 Une pensée et une mystique missionaires, Paris, Les Editions de Cerf, 1988.
Letourneuer J. C.S.Sp. Cahiers Libermann, livret 5, typescript copies only; Seminaire des Missions, 94 Chevilly.
Homan, Helen Walker: Star of Jacob, Paracelet Press, Bromley, 3rd edition 1954.
Nicolas, Fancois: Le Pére Libermann, Pélerin de Lorette,
typescript copy only, Rome, 1989.
Laurentin, René, La Sainte Maison de La Vierge à Lorette, article in magazine ‘Chretiens’, no. 81, pp17-22.