Last Thursday I was in Washington for a committee meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the meeting finished early, I took advantage of the time and walked over to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, America’s great tribute to the Blessed Mother, located on the edge of the campus of the Catholic University of America. The basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States and North America and one of the 10 largest churches in the world. It is our nation’s preeminent Marian shrine. I am certain many of you have visited this magnificent church; for those who have not, I urge you to make the pilgrimage.
My affection for this special place goes back to elementary school days when the school children of the country were invited to participate in the building of the great upper church by donating to this great cause. The crypt church had been built early in the 20th century, but the Depression and the Great War delayed further construction until the 1950s.
Years after elementary school, as a student at Catholic University in the 1970s, I visited the shrine on an almost daily basis to celebrate Mass in one of the chapels; to ask our Mother of Perpetual Help for her assistance in my studies; to have breakfast or lunch in the cafeteria with other priests who were also studying there at that time.
As a bishop I often visit the National Shrine to celebrate Mass at various meetings of the bishops, with pilgrims from the Diocese of Syracuse, especially during the March for Life, and on other occasions.
Saint John Paul II visited the National Shrine during one of his visits to our country and had this to say: “This Shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries of the Old World. When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love for the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands. These people, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a Mother they all had in common. While their faith in Christ made all of them aware of being one People of God, this awareness became all the more vivid through the presence of the Mother in the work of Christ and the Church.”
Last week was a special visit for me. I was alone and wandered and prayed at the shrine on my own, marveling at the ongoing work and devotion so evident there. In more than 70 chapels and oratories, I saw the great devotion of people from so many nations who now call the United States their home. Truly we are a nation of immigrants who come from every corner of the world, but together we brought with us a devotion to Our Lady. From Cuba and Latvia, from Vietnam and China, Lebanon and Ireland, France and Germany, from Latin America and Africa and so many other places where devotion to Mary has been firmly embedded in our faith and culture, we raise a single voice to Mary, honoring her and asking for help and protection.
A visit to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is much more than a tourist stop. It is a place where one can go for quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to ask Mary’s help in the complexities of our lives — whether they be personal or familial or national. Pope Benedict expressed this sentiment on his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008 when he met with the bishops of our country at the National Shrine.
During that moving and memorable occasion he said, “Dear Brother Bishops, it gives me great joy to greet you today at the start of my visit to this country… in this Basilica dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a shrine of special significance to American Catholics, right in the heart of your capital city. Gathered in prayer with Mary, Mother of Jesus, we lovingly commend to our heavenly Father the people of God in every part of the United States…. I commend the Church in your country most particularly to the maternal care and intercession of Mary Immaculate, Patroness of the United States. May she who carried within her womb the hope of all nations intercede for the people of this country, so that all may be made new in Jesus Christ her Son.”
The mission statement for the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception succinctly states the purpose of our National Shrine. It is “a place of worship, pilgrimage, evangelization and reconciliation. It offers visitors the occasion for a deepening conversion, a step forward in the journey to God, with Mary as the model for that journey…. Mary’s Shrine invites people from across the country and beyond into the saving moment of faith, hope and charity, so that they may be reconciled and transformed into living symbols of Christ’s presence in the world. It is here that the faithful gather to worship God, give honor to Mary, and are sent to spread God’s word wherever they go.”
I hope on any future visit to Washington you will also include a visit to the National Shrine. May Mary, the Queen of Peace who watches over our country under the title of her Immaculate Conception give you the great gift of peace.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.