A Bishop Teaches – A highlight of the pilgrimage was Bishop O’Connell’s hosting two teaching sessions with children in attendance on the Sacraments. The presentations included interactive dialogue between the Bishop and the youngsters as well as opportunities for the children to share their experiences on receiving a Sacrament. Ken Falls photo
A Bishop Teaches – A highlight of the pilgrimage was Bishop O’Connell’s hosting two teaching sessions with children in attendance on the Sacraments. The presentations included interactive dialogue between the Bishop and the youngsters as well as opportunities for the children to share their experiences on receiving a Sacrament. Ken Falls photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

In this traditional season of homecomings, some 2,500 diocesan faithful journeyed together as family to Mary's House – the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with Bishop David O'Connell, C.M. – for the 2015 diocesan pilgrimage.

To read Bishop O'Connell's homily from the Pilgrimage Mass, click here.

To view photo galleries, click here and here.

To read about the pilgrimage preparations and about the history of the shrine, click here.

To read about the children's experience of visiting the chapels, click here.

Click here to read about the catechetical session Bishop O'Connell hosted for children at the shrine.

There, they would spend the day “In Communion with Jesus,” which served as this year’s theme.

Homecoming is the word Bishop O'Connell used to describe the mission embarked on by faithful of all ages before dawn and ending long after dark. It was the sense of homecoming Bishop O'Connell focused on in his homily at the Mass in the Great Upper Church. The Mass was the pinnacle of a day of prayer, fellowship, reverent visits to many shrines and a special catechism for more than 600 young people of the Diocese.

“A pilgrimage is like going home,” he said. “Such a 'homecoming' may not actually be to a place we have been before, although most of us have been here at the beautiful Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception before, perhaps for a previous diocesan pilgrimage or for the Mass for Life occurring every year in January or for some other visit.”

Explaining that his visits to the shrine are “actually coming home” for him since he lived on the grounds as president of The Catholic University of America for 13 years before become Bishop of Trenton, the Bishop spoke fondly of his years in such proximity to the shrine.

“I cannot count the times I have celebrated Masses, preached, heard confessions or knelt here in prayer by myself. It is wonderful to be back and I am thrilled that I could bring 50 buses and thousands of my closest friends with me! But, whether you have been here before or not, this Basilica is our nation's Church and it is your home for it belongs to you.”

As One People

Those 50 buses with pilgrims from Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties, arrived in a downpour at the basilica, the largest Catholic Church in North America and one of the 10 largest churches in the world. They were welcomed at the doorway for Bishop O'Connell who joined them for pictures sure to become immediate family keepsakes.

Once inside the basilica, regarded as the nation's pre-eminent Marian shrine and dedicated to the patroness of the United States under her title of the Immaculate Conception, the faithful had a few moments to get a sense of the scope of the basilica with its 70 altars and chapels dedicated to the Blessed Mother and the saints as they gathered in the Great Upper Church. There, they were welcomed by Father Jeffrey E. Lee, diocesan director of pilgrimages and pastor of St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, who encouraged everyone to “power down” their electronics and participate fully in the service.

Before leading the large assembly in the Angelus, Bishop O'Connell conveyed his sense of joy at “the wonderful crowd” who had come to Washington and the “beautiful opportunity” the occasion afforded everyone to “pray as one people” in this building which is one fourth the size of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Msgr. Vito A. Buonanno, the basilica's director of pilgrimages, would echo the Bishop, bringing the sense of family and home to the forefront in his remarks. While our homes are true domestic churches, Msgr. Buonanno said, it is as “the family of Trenton” the pilgrims traveled on this day.

In his “Tour of Faith,” Msgr. Buonanno explained that these pilgrims of the second Christian millennium were participating in a tradition that would have been experienced by the Holy Family.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph made pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” traveling over the rough terrain of the Holy Land from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

He encouraged them to be mindful of the pilgrim journey of the Holy Family and, as they walked their own pathway during the day and to be mindful of the recent pilgrimage of Pope Francis to the United States and to the basilica where, for the first time, a saint was canonized on North American soil.

This prayerful gathering concluded with the recitation of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary in English and Spanish led by Eva Comintan and Norma Montes, parishioners of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River.

A Pilgrimage to Remember

During the afternoon, special components of the day in keeping with its focus on the family unfolded. Children from parishes throughout the Diocese were able to make a journey to fill a 'passport' with stamps from 10 of the Marian chapels and shrines, including Mary, Help of Christians Chapel; the Miraculous Medal Chapel and the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel.

Youngsters also attended two catechetical sessions with the Bishop in the comfortable surrounds of Memorial Hall where their parents and many other adults enjoyed witnessing.

Many faithful spent some time in quiet prayer in the Upper Church, received the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Crypt Church and paid special visits to shrines where they offered private intentions.

Jose and Seena Chundamala, parishioners of St. Robert Bellarmine, Freehold, enjoyed watching the catechetical lesson between the Bishop and the youngsters. The couple made a special point offering prayers for their own grown children and visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni in the crypt church.

Known as Our Lady of Good Health throughout their native India, the basilica shrine on the subcontinent is the most visited pilgrimage site, drawing as many as three million pilgrims a year. The shrine to Our Lady of Good Health in the Washington basilica draws thousands of Catholics of South Asian heritage each year in September around the time of the birthday of Our Lady, said the Chundadmalas, who make pilgrimage at that time.

As a family, they first visited the basilica with their children some 20 years ago but, they had “two kids running behind us all the time,” they laughed. This was their first diocesan pilgrimage to the shrine.

“This time, we can pay attention.” The couple, who have also made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, said they very much treasure pilgrim experiences which bring the bible and Catholic traditions to life.

“As children, we have read the Bible,” said Jose Chundamala. “When you make a pilgrimage, you realize, oh, I was there.”

Mickie and Don Gagliano, Christ the King Parish, Long Branch, say except for 2013 when illness derailed them, they can't remember a time they didn't make the diocesan pilgrimage. Mickie, who taught religious education for 52 years in Holy Trinity – now a worship site of Christ the King, sees the biennial trip as a time to “renew faith, to meet new people who share the faith” and to pray for special intentions. This year, they said, the special intention is to pray for good health.

“We want to stay healthy,” said Mickie who is celebrating her 90th birthday. “We want to be able to continue to do church work.”

Health was also in the hearts of Jwannes and Mary Singareddy, members of St. Mary Parish, Bordentown, who like the Chundamalas, would be visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. “We have been in the country for 22 years and we have made more than 15 pilgrimages.”

At this pilgrimage, they planned to offer prayers for the coming marriage of one of their sons. “We want to make sure they are safe. We enjoy making the pilgrimage with the Diocese. It makes us feel part of a larger group.”

Crowning Moment

The culmination of the pilgrimage began at 3 p.m. when Bishop O'Connell celebrated Mass in the shrine's Great Upper Church with some 30 priest concelebrants, most of whom hail from the diocese, as well as shrine staff members.

As the pilgrims settled into pews once again in the Great Upper Church, Msgr. Walter Rossi, the Basilica's rector, welcomed the throng, thanking all for their ongoing support of the shrine. “Today there are well over 2,000 pilgrims bringing the shrine to life.”

He spoke of the large number of priests and clergy present who were supporting the pilgrims and the shrine which, he described as being filled with the “white light” of their faith. Like Msgr. Buonanno, Msgr. Rossi spoke of the meaningful visit of Pope Francis on Sept. 23, calling attention to the fact that they would soon be receiving the Eucharist consecrated on the very altar that contains relics of St. Junipero Serra ” and he expressed the hope that “Our Lady and St. Junipero will give you spiritual strength.”

The Diocesan Festival Choir, under the direction of Shawn Mack, led the congregation in song with a selection of hymns that reflected the theme of being “In Communion With Jesus” and the Marian devotion of the day.

Participating in the liturgy were Edna Fama, St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Red Bank, who proclaimed the First Reading, and Christina Ramirez, St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, who proclaimed the Second Reading. Parishioners from St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, and Christ the Redeemer Parish, Mount Holly, presented the gifts to Bishop O’Connell.

Bishop O'Connell focused his homily on Our Blessed Mother's “own destiny at the moment of her conception and the destiny of the Church and the destiny of each one of us at that same moment.”

Drawing from the day's Gospel, the Bishop spoke of how “we can only imagine what it must have been like for this young woman – barely a woman, really – to hear the words of the Angel 'you have found favor with God – you shall conceive a son, Jesus … to be called Son of the Most High.”

“...What had happened through her own conception would bear witness to what would be for us as she conceived. As she conceived Jesus Christ in her womb, the Church was conceived, we were conceived. Quite simply, our pilgrimage here today to Mary's House is an opportunity for us to 'come home' to the beginning of our faith and to the goal of our faith: God's Son, Jesus Christ, son of God, son of Mary.”

“Let's think about that for a moment. Let's reflect upon our own faith...”

“Today, Mary's faith touches us deeply once again. … Husbands and wives, fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; men and women who are single; priests, deacons, seminarians, religious, members of the lay faithful from parishes all over the Diocese of Trenton.

“We look to her like a star in the sky, whether the waters of our life in which we find ourselves immersed are calm or deeply troubled.”

“She is the 'Star of the Sea.' She will lead us home to our faith. Today, all of us here in pilgrimage, place ourselves in the loving arms of Mary. With our deepest prayers, deepest afflictions, we move forward,” said the bishop, in our ongoing pilgrimage to “Lord Jesus Christ and the Father of all Mercy.”