“A pilgrimage is a journey of faith together with one goal in mind: ‘communion with the Lord Jesus Christ.’”

That is how Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., described the experience that some 1,800 pilgrims of all ages and from all corners of the Diocese participated in Nov. 12 when they journeyed together to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

During the Mass he celebrated in the Basilica’s Great Upper Church, the Bishop said that the day’s pilgrimage “comes at a very important and opportune time.” He explained how the faithful have been called to journey together with other significant events such as the global Synod of Bishops convened by Pope Francis and the national Eucharistic Revival in which all Catholics of the country have been asked to participate in by the U.S. bishops.

PHOTO GALLERY: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

“Thinking and praying about ‘journeying together’ in faith as Catholics is the reason our Holy Father has called the entire Church to participate in the current Synod,” Bishop O’Connell said.

He added that the Eucharistic Revival is “another journey for us to recognize and celebrate the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist as the center of all that we are and believe and hope to be as Catholics.”

The women, men, teens and children in attendance, whether they were first-timers or seasoned pilgrimage-goers, were genuinely happy to take in all that the day had to offer in what is affectionately known as “Mary’s House.”

‘Welcome Trenton!’

Those who came by bus were thrilled to see Bishop O’Connell upon their arrival as he stood outside each vehicle’s door, ready to greet the pilgrims with a friendly smile, warm words of welcome and a willingness to pose for photos.

Once inside the Basilica, the largest Catholic Church in North America and one of the 10 largest churches in the world, the pilgrims took their seats in the pews of the Great Upper Church. There, they prayed the Angelus at noon and received a rousing welcome form Msgr. Vito A. Buonanno, the Basilica’s associate rector and director of pilgrimages.

“I’ve been waiting five years to say this – ‘Welcome, Trenton!’” Msgr. Buonanno exclaimed, to which the congregation responded with clapping and cheering. Msgr. Buonanno shared that the Bishop is a longtime friend and they have known each other ever since the Bishop had served as president of The Catholic University of America, whose campus is adjacent to the Basilica’s property.

 A Busy Day

Throughout the afternoon, several specially planned events took place. Children and adults alike participated in the “Pilgrim’s Passport” activity. All pilgrims were given a passport and asked to visit the various Marian chapels that were indicated on the passport’s pages. Once they visited the chapel and heard a brief presentation from a diocesan staff member or other volunteers, the pilgrim received a stamp on their passport.

The afternoon also included a session with Bishop O’Connell in the Lower Crypt Chapel during which he reflected on a number of high points in his life – the day when he was named Bishop of Trenton in 2010, and the numerous times he had met with popes. He also shared current highlights about the Diocese, including its participation in the Synod of Bishops and Eucharistic Revival.

The afternoon also allowed many of the pilgrims to spend time in quiet prayer in the Great Upper Church; visit with a number of priests from the Diocese who offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and make special tours of the shrines where they offered private intentions.

A Pilgrimage to Remember

Jenna Saldi, a member of the Catholic campus ministry at The College of New Jersey, Ewing, enjoys regularly visiting different churches and religious buildings and so decided to attend the pilgrimage for the first time.

“I absolutely loved visiting all of the different chapels and (learning) how each represented a different culture or country,” Saldi said, noting that she found the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe to be especially meaningful.

“The architecture and mosaics were so beautiful and told her story so well through the pictures,” she said. “It is definitely something I won’t forget.”

Though Nancie Saraceni of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, had heard about the Basilica from her great aunt, who is a religious sister, she had never been there until this year.

“From the moment the choir began with the Angelus to the closing procession after Mass, I feel as if I have traveled to a most holy place and I was renewed,” she said. She noted that she thought the “Pilgrim Passport” event was “very clever” and having knowledgeable people available to explain about the different chapels helped to make them “come alive.”

Saraceni added that she will always remember being greeted by Bishop O’Connell when she arrived at the Basilica, as well as the question and answer session with the Bishop. She also described witnessing the Mass the Bishop celebrated, and seeing her pastor, Father Daniel Swift, one of more than 25 concelebrating priests, to be “very uplifting.”

Being a youth minister, Jeanne Marinello said “it means the world” to her to accompany a group of young people to the Basilica.

Traveling to Washington this year with seven youth group members, she said, “No matter how many times I go back, I find something new that I didn’t see before, or I see something I remember but it now has a new impression on me.

“It is very moving to accompany someone (who is) seeing the Basilica for the first time. It is like I am seeing it with their eyes. I know this is an experience that will leave a lasting impression on them as it has on me,” she said.

Youth group member Carmine Steffens, 14, of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, said he was most impressed by the “vast amount of people that showed up to the pilgrimage.

“It showed me that God touches the lives of everyone,” Steffens said.