By Lois Rogers, Features Editor and Mary Stadnyk, News Editor
For almost 40 years, faithful from all corners of the diocese have journeyed on pilgrimage with their bishop to what was affectionately called “Mary’s House,” the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.
They have prayed their way there and back in large groups on countless parish buses, in smaller groups in automobiles and even as individuals on trains, reciting the Rosary, meditating while watching videos of a spiritual nature, sharing insights and thoughts on the meaning of the day.
Such a journey unfolded once again Sept. 17 when nearly 3,000 pilgrims of all ages and walks of life traveled from the Diocese of Trenton to the basilica, which has the distinction of being the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the 10 largest churches in the world. Dedicated to the patroness of the United States, the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception, the basilica is hailed as the nation’s pre-eminent Marian shrine.
See these links for more coverage on the pilgrimage:
Read Bishop O'Connell's homily HERE
Young pilgrims journey with community of faith
Visit to Mary's House rich in meaning for many pilgrims
View a gallery of photos HERE Watch the video of the entire Mass HERE
Once at the basilica, the pilgrims continued their spiritual journey, as they prayed and visited the many altars and chapels, received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and joined Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for the celebration of the 3 p.m. Mass in the Great Upper Church.
Married and engaged couples of the diocese were grateful that the day’s theme, “Mary, Mother of Those Called to the Vocation of Marriage and their Families,” highlighted their vocations and provided opportunities to have their marriages blessed.
“A pilgrimage,” explained Bishop O’Connell in his homily, “is a journey that carries with it a great spiritual significance and a great spiritual opportunity.
“This is a great moment of grace for us on this journey,” he said. “Let us place our lives into the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let’s give our lives to her; let’s dedicate ourselves to her; let’s ask her to give us the gentleness, compassion and forgiveness we need to live and be together in married love.”
Grace for the Journey
As the vast assembly gathered for Mass, songs by the diocesan Festival choir under the direction of Steve Lucasi reflected the theme of marriage and family and the Blessed Mother, enhancing the atmosphere in the huge nave and adding to the spirit of devotion.
Pilgrims, greeted by Msgr. Walter R. Rossi, basilica rector, made special mention of Bishop O’Connell who was present for his first diocesan pilgrimage as a bishop, but was in no way a “stranger” to Mary’s House. During the 12 years he was president of The Catholic University of America, also in Washington, Bishop O’Connell presided at many liturgies in the shrine where he also served on the shrine’s board of trustees.
“As pilgrims, Mary guides us and teaches us and speaks personally with her Son and comes into profound contact with God,” said Msgr. Rossi to the throng of Trenton Diocesan pilgrims.
“It is my prayer that your time today, your pilgrimage, will be a source of life and faith and that our Lady will be the door to which you enter into a deeper relationship with her son.”
In keeping with the theme of marriage, Bishop O’Connell’s homily focused on the April 29 “royal wedding,” of Great Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, and how it was an event viewed by some reported 72 million people worldwide.
As an interested viewer and as a priest, Bishop O’Connell remarked on how “very impressed” he was by the reverence of the couple and the various “religious elements” that were incorporated into the marriage ceremony. Most heartening for Bishop O’Connell was hearing the prayer that William and Kate wrote for the ceremony, as well as the pointed words that Bishop of London Richard Chartres delivered in his sermon.
Although the royal ceremony reflected the liturgy of the Anglican Church, the bishop’s sermon “could have been given in any Catholic Church for any Catholic wedding,” noted Bishop O’Connell, recounting how Bishop Chartres said to Prince William and Kate: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.”
“How beautiful and how profound,” Bishop O’Connell said reflectively of Bishop Chartres’ words, noting how the bishop had urged the royal couple to “live selflessly, to be constantly attentive to one another’s needs and to transform each other through love.”
Pivoting his focus to the Blessed Mother, Bishop O’Connell said that as faithful from the diocese and as parish communities “we cannot help but realize that here in this holy place, Mary is present everywhere under all her titles and … in all the chapels and mosaics, she leads us to Jesus.”
Bishop O’Connell said that Mary, too, knew what it meant to live out the vocation of marriage.
“Mary knew what it meant to be a good wife; Joseph knew what it meant to be a loving husband, and both of them knew what it meant to take care of a son,” said Bishop O’Connell.
“For all of us who are called to the vocation of marriage and families, today all of us come before our mother and ask her to obtain for us her son,” said Bishop O’Connell.
For the first time in the diocese’s pilgrimage history, all those who were unable to make the trip to Washington but wanted to share in the pilgrimage experience from home were able to do so through diocesan social media.
The diocesan website, www.dioceseoftrenton.org , hosted a virtual pilgrimage, allowing visitors to join in the various and beautiful elements of the day in real time, and a live audio stream of the Mass was made available online as well.
Online visitors were invited to submit a prayer request, so that they could be remembered by the diocesan family during the pilgrimage Mass. Their prayer requests were placed near the altar and remembered by the diocesan faithful as “the prayers of the people of the Diocese of Trenton.”
Walking with the Faithful
During the hours before they would attend Mass with Bishop O’Connell, thousands of pilgrims gathered in the shrines of the Great Upper Church for blessings bestowed by scores of deacons from the diocese who joined them in the journey.
As they waited patiently in long lines, many expressed their reasons for wanting to participate in a most memorable day.
Risper Omondi of Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, spoke about how much she looked forward to this, her first visit to “Mary’s House” and spending time with the Blessed Mother in prayer.
“Mary is a woman and I know she’ll listen,” said Omondi who added how heartened she was to spend the day with fellow parishioners. Frank and Theresa De Roberts of St. John Neumann Parish, Mount Laurel, said their pilgrimage was in gratitude for the safe return of their grandson from the war in Afghanistan and their granddaughter’s new job.
And like many of those present, the couple, married 55 years, said they came in response to the special focus that the diocese placed on the vocation of marriage.
Married couples like the De Roberts as well as engaged couples, including Mary Colbert of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, and fiancé David Epstein of Incarnation-St. James Parish, Ewing, saw the pilgrimage as a “good way to begin an engagement.”
Tears welled in the eyes of Michele Barbera as she and her husband Joseph received a blessing in Our Lady of Pompeii Chapel. She told how she suffered from double pneumonia and nearly died earlier in the year.
Taking her husband’s hand, she said, “He saved me. He called 9-1-1. This is the first time out since I got sick and we wanted to come here. It feels so good to see the bishop, to receive the blessing, to be part of the diocese.”
Though it was the second time that Sylvia Heskel of St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan, had been on the diocesan pilgrimage, for her husband, Howard, it was the first.
As the day at the Basilica was drawing to a close, Sylvia Heskel smiled as she spoke of the impact the journey had on her husband, Howard, who is Jewish.
“He has been asking a lot of questions,” about the Catholic faith, she said. “I asked him to come with me today and he agreed.
Howard Heskel admitted that he has been thinking a great deal about the possibility of becoming Catholic and that the pilgrimage would be one way for him to learn more about the faith.
Howard Heskel said he was moved to join his wife in receiving a blessing on their marriage.
“That made the day extra special,” he said.
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