By Lois Rogers |Features Editor
On the morning of Oct. 19, a convoy of buses bearing pilgrims from parishes throughout the Trenton Diocese will pull up to the grand concourse and flight of stairs leading to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
For the disembarking faithful, including many who left their homes in the pre-dawn hours, the arrival at the great basilica will be an energizing time that begins with personal greetings from their Bishop, David M. O’Connell , C.M., who traditionally goes from bus to bus welcoming his flock to a day of community, prayer and contemplation.
After five or six hours in transit, you’d expect the pilgrims – ranging from infancy to elderly – to show some signs of fatigue. Looking ahead though, Msgr. Vito Buonanno, director of pilgrimages at the shrine – the largest Catholic church in the United States, twenty-first-largest church building in the world and tallest building in Washington, D.C. – anticipates a livelier reaction.
No matter how long or difficult the journey arrivals, he said, are usually “electric. … We live with humanity and so, as much planning as goes into the pilgrimages, there’s always the chance something can go wrong on the way. … People who have come know that there are sacrifices involved – they have to get up (very) early … buses sometimes break down or make the wrong turn… “But when so many people come together as a people of God being able to celebrate with their shepherd, it becomes electrifying.”
The Holy Spirit will have moved with the pilgrims on their buses, he said, “giving them the grace to carry on and when they arrive at Mary’s House, they look to her as the first disciple of the Church, pointing as always to her son and they are moved.”
Many, he acknowledges, come bearing heavy burdens – “hurts and brokenness, prayers and desires,” but he knows that when those bus doors open, “it will be powerful to see the group together from the Church of Trenton with their bishop. It is truly an experience of ecclesia.”
The basilica, Msgr. Buonanno explains, has a rich and wonderful history, artistic patrimony and 70 chapels and oratories that relate to the peoples, cultures and traditions of the Church universal. Traveling there on pilgrimage, he explains, makes it possible to experience the tapestry of Catholic faith in one place.
Indeed, he likens a pilgrimage there to a kind of one stop tour of the Catholic world. “There are beautiful churches all over (the United States),” he said. “What the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has to offer in the chapels and oratories is this ability to journey the world. … You can go to Guadalupe and Lourdes. You can visit Our Lady of Pompeii and Knock all right there. … It is a rare journey.”
Those making their first visit are usually struck by this initial encounter with the sights and sounds of the holy place – whose history spans the late 19th, 20th and now 21st century – said Msgr. Buonanno.
Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception, the basilica is widely considered the nation’s preeminent Marian Shrine, he said.
The structure also houses what is said to be the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art assembled in honor of Mary and her son. Set in a framework consistent with the Romanesque-Byzantine style of its architecture, it is truly glorious, he said. Mosaic ornamentation is used abundantly inside and outside including in the ornamentation of the seven main domes, many of the side chapels and oratories, he noted.
While those approaching the basilica for the first time may be singularly awestruck, returning pilgrims are far from blasé about entering into the holy landscape once again, he said.
“They get excited about experiencing the universal call to holiness” echoing throughout the basilica and its surrounds, he said. Many savor the sense of vitality that ripples through the ever changing environment of the basilica, he said.
“Work is ongoing,” he said delightedly, noting that a new dome is under construction above the choir loft. The construction is being carried out “discreetly” so as not to disturb pilgrims he noted. The scaffolding is surrounded by a huge black scrim, he explained. In low light, he said, “you can’t see anything. But when the light comes through the rosette window there, you can see that the place is organic, alive and continuing to grow.”
When the Trenton pilgrims arrive on Oct. 19, they may have the opportunity to see for themselves an example of that organic growth. A new mosaic of Blessed John Paul is to be blessed and dedicated the next day in the chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa Chapel with as Pope John Paul II, he prayed in 1979.
As the April 27 date nears for Blessed John Paul’s canonization, the basilica affords the chance on home ground, to share the same space as the pontiff, in effect, breathing in the same air.
Such availability is the gift of the basilica, its founders, its builders and all who nourish and tend it. “We have the availability. When the faithful want to learn more, experience more,” and fulfill their devotional desires, he said, “they can come to this sacred place that makes it so universal and so very personal for them.”