America’s Catholic Church

Pope Francis is in town.

I say this just in case you missed the hordes of Catholics who converged upon Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, who filled churches, libraries, community centers, and university campuses, and who wrote an unfathomable number of letters trying to get their city added to the itinerary, all in hopes of sharing a moment with the Pope. For Catholics, seeing the Pope with your own eyes is probably the most exciting thing that could possibly happen on this earth, short of the sun changing colors and dancing in the sky.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The biggest event of Wednesday was the canonization mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The mass celebrated the canonization, or the confirmation of sainthood, of Junipero Serra, an eighteenth-century Spanish missionary to southern California, who is noted for his work in advancing the rights of the native people and in lessening the pull of European monarchies on the Church. Many people think of Junipero Serra as a controversial figure, because he believed strongly in corporal punishment (i.e., beatings) and benefited greatly from the hacienda system, which was by and large not good for the Native Americans. However, people around him noted that he would do his fair share of the work around the mission, alongside the natives, and how he worked to evangelize through education instead of warfare. At any rate, he’s a saint now.

So, you might ask, why was the mass held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and not at the National Cathedral? And what the heck does one church need such a long name for?

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

First things first: The National Cathedral is, in fact, not a Catholic church. I know ‘cathedral’ is a word that most people associate with Catholicism, and Catholics do have cathedrals, but the idea of a cathedral is not exclusively Catholic. The National Cathedral is actually an Episcopal church – the United States is, after all, largely a Protestant country. Don’t think Pope Francis was trying to snub anybody by skipping the National Cathedral, either. While Catholics and Episcopalians have similar faiths, they are not the same. He was simply going where he was invited, visiting his people, and not forcing his presence on a group of people who might not want it.

Now, for the fun part. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has such a long name, quite simply, to tell you what it is. This name in particular has four parts:

1. Basilica This part of the name tells you what kind of building you’re looking at. A basilica is simply an oblong building with colonnades (columns running down either side). This type of architecture actually dates back to the Roman times, and was originally used for secular, political buildings. The Church of Rome adopted this style of architecture because, in the Roman culture, a basilica was a place of great importance.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

2. National This church is labeled as being national because the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designated this church as the “preeminent Marian shrine” in the United States (‘Marian’ meaning having to do with the Virgin Mary). Therefore, it was considered a place where Catholics from all across the country could come, pray, and engage with Mary, the patroness of the United States.

3. Shrine A shrine is a place that is considered to be holy because of its association with a person or with the divine. In this case, the person is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

4. Immaculate Conception The final part of the name, ‘Immaculate Conception,’ tells you what aspect of Mary the church is devoted to. For example, you’ll see many Catholic churches and schools with names like Our Lady Star of the Sea, Our Lady Queen of Creation, or Queen of Peace. These names all show a certain aspect of Mary’s character, to which a particular church or parish holds a devotion. This church is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, which is the recognition that Mary was conceived without original sin. Note: the Immaculate Conception, contrary to what some people say, has nothing to do with Jesus; it’s the conception of Mary by her mother Anne. This is why we can celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and not worry about premature births of important people.

I visited the National Shrine several years ago, and, let me tell you, it’s beautiful. The camera angles as Pope Francis walked through the nave on his way to celebrate mass on Wednesday didn’t show the scope of the beauty of this church.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception - Our Lady of Hope Chapel
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – Our Lady of Hope Chapel

In 1847, Pope Pius IX named Mary, specifically in the person of the Immaculate Conception, to be the patroness of the United States of America. In 1913, Pope Pius X gave the American bishops the green light to build a shrine dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and even gave some money for the project himself. Following a fine Catholic tradition, it took almost fifty years to build this church. The church was not complete until 1959, and small projects, including building and dedicating altars and chapels, have continued since then. So, I suppose it’s not quite finished even yet.

My favorite part of this church is the crypt, which, if you were watching the papal visit on Wednesday, you didn’t see. Pope Francis didn’t visit the crypt while at the National Shrine, and, quite frankly, I think he should have. In Catholic churches, crypts aren’t dark, dank places with dead people strewn everywhere. There are dead people, to be sure (we have a thing for dead people that is, on occasion, difficult to explain to non-Catholics). However, crypts are intended to be prayerful, peaceful places, where we can get away from the noise upstairs and find some quiet, intimate prayer time. The crypt at the National Shrine does not disappoint in that regard. In fact, it offers dozens of places for people to tuck themselves away for some one-on-one time with God.

One of my favorite chapels in the crypt area would have been very special for Pope Francis, I think. The Our Lady of Hope Chapel was donated in 1994 by Bob and Dolores Hope, in memory of the comedian’s mother.

In a world that is in need of a source of hope, as Pope Francis says, I think we can all find something at the Basilica of the National Shrine to help us through.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Plan your visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here.

Keep up with Pope Francis! Live streaming of the papal visit to the US is available here.

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