A pilgrim's perspective on the many faces of Mary at the National Shrine
Here in the United States, the majority of us are descendants of immigrants. Of course, most people on earth are descended from someone who migrated, but the immigration to the “New World” occurred recently enough that a lot of us personally identify with the country we or our ancestors left behind.
Many of the McCloskey clan (my mother’s family) can, for example, recall the story of Grace Cecelia O’Donnell – a young Irish girl who traveled by boat to her new home several hundred years ago. My husband’s family doesn’t have to look too far back in time to relate how my father-in-law came with his parents and siblings from the Netherlands to New Jersey at the end of the Second World War. More recently still, four of my brothers and sisters can tell us of their journey from Russia to be adopted ten years ago. A young cousin made his way from the Philippines to become part of our family only last year. It may be a cliché to call the United States “a melting pot”, but few would deny the diversity that exists within our society.
When Pope Bl. John Paul II visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he recognized the cultures and the faith heritage that Americans bring from their respective pasts, but also our universal love for Mary, the Mother of God. “This Shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries of the Old World,” the Pope said. “When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love for the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands. These people, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a Mother they all had in common.”
This unified devotion to Mary, with the richness that comes from a tapestry of cultures and nations, finds a home in the National Shrine, located on the grounds of the Catholic University of America in northeast Washington, D.C.
One Mother, Many Faces
Knowing the history of the U.S., it is fitting that the most distinctive elements of the Basilica are the dozens of shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These shrines are found both in the upper level of the Basilica, lining the sides of the grand church, as well as throughout the crypt level below. The shrines are dedicated to Mary under all different titles, often built through the donations of benefactors wishing to honor Mary in a particular way. Each shrine reflects the artistic and cultural traditions of the country from whence the devotion comes. From a mosaic of Our Lady of China to a large, golden representation of the Miraculous Medal, pilgrims to the Shrine are sure to find a chapel that speaks to their own perception of the Mother of God.
Living quite close to the Basilica, I’ve found through my multiple visits that these shrines serve a richer purpose than only drawing those of the nation from which the devotion came. They also demonstrate a larger truth about the Church – that wherever we may come from, wherever we may live, whatever our cultural traditions may be, there is only one Catholic Church, one Christ who saved us, and one Mother who watches over us. Throughout these images and statues of Mary, pilgrims can see the same virtues shining through the face of Mary: compassion, humility, lovingness. She is the perfect mother who intercedes for us. The more time I’ve spent among pilgrims here, the more convinced I am of all that Mary has done for the world.
Visiting the Basilica
The shrines to Mary are not the only way in which the Basilica represents the Church in America. Driving up Michigan Avenue, the Romanesque-Byzantine style Basilica – which is further embellished by Art Deco and other, more modern artistic influences – is as grand as many cathedrals in Europe. Yet its colorful dome reminds the visitors that they are making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of the United States, not Notre Dame or St. Peter’s. The wide staircase leading to the upper church of the Basilica provides the perfect entryway for processions and pilgrimages. On a personal note, I must also add that those stairs are also a fitting place for marriage proposals – but perhaps I only say that because that is where I became engaged several years ago!
While the entire upper Church is impressive – it is, after all, one of the ten largest Catholic churches in the world – it is the mosaic in the Northern Apse that undoubtedly draws the most attention. Entitled “Christ in Majesty,” this mosaic consists of 4,000 different shades of color. It is a striking depiction of Christ as King, as One sitting in judgment. This depiction is not to everyone’s taste – it certainly isn’t to mine – but one thing I can say for sure is that you won’t walk away without an impression one way or another.
One can easily visit the Basilica for an hour or for an entire day. Six Masses are offered daily as are five hours of confessions. The crypt church provides a quiet, solemn place to pray and to seek repose from the busyness of rest of the Shrine. Official tours are available, but many pilgrims choose to spend their time viewing the artwork and the chapels independently. The lower level of the Basilica also houses two bookstores as well as a cafeteria, helping to facilitate longer visits.
America’s Catholic Church
For those of us who love the traditions of the Church, it can be easy to lament that we can not visit the Basilicas in the Vatican or the magnificent churches in France more often. However, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the home to an ever-increasing Catholic history and artistic tradition present in the United States. Here we see in what are still the relatively early stages of our nation’s history the rich tapestry of cultures, traditions, and peoples that make up the Catholic faithful in the United States. Here, nearly 1 million pilgrims come annually to visit, pray, and ask for the guidance of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Patroness of the United States.