In a tradition spanning many years, begun when Cardinal John Krol was Archbishop of Philadelphia, every two years Philadelphia Catholics go on a pilgrimage to “America’s Church,” the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
This year’s pilgrimage will be on Saturday, Oct. 19.
For those who have never visited the church, it is truly stunning and the second largest Catholic church in the world, after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Philadelphians have been part of it from the very beginning, including Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, one of the chief supporters for its construction. Also, Philadelphian Msgr. Bernard McKenna was the first shrine director.
Located on the campus of the Catholic University of America, ground was broken in 1920 but because of the Great Depression and World War II and the sheer complexity of the task, it was not until 1959 that the great upper church was dedicated.
Its beautiful tiled dome along with the soaring 329-foot Knights Tower, funded by the Knights of Columbus, are visible for miles in the Washington area.
What makes the basilica unique among the great churches and cathedrals of the world is the abundance of shrines within it, all dedicated to the Blessed Virgin as the patroness of the various nations of the world.
This magnificent church built by immigrants and descendants of immigrants can be a metaphor for America, a magnificent country also built by immigrants, especially at a time when today’s newcomers are not welcomed by all.
While the Philadelphia pilgrimage has been held at various times of the year, this year’s pilgrimage is especially fitting because “October is the month of the rosary,” said Father Michael Olivere, the pastor of St. Timothy Parish in Northeast Philadelphia and a lead organizer of the pilgrimage.
Most pilgrims will board buses at their parish or a neighboring parish around 7:30 a.m. to give them time to arrive at the basilica for the 11 a.m. opening ceremonies.
The day will include ample time for private reflection and services including the sacrament of confession for those who wish. There will also be a traditional crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin and the 3 p.m. Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
But really a highlight is just visiting the various chapels. Pilgrims are almost sure to find an image of the Blessed Virgin as she is venerated in the land of their own ancestry. Also not to be missed are the huge tile mosaics on the three interior domes as well as the imposing if somewhat stern-looking Christ, the Pantocrator mosaic, one of the largest in the world.
While most pilgrims will probably bring box lunches, there is also a very good cafeteria on the lower level popular with the Catholic University students. And of course, no shrine is complete without a gift shop, and the basilica has not one but two on the lower level, as good as any you will find anywhere.
But in one way the basilica is like all of the great cathedrals: no matter how often you visit there is always something new that has been added.
People do have busy lifestyles these days, but “especially at this time there are so many who need the intercession of Mary in so many ways, Father Olivere said. “This is a time for us to gather and pray for her intercession.”
For more information or to find a parish near you sending a bus to the Oct. 19 pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, call St. Timothy rectory at 215-624-6188 or the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship at 215-587-3537.
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