By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

WASHINGTON – May 2, the first Saturday in the month of Mary, was an ideal time to hold the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, an event traditionally held every other spring.

Because the Church is celebrating the 2,000 anniversary of the birth of St. Paul, Cardinal Justin Rigali based his homily on Galatians 4:4, where the Apostle to the Gentiles tied the salvation given by Christ to His birth by the Virgin Mary: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption,” the Cardinal quoted.

Those who attended the afternoon Mass had ample time before and after to explore the great basilica and its multitude of interior chapels and come to appreciate why it is called “America’s Church.”

For Marianne Ferrara of St. Bede the Venerable Parish, Holland, it was not a first visit, but “it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to go through it this thoroughly and read everything. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous,” she said.

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Her son, Martin, was along for his initial visit and participating in a Quest program sponsored by the Office for Youth and Young Adults (OYYA). The program had the young people following clues leading to the different shrines. They had also attended the youth program in the basilica’s lower level, featuring the singing group Bethany.

“It’s interesting the things the Archdiocese is doing, not just bringing people down here,” Ferrara said.

Meanwhile in the great upper church, a pleasant addition to the program was a performance by the Bishop Shanahan High School Choir, beginning with a very strong litany of the saints at the opening prayer service and invitation to penance by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Cistone, and continuing through the rest of the ceremonies.

“It’s a pleasure to be part of the choir,” said Shanahan senior Sam Nardone, who sings bass. “Being in a Catholic grade school (SS. Philip and James, Exton) and hearing the choir I knew I would like to be part of it.”

With about 80 voices, the choir wasn’t even at full strength, because some members were taking their SAT test the same day and a few others had a first Communion in the family, said Marge Campbell, who has been teaching music at Shanahan for 28 years.

“It’s a privilege to bring young people to such a beautiful space and hopefully bring them closer to God through music,” she said.

Other features of the day included the presence of the entire student body of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary for the procession and ceremonies, and the honoring of police and firefighters who have lost their lives protecting Philadelphia area citizens.

Andrew “Butch” Harley, a Philadelphia Police officer, brought along large photographs of the fallen officers for the entrance procession.

“We appreciate how the Archdiocese recognizes fallen officers and is very supportive of us,” he said. “Especially through the use of the Cathedral for fallen officers’ funerals and its use for the League of the Sacred Heart Masses.”

The real highlights of the day, of course, were the traditional crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin by Cardinal Rigali and the Mass which followed, where he was assisted by Bishop Cistone, Bishop Daniel E. Thomas and retired Bishop Louis A. DeSimone and dozens of priests from around the Archdiocese.

Because 2008-2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI has granted a plenary indulgence to those who attend pilgrimages to it, subject to the usual conditions for such an indulgence, Cardinal Rigali told the congregation.

Although the great upper church was officially dedicated 50 years ago, the last time Immaculate Heart Sister Loretta Regina of West Philadelphia’s St. Francis de Sales Parish visited, most of the art that fills it today was not yet in place.

“That was many years ago. The walls were brick, the marble work wasn’t done yet,” she said. “Seeing it now was a beautiful experience.”

Of course the real benefit of the pilgrimage goes far beyond architectural beauty.

The pilgrimage, attended by an estimated 1,200, “was a wonderful, very spiritual and uplifting day,” said Father Zachary W. Navit, who was its co-chair. “His Eminence gave a great message of hope following the Blessed Mother’s example, and it was fine to see people coming from all over for the pilgrimage,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.