Saturday, Oct. 21, was a sunny – but windy and chilly – day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s black and magenta cassock whipped in the wind as he appeared at the basilica’s tall entrance and descended the grand steps to the curved driveway in front. He held on to his matching magenta zucchetto as gusts of wind threatened to grab the cap from his head and carry it away.
Despite the glaring sun and the cutting wind, Bishop Knestout smiled as he planted himself on the sidewalk – ready to greet many of the more than 1,000 people from across the diocese who would join him for a Eucharistic pilgrimage that day. Some shook his hand. Others asked for a blessing or a hug. Still others knelt on the ground and kissed his hand. Many posed for photos. The bishop took the time to honor as many requests as he could.
“The opportunity to pray together with such a large number of our diocesan parishioners is always the highlight for me at events like this pilgrimage,” said Bishop Knestout.
The pilgrimage was one way the diocese has invited the faithful to take part in the National Eucharistic Revival. The revival is an ongoing, three-year initiative by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to stoke the fire of love for Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist.
Making a pilgrimage
More than 600 of the pilgrims registered to take one of more than a dozen buses contracted by the diocese. The charter buses left from six locations early that morning to arrive by 10 a.m.: Incarnation, Charlottesville; St. Andrew, Roanoke; Pastoral Center, Richmond; St. Bede, Williamsburg; Holy Trinity, Norfolk; and Catholic High School, Virginia Beach.
Three other buses were chartered independently of the diocese.
Maria Gutierrez, a parishioner of Church of the Epiphany, Richmond, made the pilgrimage with her mother, Francisca Pacheco, and two daughters. They rode the bus that departed from the Pastoral Center.
“I always wanted to come see this church, but I didn’t want to deal with traffic and I didn’t want to drive up here,” Gutierrez said. “My mom has always loved this church, so she really wanted to come to the pilgrimage.”
“This has been a beautiful experience,” she added, “especially being able to share it with my two girls.”
It was more of a last-minute decision for Jorge Quintero, who got a ride up from southwestern Virginia.
He explained that he was at Friday night prayers at his parish, Sacred Heart, Danville, the night before the pilgrimage. He knew there would be buses available, but Quintero uses a wheelchair. After the prayers, he said, “I went right to the front and just prayed: ‘God, if it’s your will be done, that you make it accessible for me.’”
“And as soon I left the parish, my uncle was like, ‘I’m driving!’” laughed Quintero.
“So, if he didn’t say that, I would have been struggling here,” Quintero said as he gestured to the line of buses parked in front of the basilica.
“Coming here really early when it was really silent and private” was the most powerful part of the day for him. “I liked seeing all the artwork, because I’m an artist,” Quintero explained. “But that silence when I got here … it was real peaceful.”
The official start of the pilgrimage included remarks from Bishop Knestout; Msgr. Vito Buonanno, director of pilgrimages at the basilica; and Father Tony Marques, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.
All three focused heavily on the role of Our Lady in leading us to Jesus since the basilica is affectionately called Mary’s Shrine, or Mary’s House.
In the bishop’s welcome, he recalled his trip this past summer to World Youth Day in Portugal, which had a theme based on the Visitation: “Mary arose and went with haste” (Lk 1:39).
“Mary was alert and sensitive to the voice of God. … She was able to listen attentively. … And then she acts upon it, she becomes aware of Elizabeth’s need,” Bishop Knestout explained. “She goes out with urgency, with intention, to make a pilgrimage towards her cousin, in order to assist her in her time of need.”
“Mary becomes an example of discipleship for all of us as we begin our own pilgrimage today,” said the bishop. “The Lord calls us to be alert to his voice … listening always attentively as he speaks to us.”
The bishop said those who made the pilgrimage rose early that morning and went in haste with special intention to seek out God, just as Mary rose and went in haste at the time of the Visitation.
Father Marques then explained that the connection between the United States and the Immaculate Conception dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus. The explorer discovered an island in 1492 that he named Santa Maria de la Concepcion. Father Marques said the Blessed Virgin Mary became the patroness of the United States in 1846. Plans for the national shrine began that same year.
Father Marques pointed out the inscription above the entrance to the basilica: “Thou art the honor of our people.”
“She walks with us and shows us the way to heaven,” he said.
Pilgrims spent the next few hours on their own – exploring the basilica and its 80 chapels and oratories, going to confession, praying, walking the gardens outside, and having lunch.
Pilgrims reunited in the early afternoon for a multi-lingual rosary, with prayers said in five languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Asante Twi, a language of Ghana. Everyone was encouraged to reflect on the Joyful Mysteries and pray in their own language. Even the chorus of varying languages fell nearly into unison with one another, emphasizing the universality of the Church.
Powerful moments for pilgrims
Bishop Knestout offered Mass immediately after praying the rosary, with over a dozen concelebrating priests from around the diocese. Deacons and seminarians for the diocese also helped serve.
“Wow, what a beautiful sight it is to see all of you here!” said the bishop at the start of Mass, as he looked out at the sea of people in the church.
“The packed church shows a vibrance and beauty in the faith of our people in the Diocese of Richmond,” the bishop later remarked.
During his homily, he shared that he enjoys watching two TV shows: “Finding Your Roots” and “Antiques Roadshow.” In both shows, he said people search for treasures, whether it be a surprise in one’s heritage or treasures in unique items.
Bishop Knestout said the readings are about the hidden treasures in our faith – treasures that take us back thousands of years to the roots of Catholicism.
“While we are on this pilgrimage, we have the privilege of re-entering the roots of our Christian faith and traditions – in prayer, at Mass, in the praying of the rosary, Eucharistic devotion. We discover these hidden treasures all over again, things that have been right before us all the time … for some they may not seem to have great value, but we know that they have eternal value,” the bishop said.
In closing his homily, Bishop Knestout said, “God is with us, so we can put aside our worries and anxieties. God will give us what we need for our pilgrimage of faith throughout our lives.”
The Mass ended with adoration, a Eucharistic procession around the basilica’s Upper Church, and Benediction.
Many pilgrims, including Bernardo Gonzalez, from St. Gerard, Roanoke, said Mass was his favorite part of the day.
Quintero said receiving Communion “made me cheer up. I definitely felt a little emotional.”
Others said the procession was the most powerful moment of the day.
Valerie Boswell, from Sacred Heart, Danville, said she came to the pilgrimage because she was looking for renewal in her faith. She said she found that renewal in confession and the Eucharistic procession.
The bishop said he was very grateful for the opportunity to have the procession.
“I hope everyone experienced the Eucharistic procession to be as beautiful and spiritually uplifting as I did!” Bishop Knestout said, joyfully.
“It’s been a wonderful day,” Missy Mason, a pilgrim from St. Andrew, Roanoke, said. “It was very powerful for me.”
At the end of the pilgrimage, Bishop Knestout told the pilgrims he was grateful that each of them made the journey. “I will certainly ask for God’s continued blessings, not only today, but throughout each day, as you continue to draw grace from this beautiful celebration we had today.”