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In the greater Orlando area, the land of packed theme parks and bustling activity, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe stands as a spiritual refuge.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
For my money, there’s only one major destination to
head for in Orlando: the Basilica of the National Shrine
of Mary, Queen of the Universe.
greater Orlando area may be the land of packed theme parks and bustling
activity, but this magnificent national shrine stands as the vacationers’
serene sanctuary. That’s even obvious with a quick glance by motorists seeing
it from Interstate 4, the major central route connecting Florida’s two coasts.
was overjoyed that on Aug. 22, the feast of the Queenship of Mary, it was
officially elevated as this country’s 63rd basilica.
his dedication homily, Orlando’s Bishop Thomas Wenski reminded us that “it’s
indeed fitting that Mary, Queen of the Universe is given the dignity of being a
basilica, for, because of the thousands of visitors who come here from
everywhere, it is a parish church for the whole world.”
really becomes evident during Holy Week. In 2009, from Palm Sunday through
Easter Sunday, approximately 42,000 worshippers attended the Masses — and most
of them were tourists.
fact, this shrine was built specifically for tourists. It was the vision of
Msgr. F. Joseph Harte, its longtime rector. As pastor of a local church in
1975, he became an itinerant missionary, going from hotel to hotel bringing the
sacraments to tourists already heading to Orlando. He saw the need for a
permanent place of devotion in an area whose population was always quickly
changing. He found his answer in a shrine.
Thomas Grady surely agreed. On Dec. 8, 1984, there was the first
groundbreaking. The modest first building, now the gift shop, acted as the first
chapel for Masses.
on Aug. 22, 1990, with the groundbreaking for the main church by Bishop Norbert
Dorsey, Msgr. Harte’s vision started blossoming into something far greater than
what he had imagined.
was envisioned to be beautiful; it wasn’t envisioned to be as beautiful as it
turned out,” Msgr. Harte told me back in the 1990s. And since then, the beauty
has multiplied with magnificent liturgical artwork, outdoor shrines, the Rosary
Garden — serene landscaping that turns the grounds into a heavenly oasis — a
museum, and especially devotion to the sacraments.
I well remember being in awe the
first time I crossed the wide entry bridge flanked by fountains and gazed up at
the shrine church — enormous because it was built to seat 2,000 worshippers and
accommodate another 1,500 standing.
shrine church is modeled closely in size and style to the Basilica of
Constantine, the first Christian church in Rome that’s now the site of St.
Peter’s Basilica. At the same time, the white stucco exterior and tile roofs
give it Florida’s recognizable architectural touches, while the new massive
bronze doors tie right back to the Old World details that proclaim the
universality of our faith.
portals of Abraham, Christ the Good Shepherd, and Mary, Mother of the Church
have bas-reliefs presenting biblical scenes. The Good Shepherd depicts the life
of Christ highlighting major Gospel narratives, and the portal of Mary presents
narratives from the annunciation to her assumption and coronation.
mosaics are above the portals. Separating them are rows of bronze figures — the
Twelve Apostles under the mosaic of the Good Shepherd and the doctors of the
Church under Mary.
still want the old beautiful churches they see in Brooklyn, New Jersey, New
York, Massachusetts,” Father Edward Mc--Carthy, the basilica-shrine’s rector
since 2007, told me. “They are in awe of the beauty that’s here.”
details of the bright interior are even more beautiful. In the exceptionally
long nave, windows with stained glass from all over the world help us focus on
the mysteries of the Rosary. (Luminous Mysteries will come in the future.)
Along with them are Stations of the Cross in moving detail in 19th-century oil
paintings by a Belgian artist. The 19th-century sanctuary lamp with angels was
sculpted in Holland.
time and place meet again to remind us of our universal Catholic heritage. In
the sanctuary, the figure of Christ crucified appears life-size over the altar
with a tranquil face at the moment he commends his spirit to the Father.
Affirming the Ministry
materials also remind tourists from everywhere of our faith’s universality. For
instance, the sanctuary is of Portuguese rose marble, the altar of white ash;
the centered tabernacle is highly polished rare Brazilian wood, there is a
bronze of Jesus talking to Joseph at the workbench, and the shrine’s 8-foot
signature statue of Mary as Mother and Queen is from a block of pure white
this beautiful liturgical artwork should inspire us to lift our minds and
hearts to higher realms — and fall to our knees before Jesus in the Blessed
Sacrament Chapel behind the sanctuary at all-day adoration or in the chapel of
Our Lady of Guadalupe off the narthex for the daily Masses.
mark of every shrine to Our Lady is devotion to the Eucharist,” Msgr. Harte
told me years ago. Add to that the sacrament of penance. Confessions are
offered every day, from morning until 5 p.m. Father McCarthy says it’s a
blessing for tourists.
is abundant spiritual refreshment for tourists, outside as well as inside the
church. Visitors can pray at the Mother and Child chapel, whose bronze images
portray Mary with a young Jesus in a playful mood. They can walk or sit in the
tranquil Rosary Garden, where a path winds along encouraging visitors to pray
the Rosary. They can stop there for a special time before the statue of Our
Lady made in 1875; it was previously in a Holland convent, where, during the
two World Wars, many prayed before the statue for peace.
the garden entrance, a recent shrine honors Pope John Paul the Great, and in
the garden are the “marriage trees” — an oak and a pine growing together with
their roots intertwined.
the shrine’s museum, the centerpiece is a 17th-century painting of the
Immaculate Conception by Murillo. Then the new pilgrimage center, through its
interactive display, traces the story of the pilgrim from the time of Jesus to
the modern day.
of these contribute to the purpose of the shrine, whether in mosaic or bronze,
stone, stained glass, music,” said Father McCarthy. “It helps people come to those
transcendentals — good, beauty and truth — and it works.”
McCarthy, who has the help of more than 200 volunteers, believes naming the
shrine a basilica “is an affirmation of the ministry. It’s a way for Rome to
say, ‘It’s good to take care of people who are traveling in leisure.’”
the same time, as Bishop Wenski concluded in his dedication homily, “It stands
as an invitation … to trust in God and to imitate Mary in what she herself
said: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to
that be what Orlando tourists most remember.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull,