Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
At a crucial point early in my relationship with my husband we climbed up Monte Subasio to the hermitage of St. Francis outside of Assisi. Our whole semester abroad at Franciscan University’s campus in Gaming, Austria was an extended pilgrimage from one ancient religious site to another, but that one hike in Assisi was one step closer in our discernment to eventual marriage. It was not that some great revelation happened, but more that God was slowly drawing us together. Our silent, meditative ascent side by side to that hermitage gave me the discipline I needed to wait patiently for him.
Since that semester abroad we have taken many pilgrimages together throughout the United States, many of them being sites along the routes of our frequent family road trips. This past Saturday we took a day trip with our four children (ages seven and younger) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin in order to attend a Pontifical High Mass, one of the most formal rites of the Church, celebrated by Raymond Cardinal Burke.
The morning was one of our bitterest yet this winter in St. Paul, Minnesota beginning in the single digits. We woke the kids earlier than one likes to do on a Saturday, dressed them in warm sweaters and sweater dresses, packed lunch for the road, and embarked on our pilgrimage to the Shrine. The drive to La Crosse was sunny and pleasant. After nearly running out of gas on an isolated stretch of I-90, we managed to find a gas station, refuel, and eat an early lunch to fortify ourselves for the long liturgy we were about to attend.
The scenery is quite beautiful going down into the river valley of the Mississippi in Southwestern Minnesota. The cliffs rise up steeply to one side and the valley opens up below with tall bluffs on the other side. We talked a bit about the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder crossing the river at Lake Pepin north of where we were, and imagined what it would be like to be on the ice in a covered wagon. Eventually we turned onto a road that led us across several bridges through a marshy area and finally over a long bridge into La Crosse. After driving through the industrial part of town one comes out into farmland and one can see a beautifully domed church up the side of a hill across the valley.
We turned towards the hill and eventually came to a gated drive that led to the base of the hill of the Shrine. Cardinal Burke first announced his plans for the Shrine in 1999 when he was bishop of La Crosse, and it has since been developed into beautiful place of pilgrimage under the pastoral care of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. There is a paved half-mile trail that goes back and forth up a wooded hillside from a parking lot at the base of the hill. In addition to the main church, constructed from 2004-2008, there are several other devotional sites on the 100 acre campus. Near the bottom of the hill is the Mother of Good Counsel Votive Candle Chapel, in which pilgrims can light candles offering their intentions before and after their visit to the Shrine. We passed it shortly after we had parked and bundled up to brave the single digit hike to the church in the cool and crisp air. As we ascended the cliff side we passed a separate trail leading up to a bronze statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a bronze statue of St. Joseph the Workman with the Child Jesus, and at the very top was the Memorial to the Unborn with a statue of Our Lady weeping over Unborn babies in her arms. The Memorial is a burial site for babies who die before birth (see here for more information). A Rosary walk, Stations of the Cross, and a statue of Blessed Duns Scotus are also on the grounds. On our bitter cold climb, just when one of my children thought that she could not bear any more walking (as she thinks even on the shortest of walks), we came around a bend and could see through the trees the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe with her stone façade and well-designed dome.
As we entered the building, the church was already full, but the efficient ushers lead us to some folding chairs alongside the pews along the left side of the church. At least half the congregation was made up of families. While we waited for Mass to begin, I took in the beautiful classical architecture of the Shrine church designed by architect Duncan Stroik. After some announcements and words of thanks to those who made the celebration of this Mass possible, a cellist played a prelude and then to the chanting of a choir, the priests, servers, and the Cardinal processed down the aisle, the Cardinal blessing us as he came. Then began the vesting rite of the Pontifical Mass, in which the presiding bishop is vested in front of the congregation with the prayers appropriate to each vestment, after which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass began. The Mass was a High Extraordinary Form Mass with a deacon and a subdeacon as part of its formality.
My toddler son had enough of playing quietly in our seats at the Epistle, and I carried him to the back to listen to the readings. While I was in the narthex, after my son’s loud demand of, “Door!” I admired the beautiful fresco painted by by Anthony Visco of events surrounding Our Lady’s apparitions to St. Juan Diego. I also had a nice view of the mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the sanctuary. When we were back in the main church, I was able to meditate on the paintings of saints whose relics are enshrined in side altars. I found the painting of St. Maria Goretti by Noah Buchanan to be particularly stunning. In the painting Our Lady stands behind the adolescent St. Maria was is reaching down in forgiveness towards her murderer in prison. Across the church from where we were seated was the side altar to St. Gianna Molla, at whose relics several of my friends have prayed for and have been blessed with a baby.
Then Cardinal Burke gave a sweet homily about Our Lady and Mother, which reminded me to bring my difficulties to her. So I did during that long, beautiful, heavenly liturgy, during which my attention was constantly brought down to the needs and behavior of my children. But I was not alone in my struggle as all around me, fellow parents were undergoing the same struggle and all the while bringing all their needs and intentions to Our Lady and her Son.
One thing I love about Masses in which the faithful kneel at the communion rail is how one goes from sitting in a pew surrounded by the faithful, who are the Body of Christ, to kneeling before Christ in the Real Presence Who is brought to you and placed in your mouth by the hands of one who represents Christ on earth in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We went up as a family to the Communion rail, knelt down, and Cardinal Burke went down the line of our family, blessing the little ones, and giving Holy Communion to my daughter, my husband, and myself. We went back to our seats to pray and take in the experience, and again my son and I joined the young choir of little people in the vestibule of the church.
After Mass, we walked joyfully down the hill in what felt like a warm 15°F as the snow began to fall. The liturgy had been beautiful, a taste of heaven on earth. We were about to begin our journey home, after an early supper, in the beginning of a snowstorm. We made it home safely in the early evening, and were thankful for the blessings of the day and another pilgrimage.
This article originally appeared Dec. 16, 2016, at the Register.