Tens of millions of people visit the Orlando area each year, and while some only frequent the “altars” of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter during their stay, others carve out time to worship the source of all blessings. They are welcomed with open arms at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe — a spiritual oasis nestled amid limitless dining, retail and entertainment options.
“Let Mary, Queen be your spiritual home while you are in Orlando,” said Missionary of Mercy Father Anthony Aarons, the rector. Visitors from every continent make up the majority of the congregation and often share where they are from after Mass or during confession. “Our priests are available to speak with you, and our gift shop is your one-stop shopping place for religious gifts,” the priest said.
The large, 2,000-seat shrine commands attention from passersby on I-4, the region’s primary highway, and is situated near major attractions, including Disney World, Universal Orlando and retail outlets. It features many stained-glass windows and side chapels, including one devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The broad main altar and gold-tone organ pipes behind it are bathed in natural sunlight, which bounces off the crystal backing of the crucifix suspended overhead. Marian-themed art on display includes a 17th-century painting of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the back of the basilica attributed to Spanish painter Bartolomé Murillo. A gift shop offers books, rosaries, statues and other religious goods.
Outside, the grounds include a Rosary garden, chapel, bell tower and religious statues. Natural amenities include a peaceful pond populated by turtles, fish and birds, with nearby willow trees and other greenery.
Like many vacation destinations, the Orlando area is climbing closer to pre-pandemic levels of tourism. More than 70 million people visited from 2017 to 2019, according to estimates published by Visit Orlando. After the number of visitors plummeted in 2020, approximately 59 million people came in 2021, the most recent data available.
The schedules for Mass and confession reflect the vacation-friendly vibe. Daily Mass is celebrated at 9am and noon and on Saturdays at noon. On weekends, a 6pm Saturday vigil Mass and Sunday Masses at 8 and 10am and noon are offered.
The wide availability of confession year-round is striking — approximately 24 hours total over six days between Monday and Saturday. Weekdays it is offered 10-11:30am and 2-4pm. On Saturdays, priests are present to counsel penitents for six hours, from 10am to 4pm.
According to Father Aarons, this is in keeping with the church’s designation by Pope John Paul II as a shrine, sought out by pilgrims who can gain a plenary indulgence through confession and the usual requirements.
This year is the 30th anniversary of the shrine’s 1993 dedication. Its opening was the culmination of decades of work by local Catholics to address the spiritual needs of their brethren from every corner of the globe, growing in scale along with the entertainment nearby.
Since becoming rector last August, Father Aarons has expanded offerings for the faithful. He added the weekday morning Mass and a noon Mass on Saturdays in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary (unless a feast or obligatory memorial precludes it); a First Saturday speaker series; First Friday Eucharistic exposition and Benediction with the Divine Mercy Chaplet; and he converted the former gift shop into a conference center.
This story originally appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is published via CNA with permission.