Vacationers’ Serene Sanctuary

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.

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.

The 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.

I was overjoyed that on Aug. 22, the feast of the Queenship of Mary, it was officially elevated as this country’s 63rd basilica.

In 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.”

That 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.

In 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.

Bishop 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.

Then 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.

“It 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.

Roman Model

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.

This 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.

The 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.

Brilliant 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.

“Many 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.”

The 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.

Here 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

The 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 Carrara marble.

All 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.

“The 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.

There 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.

At 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.

In 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.

“All 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.”

Father 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.’”

At 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 your word.’”

May that be what Orlando tourists most remember.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.