by Mark Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Exactly one year earlier, Pope Francis had celebrated an historic Mass in Washington outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
On Sept. 23, Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the national shrine, unveiled a memorial marker to commemorate the spot on the basilica’s east portico where the pope celebrated a canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra, the famous 18th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary of California.
Cardinal Wuerl noted that 4-by-4-foot granite marker unveiled on the first anniversary of the papal Mass commemorated the first canonization on U.S. soil, by the first pope from the Americas, who canonized a saint who brought the Gospel to the New World.
Moments later, the cardinal said Mass in the basilica’s Crypt Church, in the same hour that the canonization Mass had been celebrated one year earlier, and he noted how the pope had encouraged today’s faithful to emulate St. Junipero Serra’s missionary spirit, reflected in the saint’s motto, “Always forward,” by sharing their faith in their everyday lives.
“When you looked out at the crowd of 25,000 (at the canonization Mass), you saw people from every nation,” the cardinal said. “Our Holy Father reminded us we’re heirs to a great missionary spirit.” Cardinal Wuerl said that like that new saint, “we too are called to go out . . . and share the good news of the Gospel.”
Washington’s archbishop noted the symbols of Pope Francis’ visit that remained one year later, including the papal Fiat parked outside the basilica that afternoon. The little black car that the pope rode in during his visit to the nation’s capital is now used to highlight the ministries and charitable works of the Archdiocese of Washington. The Fiat — whose appearances are highlighted in the #DrivewithFrancis social media campaign — has been filled with canned goods for a southern Maryland food warehouse, with breakfast bags for the homeless at a Catholic Charities shelter, and with baby items for a Capitol Hill crisis pregnancy center.
Cardinal Wuerl also noted how the altar from the papal Mass is now used as the national shrine’s main altar in its Upper Church, and the papal chair from the Mass is on display in the basilica’s Memorial Hall. But he said the greatest reminder of the papal visit was the Mass celebrated on its first anniversary. “The very heart of his visit was the celebration of the Eucharist,” he said.
That anniversary commemoration had begun with the unveiling of a stone memorial marker, and that day’s Gospel told the story of St. Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus. Cardinal Wuerl in his homily noted how Pope Francis as the successor of St. Peter, the first pope who was called “the rock,” continues to proclaim who Jesus is.
“The touchstone of our faith and what we believe is Peter,” the cardinal said. “Now our Pope Francis continues to be the living visible sign of that rock upon which our faith and our Church rests.”
At the end of Mass, papal honors including the Knighthood of St. Gregory the Great, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross and the Benemerenti Medal, were presented to clergy and laypeople who played a key role in the papal visit to Washington. Pectoral crosses were presented to Washington’s auxiliary bishops, and papal jubilee medals also were bestowed. In Latin, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice means “For the Church and the Papacy,” and Benemerenti means “good merit.”
Several of the recipients of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice honor had played key roles in the 2015 visit of Pope Francis to Washington, and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the nation’s capital. The recipients of that honor included Msgr. Rossi, who helped plan and hosted both papal visits to the basilica; Jane Belford, the archdiocese’s former chancellor who helped lead the planning efforts for both papal visits; Thomas Burnford, now president of the National Catholic Educational Association who as the archdiocese’s secretary of education coordinated lesson plans in conjunction with the papal visit that were shared locally and nationally; and Deacon Dave Cahoon, a carpenter from rural Poolesville, Maryland, who helped build the altars for both papal Masses.
Another recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, Father Mark Knestout, co-chair of the liturgy committee and principal coordinator of the canonization Mass, said later that, like the other award recipients, he accepted the honor on behalf of the team of staff members and volunteers who contributed to the success of the papal visit.
After the honors were bestowed, Cardinal Wuerl said that the greatest honor for the people of the Archdiocese of Washington came from a compliment offered by Pope Francis as he was heading to the airport after his visit to the nation’s capital. The cardinal said Pope Francis told him, “I have the sense the church of Washington is alive in the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit.”
Cardinal Wuerl added, “I think that’s the highest honor we could receive from the Holy Father.”