by Father Mark Goldasich
Remember the 1977 sci-fi movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?
Just in case, here’s a quick recap from the Internet Movie Data Base: “After an encounter with UFOs, an electrical line worker (Richard Dreyfuss) feels undeniably drawn to an isolated area in the wilderness where something spectacular is about to happen.”
Well, Dreyfuss has nothing on me. Ever since I saw its photo on Facebook several months ago, I’ve felt drawn to an isolated area in a (kind of) wilderness . . . and something spectacular did happen there.
The photo was of Holy Family Shrine, located on 23 acres overlooking the Platte River Valley in Gretna, Nebraska. After a couple of failed attempts, I finally made it there on Aug. 16. It was absolutely worth the three-hour-plus drive from Tonganoxie.
This Catholic shrine opened in 2002 amid the rolling hills of southeast Nebraska. (Gretna is about 20 minutes from Omaha.) The gravel road to the shrine eventually leads to a visitor center carved out of the side of a hill. (The center is meant to evoke an image of the tomb of Christ.)
Inside the center is a curly sculpture hanging from a skylight, which represents the discarded shroud of Jesus after his resurrection. Drops of water slowly drip from the sculpture into a small pool. This water, signifying the new life of the Holy Spirit we receive in baptism, then flows down a limestone path to the door of the shrine (symbolizing how our baptism leads us to the Eucharist.)
The shrine itself is a spectacular, awe-inspiring structure, constructed of Western red cedar and glass. Inside, the water splits into two and gurgles under the pews. I could look down through small, open rectangles in the floor and both watch and hear the water as it winds its way to the stone altar up front.
Next, your eyes are drawn upward to the mesmerizing, arching wooden trusses, soaring to 45 feet above the floor. These represent waving wheat, reminding us of Jesus, “the bread of life.” I couldn’t fathom how much glass there was — walls of it — crystal clear, opening onto fields of bluestem prairie grasses and perennials.
Most incredible of all, however, amid all of this simple architectural beauty, is the comforting peace that envelops you. Looking out the windows, I could see ribbons of traffic rushing below on I-80, yet inside this shrine, there was absolute quiet.
When I settled into a middle pew to absorb the atmosphere of this grace-filled space, I found it comforting, homelike and strangely familiar, even though I’d never been there before. Above the tabernacle, etched into the window, was a large image of the Holy Family, perhaps explaining why I felt so much “at home” there.
I reluctantly left the shrine after about 90 minutes, marveling at the diversity of people who visited and the deep faith they displayed.
In case you haven’t guessed, I loved this place and intend to visit in each of the upcoming seasons — fall, winter and spring — to watch how the beauty of God’s creation will change through those windows on the world.
This is a very doable day trip for many in the archdiocese. You can find much more information about the shrine, including directions, on its website at: www.hfsgretna.org.
Plan to spend time inside once you get there to have your own close encounter with our God, whose love always enfolds us.