Sunday, July 9, 2017

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception - Washington, D.C.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is mind-blowing to me on many levels. First, the name is impossible for me to remember: (a) I'm not Catholic, so basilica is a term of recent understanding for me; (b) national shrine has no meaning to me in this context; and (c) immaculate conception leads me scrambling to Wikipedia for meaning. 
Front of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 
A side view. The chairs are set up outside for graduation. 
It is prettier when surrounded by greenery. I love the blue dome. 
A closer look at the dome.
The decoration outside has a very different look to it. 
Why not call it the Washington Cathedral? Googling reveals that the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Washington is the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, so cathedral is out. Why not call it the Washington Basilica? I don't find any reason not to. That would be so much easier. 
Main altar of the Basilica
Scene from part of one of the domes.
Part of a fascinating dome from one of the side chapels.
Ceiling from a side chapel.
Dome from a side chapel.
Ceiling from a side chapel.
We also visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore on this trip and I confuse the name of that church with this one. Fortunately, it can be referred to as the Baltimore Basilica. How can they both be national shrines? Shouldn't there be just one national shrine for Mary? Or is the shrine focused on Mary's attributes? Is Washington the national shrine for the attribute of the immaculate conception and Baltimore the national shrine for the attribute of the assumption? Are there national shrines for Mary as a virgin, or any other of Mary's attributes? Googling reveals that immaculate conception is the confusing Catholic concept that Mary was born without original sin. In other words, she was born sinless. It does not mean that Mary was conceived like Jesus, through a virgin, as Joachim and Anne, Mary's parents (names that are also new to me), conceived her in the normal way. Mary's assumption, refers to how Mary died, or perhaps didn't die. Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven and it has not been determined theologically whether she actually died. So immaculate conception and assumption are separate attributes. Looking at a long list of shrines in the U.S., many of which are not national, and many not having to do with Mary, I'm finding the Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, in Hubertus, Wisconsin; the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, in Orlando, Florida; the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio; and so on and so forth. So it does appear to be related to Mary's attributes. Next question.  Can you just call your church a national shrine? Googling reveals, no, the church has to meet certain requirements and is given the name by the National Episcopal Conference, an assembly of Catholic bishops
Mosaics from a side chapel.

I addressed the title of basilica for the first time in my post on another Immaculate Conception church, this one in Mobile, Alabama
Interesting carving from a side chapel.
Second, this church has more decoration, more varied decoration, and more unusual decoration inside it than any other church I've ever visited. Judy did a post on it and did an amazing job of it. She identified and showed pictures of many of the 70 chapels within it. I'm not going there. I didn't have the patience to closely review and read about the chapels while I was there and I don't have the patience to do it now. This church frankly has an overwhelming richness of decoration that vastly dwarfs any church we've ever visited. 
Mosaic of Jesus being baptized by John.
Mosaic of the Transfiguration.
Third, it was busy when we visited. Graduation for the Catholic University of America, the grounds of which surround the church, was about to take place. The main level was full of family and friends and the basement was full of graduating students and faculty dressed in cap and gown. 
St. Stephen of Hungary being baptized. 
And fourth, it is a riot of color. All of the lights were on and bright gold, deep orange and yellow seemed to dominate. Its impact as a church on me was similar to the impact of modern action films on me - they are so intense and so action packed that I feel like I need Ritalin after viewing one. I had that same overwhelming of my senses in this church. I'm sure it would probably be different under other circumstances, with fewer people and not so brightly lit. 
Crypt Chapel, which I really liked. 
This basilica does not have its own parish. It serves the Catholic University of America which donated the land and surrounds it, and it also serves the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 
Examples of Stations of the Cross which were around the Crypt Chapel. They are made of clay. Station 10 where Jesus is stripped of his garments. 
Station 11 where Jesus is nailed to the cross. 
It is large. It is the largest Catholic church in North America, but it is smaller than the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., both of which are Episcopal churches.  However, it feels larger than they do, at least in part because it is crammed full, every nook and cranny, with chapels and ornament. 
Pope Pius XI donated this mosaic in 1923.
Construction began in 1920 and it opened, unfinished, in 1959. Pope John Paul II visited it in 1990 and designated it a minor basilica at that time. Benedict the XVI visited in 2008 and Francis visited in 2015 when he canonized Junipero Sera. 

Its 70 chapels, dedicated to Mary, are by far the most impressive collection of religious art and expression I've ever seen, with an amazing international flavor. In 1792, John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the U.S., as Bishop of Baltimore, consecrated the U.S. as under the protection of the Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception. This was formalized by Pope Pius IX in 1847. A list of the floor plan on the main floor is here. A list of the floor plan for the lower level and crypt church is here. By itself it is an education in mariology (the theological study of Mary) that is astounding and virgin territory for this non-Catholic. The National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore did not have anything even close to this type of display of chapels and variety and still leaves me scratching my head a bit as to how they are both national shrines. I frankly loved the Baltimore church and preferred it for many reasons over Washington, but Washington truly is a shrine to Mary, befitting a university setting dedicated to religion. 


  1. All this years I thought I knew what immaculate conception and assumption meant. Wow, was I wrong! Thanks for the education. This is a beautiful church. I hope we get there some day.

  2. This has to be one of my favorite Catholic churches. I loved the busy-ness of all the colors, patterns, and international chapels. It was awe-inspiring.