The Basilica of the National Shrine and the Universality of the Church

I was in Washington D.C. two weeks ago and I was able to spend some time (not enough, though) in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. If Catholic art is meant to make visible the invisible truths of our faith, then the Basilica does a superb job of making our belief in the universality, that is, in the catholicity, of the Church a tangible, visible reality.

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

What exactly do we mean when we say that the Church is “universal”? As usual, the Catechism offers us the answer:

The word “catholic” means “universal,” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him “the fullness of the means of salvation” which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.

Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race:

All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God’s will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one…. the character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit. (CCC, 830-831).

Christ in Majesty

So, how exactly does the Basilica of the National Shrine reflect this? With respect to the first sense of the term “universal”, that is, it meaning that Christ is present in His Church, it becomes pretty clear as soon as you walk in. Behind the altar, dominating the view is the massive mosaic titled Christ in Majesty. Above the altar is a beautiful mosaic dome called The Triumph of the Lamb. How appropriate that we should find images of Christ, who is the head of His Church, at the “head” of this particular church. Furthermore, even though the shrine is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, that is, to the Virgin Mary, the presence of Christ is felt throughout the entire place. High above the ground, decorating the multiple domes that form the ceiling of the shrine, are mosaics representing Christ’s life and mission: the Incarnation dome and the Redemption dome. Christ is so profoundly united to His Church, to His body, that He permeates it throughout, giving Her fullness of life. In a similar way, through the representations of His life, Christ permeates the entire building, reminding us that it is Christ who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn. 14: 6).

Incarnation Dome

Redemption Dome

Triumph of the Lamb

With respect to the second sense, it is sufficient to walk around for a few minutes to realize why the shrine successfully teaches us about the Church’s universality. Lining the sides of both the Upper Church and the Crypt are chapels dedicated to the various invocations of the Virgin Mary throughout the world. However, there is more to the universality of the Church than the multiplicity of nationalities. Being an engineer, I tend to see things in mathematical terms so I think of the universality of the Church in terms of a two-dimensional plane where one axis represents the different nationalities and cultures and the other the different ages of human history. Not coincidentally, these two axes intersect and form a Cross. The Church, therefore, picks up and embraces this Cross and with it all of humanity from all nations and tongues, from the past, the present and the future. The National Shrine, in its structure and art, as well as in its history, reflects this fact.

East Apse Chapels

I already mentioned that the variety of nations and tongues is seen in the multiple chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary (of which, the one dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most beautiful, though I admit I’m biased about this), but there is more to be said about this. It is not a coincidence that I refer to Our Most Blessed Mother in reference with the universality of the Church. If Christ is so profoundly united to the Church and Mary is so profoundly united to her Son, it follows that she is also intimately united to the Church. According to St. Ambrose, the Virgin Mary is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ. Therefore, by looking at Mary, we can see what the Church ought to be. That is the significance of the side chapels. By actually seeing images of Mary in which she takes the appearance of all the races of the earth, we see a mirror image of a Church that embraces men and women of every country and race. The Church imitates Mary in covering all of mankind under her mantle.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel

In terms of the architectural style, we observe another indication of the universality of the Church. The overall style of the shrine is Romanesque-Byzantine with a modern twist. Its eclecticism is the key to seeing it as a symbol for universality. The Romanesque style was the art form that prevailed during the early Middle Ages in what had formerly been the Western Roman Empire, with art historians disagreeing whether it began in the sixth century, the tenth or somewhere in between; and its reign lasted until the Gothic style took over in the thirteenth century. Though the Romanesque was, in its beginnings, heavily influenced by the Byzantine style of the Eastern side of the Empire, both styles seem to have parted ways after the tragic schism of 1054. The Romanesque, then, became the architectonic style of the Western Church, while the Byzantine remained that of the Eastern Church. And so, it is significant that the Shrine was built as a combination of these styles, bringing together, at least in stone, the East and the West.

Romanesque Exterior

Crypt Church

Byzantine Interior

The architecture also speaks of the universality of the Church in terms of time. To better comprehend this, we must look into the history of the Shrine. The original design of the shrine was that of a “fourteenth century French Gothic structure”. However, due to various reasons, this original design was trashed and the new Romanesque-Byzantine design was agreed upon. The new design proved to be more universal than the Gothic one not only because of the reasons I have pointed out previously, but because it allowed the architect to come up with something original, something that was not an imitation of anything else, while maintaining a connection with two thousand years of tradition. As a result, the shrine turned out to be a modern building built upon the solid foundations of centuries of artistic wealth. This was perfect. Where a purely imitative Gothic design, though beautiful, might have conveyed a sensation of being stuck in a previous era; and a purely modern design might have given off a sensation of having broken with the past, the actual design ended up communicating a continuity between the past, the present and the future. The Church is meant to be a home for the men of all eras, not only those of the Middle Ages or of a pre-Modern period. The Church is “ever ancient and ever new” and her teachings speak to all men, and here is a temple that shows it! The stone, brick, tile and mortar from which it was built seem to be crying out this truth!

The Universal Call to Holiness

Main Altar

Exterior and Facade

Lastly, the Basilica of the National Shrine provides Catholic artists with evidence that such a thing as a modern art that is, at the same time, steeped in tradition, is possible, original and uniquely beautiful.

(Most of the photos were taken from http://www.nationalshrine.com)

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