Prayers were never stronger, incense never smelled sweeter, music was never more magnificent, a church never more grand, an occasion never more festive. Why all these remarks of praise? Because Cardinal Dolan came home to Milwaukee for a Mass of Thanksgiving at the great Carmelite church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill, and all of Milwaukee was lit up with excitement and joy. In his opening remarks Cardinal Dolan said "Every single Mass is the best act of Thanksgiving that we have." But this Mass....this Mass was so special! If I could have bottled all of the smiles on the faces of the people at that Mass it would light up the world. This man, this holy and happy man, easily brings smiles to all he meets with his exuberant and joyful attitude.
For weeks the excitement was building in the Milwaukee area as all of the faithful eagerly anticipated the homecoming of our revered and holy leader, our rock-star, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. The newscasts were filled with warnings about the anticipated crowds and the weather forecast was filled with cold and rain, both causing discouragement and keeping many away who might otherwise have ventured out to Holy Hill to pray with our hometown hero, the man who had been our Archbishop for seven wonderful years, the man who had become a beloved friend to all. I, too, was discouraged and had been "on the fence" not sure whether or not I would actually plan to attend the Mass where the crowds were predicted to number over 3000 people. Many wondered why an event like this was not held at a larger venue that could easily accomodate crowds, like Miller Park, but when we learned that Cardinal Dolan himself had requested the Basilica of Holy Hill as the site of his Mass of Thanksgiving because it was his favorite church in Wisconsin, the location made perfect sense.
So despite the foul weather and the large crowds, I knew that I just could not stay away. The very thought of missing out on this opportunity of a lifetime would be something I would regret forever. So just before noon I gathered up my children, Justin, Jack and Mary, who were all available and willing to be my companions in an adventure of a lifetime, and we headed out for Holy Hill in the downpour of rain.
Had the weather been more pleasant, we would have planned on arriving at 7 AM and picnicked on the grounds, trying to hold our place in line for one of the coveted 800 wristbands that were being distributed at 1:30, and would guarantee a seat in the upper church of the Basilica, instead of in the lower church or the outside tent where there would be a broadcast of the Mass on large television screens.
I didn't hold high hopes that we would actually receive a wristband and I wondered if we would even get inside of the tent outdoors. I was prepared to stand outside in the rain all day just wanting to revel in the excitement of the day. So, we were thrilled when we easily found a parking space and hopped into a shuttle bus that took us to the tent where the wristband distribution would take place. We were stopped just outside of the tent by a television news crew wanting us to share our excitement about and love for Cardinal Dolan. I think the kids and I must have just kept repeating the word "awesome" and said little else so we doubted that the clip would actually appear on the news. No matter, we were here and we were on the cusp of entering the tent and finding out whether or not we would receive a wristband, and lo and behold, we did! This was all much easier than I expected it to be! Now I looked down at my blue jeans, having had wanted to dress for the cold and damp weather thinking that I would never make it into the church (O ye of little faith!) and for the remainder of the day I carried the regret that I didn't wear my Sunday best.
Shortly after we took our seats in the tent where we would wait for 90 minutes until the wristbands were distributed and we'd be allowed into the church, we were joined by our friends Don and Anne who had also waited at home thinking they wouldn't go because of the weather and the crowds. But,they had seen my facebook status where I quickly posted "Off to Holy Hill!" before leaving the house and so they also decided to also take a chance and see what the situation might be like at Holy Hill.
When the announcement was made that it was finally time to enter the church everyone let out a big whoop of applause. I was so impressed with how well organized everything was. The Archdiocesan staff who planned the day did an outstanding job with their work. After climbing hundreds of steps to the upper church, we found seats in the very last row against the back wall which turned out to be the best seats of all. We were right there as the entrance and recessional processions passed and we could stand to get a better view of the altar without inconveniencing anyone else since there was no one behind us. We were quite busy congratulating ourselves on our good fortune and thanking God for blessing us with this opportunity.
Despite the fact that it was a two and a half hour wait until the 4 PM rosary and 4:30 PM Mass, the time passed quickly with prayer and visiting with friends. During our wait someone pointed out that Cardinal Dolan was in the front of church greeting his family, so the children and I snuck up the side aisle for a closer view. Jack was taking pictures and an usher asked him to please go back to his seat after he was through snapping his photos. I told the usher that I wasn't taking pictures, only basking in the glow of greatness, and asked him if I could please stay there a while longer and he agreed. So Mary and I stayed and gazed in awe and amazement, just watching the Cardinal work the crowd, showering his loved ones with hugs and kisses.
Jack can be seen snapping a photo right next to the Schoenstatt sister's picture of Our Mother Thrice Admirable
While standing there we met Bishop Hying's secretary Susan W. and spent some time visiting with her. She is incredibly sweet and kind. She shared stories with us about her recent trip to Rome for the ad limina visit from the Milwaukee Archdiocese, about what it was like to work so closely to Cardinal Dolan when he was in Milwaukee and about how blessed she is to work for Bishop Hying. Having only seen the exuberant and joyful side of Cardinal Dolan, Mary wanted to know if he ever got angry and Susan shared that he did on rare occasions, and she said that you can always tell when Cardinal Dolan is upset because he always turns very red in the face. We enjoyed out visit with Susan so much that it was hard to go back to our seats and allow her to return to her duties for the day, but, the wait was wearing on us and we finally dragged our tired bodies back to our seats to join our sons.
Soon it was time to join in the rosary that was being led by the Carmelite nuns with special meditations written for Cardinal Dolan by Carmelite orders from various parts of the world where Cardinal Dolan has made a personal impact. It was finally four o'clock!
The quiet repetition of Hail Mary's lulled my daughter Mary into sleep and her head hung precariously over the side of her chair under the watchful eyes of not only her mother but also of all of the ushers who were now standing in back of church with us waiting to perform their duties for the Mass. Soon I was gently nudging her awake because the Mass was finally about to begin!
We were a bit disappointed when the ushers and security guards lined up in front of us, blocking our close view of the processional, but they kindly allowed Mary a place of honor right in front of them so that she could easily see all of the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, priests, Bishops and then, finally, Cardinal Dolan himself, as they processed into church. And during the recessional we were able to reach past the arms of the security guards so that Mary could embrace Cardinal Dolan and I was able to shake his hand. It was an honor we will never forget.
Mary standing in front of the ushers during the processional
The Mass was one of the most amazingly beautiful Masses I have ever been privileged to attend. Just that morning I had attended a Mass at the Catholic Home Educators Conference to promote my beloved Salzmann Library. Bishop Hying presided at the Mass and in his homily he spoke about how the Mass is like heaven. All during this Mass of Thanksgiving I truly understood that he was right. All of heaven had certainly come down to earth to join our thankful hearts as we offered praise and glory to God for the gift of our beloved leader and friend, Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
Sharing my joy with Bishop Hying after Mass
(Top photo credit-JS Online photographer Mark Hoffman, all others Richard Zautcke)
There's more to come...look for upcoming reflections on the rosary meditations written by the Carmelite nuns and highlights of the Mass and Cardinal Dolan's homily. May God always richly bless Timothy Cardinal Dolan!