ORLANDO, Fla. — Even though Mary Jo Smith and her husband had just arrived in Orlando to start their vacation late the night before, they still showed up for noon Mass at the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe before hitting the theme parks with their five children.
“You’ve got to start the day with God,” said Smith, 43, of Manassas, Va.
The Smiths are ideal visitors for the 2,000-seat shrine, home of a ministry that began in the trunk of a car in the 1970s and is aimed at the millions of tourists who visit central Florida every year for attractions like Walt Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios.
Pope Benedict XVI recently designated the church a minor basilica, one of only 63 in the United States, and the church planned a celebration Saturday to commemorate the honor.
Becoming a minor basilica is “kind of like a stamp of approval” for the church, said the Rev. Ed McCarthy, the basilica’s rector. “This is an affirmation by the Church that ministry to people who are traveling, tourists, is an important thing.”
A major basilica is a term assigned to only the most important churches in Catholicism, currently eight, most of which are in Rome. Minor basilicas are more numerous and geographically diverse, and they’re given the distinction for their historic significance, architectural beauty or ministerial uniqueness. In their respective cities, they sit atop the pecking order of churches, and are given certain ritualistic privileges.
Located next to a high-end outlet mall about 1 1/2 miles from the entrance to Walt Disney World, the red-tiled, triangular, stucco edifice built 16 years ago rises off Interstate 4, framed on either side by one-story buildings, a separate bell tower and a tranquil garden.
“If the pope ever comes to central Florida, he would feel at home in this particular church,” Bishop Thomas Wenski said.
It’s a different pace from a typical parish church for the three priests who serve the shrine. There are no baptisms, weddings or funerals to perform. Familiar faces at the Mass are rare because 95 percent of attendees are tourists. Relationships built up from years of regular contact with families in the parish don’t exist. The shrine relies on tourists for donations to support its $1.5 million operating budget.
One of the attractions for priests is ministering to an audience from all over the world, even if they only attend Mass a few days during vacation. Several thousand visitors a week attend Masses, which are held twice daily during the week and five times over the weekend. Confession is held seven days a week.
“In a home parish, I see a family on Sunday and that family may have children, so they’ll be celebrating first communion, first confession, confirmation,” McCarthy said. “Here, you have one shot at helping people feel at home.”
At a recent weekday noon Mass, the Rev. Thomas Kenney did just that with a warm smile and a reassuring Irish voice. About 50 worshippers packed into a small side chapel dominated by a dark blue stained-glass window flecked with white to resemble a night sky filled with stars. The priest left the worshippers with a serious message to think about on their vacations.
“We’re living in very materialistic times, where people are not measured by who they are but what they have,” Kenney intoned.
Not all the parishioners at the Mass were tourists. Some like 67-year-old Richard Janetka, a Disney resort worker, pray at the shrine because it’s close to work.
“It’s very peaceful,” said Janetka, who attended a noon Mass with his wife, Ellen.
The ministry for tourists started in 1975, just four years after Disney World opened, when several Masses a day were organized for visitors at nearby hotels. The driving force was Monsignor Joseph Harte, who led the ministry from the trunk of his car, carrying Mass vestments from hotel to hotel. Harte, who became director of the Orlando diocese’s tourism ministry, realized that makeshift hotel Masses wouldn’t be able to accommodate the growing number of tourists coming to the area.
The diocese eventually purchased 17 acres off I-4, where high-rise hotels and restaurants catering to tourists eventually would sprout up like kudzu, and ground was broken in 1984. The main church wasn’t built until 1993. An accidental wrong turn into the shrine’s parking lot lands one in the parking lot of a Nike outlet store, and vice versa.
But that’s OK if non-Catholics accidentally stumble onto the church’s grounds: One of the ministry’s goals is evangelization.
“It probably gives non-Catholics an opportunity to experience Catholic worship that they might be more hesitant to pursue in their hometowns,” Wenski said.