CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Cardinal Wuerl sprinkles holy water at the work site of the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a ceremony on Oct. 28.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Cardinal Wuerl sprinkles holy water at the work site of the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a ceremony on Oct. 28.

(The following is the transcript of a Catholic Standard interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, about the new Trinity Dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The interview was conducted by the paper’s editor, Mark Zimmermann, before the cardinal dedicated the dome at a Dec. 8 Mass.

What has the experience been like to witness the Trinity Dome’s completion from the design stage, to seeing the scaffolding rise, to blessing the workers in Italy and then to see that final piece of the mosaic be installed?

Cardinal Wuerl: “Seeing the completion of the Trinity Dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is really witnessing the completion of a pilgrimage.

“It was a faith journey that began all those decades ago, but then most recently within the past years, we watched as the design for the Dome was perfected. And then came the manufacture of all those pieces of glass that go into the mosaic, and part of this faith pilgrimage was to journey to Italy and to bless the workers. We had a Mass as part of this pilgrimage for all of the workers who were doing the mosaics.

“Then, the pilgrimage brought us up the scaffolding to the actual Dome itself, and we prayed and we blessed the workers and then we blessed the pieces of mosaics as they were going into place and, once more, this pilgrimage of faith and of love made its ways towards the day of completion, and what was so powerful was to see the faith of the people engaged in this and their love, their love of God, their love of Mary and the desire to leave something beautiful for everyone to enjoy well into the future.

“And so in answer to the question, ‘What was this experience like?’ It was like making a pilgrimage that brought us with faith and love to this magnificent outpouring of beauty showing the Trinity and Mary, the Immaculate Conception.”

When pilgrims look up at the Trinity Dome, they will see dramatic mosaics of the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and then a procession of 18 saints and holy people with a special connection to the Americas and to the National Shrine. What do you hope will be the takeaway for pilgrims at the basilica as they look up and see that new Trinity Dome mosaic?

Cardinal Wuerl: “I would hope that as all of us go into the Basilica of the National Shrine and we look up at that magnificent Trinity Dome, the experience is going to be lifting up our hearts, as well as our eyes, lifting up our eyes to see this magnificent work of art which will urge us, invite us, inspire us to lift up our hearts in prayer, in adoration, in thanksgiving to God for all that Dome represents.

“There is the Holy Trinity, the source of all life and blessing, there is the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, our Mother, and then around the base are all of these saints saying to you and to me, saying to everybody who is in that shrine and lifts up their eyes, lifts up their hearts, lifts up their soul: ‘All of this, this is all real – God, his Mother, the saints, and the glory of the Kingdom.’

“I think this is going to be an extraordinary opportunity to renew faith, but basically what all prayer is supposed to be, a lifting up of our hearts and minds to God. Lift up your eyes, let your eyes drink in this beauty, and then let it touch your heart and let it touch your soul and lift up your spirit in prayer and in thanksgiving. That is what I hope will happen.”

From the National Shrine’s beginning it has had a special connection with popes. What does this connection to the basilica and to the new Trinity Dome mosaic say?

Cardinal Wuerl: “The connection of popes to the Basilica of the National Shrine and especially as they are depicted in the great Dome, the great Trinity Dome, calls to mind for us a very profound article of faith. Peter is the rock on which our Church rests. (Jesus said,) ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church,’ and so when we come together as Church – and the representation in that Dome shows us a whole array of saints – we recognize it is always with, and never without, Peter, even though his name changes, it can be John or John Paul or Francis or whatever. And so when we look up at that Dome, we recognize the role of Peter in the life of the Church.

“But there is so much more because if you look around the base of that Dome you see all of these saints, saints who have some connection with the shrine and some connection with the Church in the United States.

“And so when I look at all of that, the first thing that comes to mind is a prayer, the litany of the saints. You can stand looking up at the Trinity Dome and let your heart just sing that litany. We always begin, ‘God the Father, have mercy on us. Jesus, Savior of the world, have mercy on us. Holy Spirit, Paraclete, have mercy on us. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. Mary, immaculately conceived, pray for us.’ And then, we go down the list of the saints around the interior of that Dome – St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. John XXIII, we can just continue all the way around, St. Damien, Mother Seton, just go all the way around the Dome, and you are praying as you look at the beauty there.

“So, I think what that Dome says to me and what all those featured saints say to me, is remember we are a Church that rest solidly on the rock of Peter, and over the years we have produced some extraordinarily beautiful representations, living examples of what it means to be truly a follower of Jesus, a disciple. It is magnificent Dome. Look at it, let it pray for you and then you pray with it.” 

You have written and spoken about the significance of mosaics and religious art. Now here with the new Trinity Dome, it includes more than 14 million pieces of colored Venetian glass. What do these tiles symbolize about the basilica and about the people who pray there?

Cardinal Wuerl: “All of those tiles, and we are talking about millions of pieces of colored glass, each one an integral beautiful piece all in itself, then they come together in this magnificent Trinity Dome at the basilica. And what does that say to us?

“I often think of that when I am standing in the pulpit of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and look out at a congregation that looks like the face of the Earth. We have people from everywhere, every ethnic background, tradition, heritage all there united in prayer because they are one in the faith. That Dome is a symbol of that. All those millions of pieces, every single piece valuable in itself, every single piece with integrity of its own, but when they come together in this extraordinary mosaic, what you have is something incredibly beautiful that no one piece could have done all by itself, but when it was put together with all the others, it became this magnificent reality.

“Isn’t that what the Kingdom of God is all about? Isn’t that what the Church is all about? None of us, all by ourselves, are truly the reflection of the Kingdom, the work of the Church. But when you get all of us together, with all of our backgrounds and all of our heritages, all of the gifts we bring, and you put them all together, all of us, united in faith in the Lord Jesus, something beautiful happens, and it is called his Church. And that is what the Dome is all about, reflecting the beauty of the glory, the transcendence of God’s Holy Church.” 

The nationwide Mother’s Day collection to support the completion of the Trinity Dome followed the long-standing tradition of generous support of the country’s Catholics for the National Shrine. What does this support say about the feelings that the nation’s Catholics have for the National Shrine?

Cardinal Wuerl: “From the very beginning, Catholics all over the country have supported the National Shrine. We have only had, though, in the history in 100 years of this effort, two national collections, the most recent being the one to support the great Trinity Dome.

“But what does the response say? I think it says that Catholics all over our country love our Lady and they want her house, Mary’s house in our country, to be as beautiful as we can make it. It is like offering your mother a gift. And whatever your resources are, and sometime they might be quite meager, you still want it to be something meaningful and nice.

“And then when you put together all of us across this country and say, ‘Here is a chance to offer something to your heavenly mother,’ the response has been truly beautiful, and that is what has resulted in this magnificent Dome coming to be.

“It says something that is bedrock in Catholic faith and the answer to the question, ‘Why do we have all of these churches to Mary, why do we have all of these magnificent prayers and hymns and basilicas to Mary?’ Because we Catholics know she is the model of faith. She gave us, through her faith, her response, her ‘yes,’ she gave us our Savior. And we turn to her because we want to have that same faith. We want to be to say ‘yes’ to God all the time. And so, I think what we see in the Basilica of the National Shrine, what we see in that Dome, is a reflection of our love for Mary – Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, Mother of the Church.”

Within the past decade, you dedicated both the Incarnation Dome and the Redemption Dome and their mosaics, and both those ceremonies offer a preview for what will be a pivotal moment for the dedication of the Trinity Dome on Dec. 8, when a cloud of incense will rise from the floor level of the basilica upward to the new Dome. What is that moment like?

Cardinal Wuerl: “When you think that in this past 10 years, we have had the dedication of the Redemption Dome, the dedication of the Incarnation Dome, and now we will have the dedication of the great Trinity Dome. And in all of those ceremonies, since there has to be some symbolic way of our touching those Domes, we light incense and that incense rises.  We are always told in the great tradition of the Church and the prayer of the Church (that) our prayer rises like incense. And that cloud of smoke will reach up and touch those mosaics, and it is a sign of our prayers rising, being lifted up in God’s grace to the throne of God.

“Isn’t that what we hope happens every time we pray? We marvel at the grace of the incarnation that God came among us in Jesus, his word, and then that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead for our salvation. Now, we stand at the base of the Trinity Dome and recognize the Father, Son and Sprit and then the woman of faith that we all try to emulate, Mary. And what we hope is that this cloud of incense will make visible the love and the prayers, part of our heart, going up to touch the glory of God represented, this time, in the very image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“I think anyone who sees this, anyone who is a part of the ceremony, cannot help but realize there is something mystical happening when the Church prays, and that something truly magnificent is taking place, even if it is only in the symbols that we have to use to represent something so much more valuable – our prayers, our love, and our faith.”