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-- Secret --
"Come to the Basilica!"
The story of a very special Christmas concert in "Mary's House" -- and why you are invited to come
By Dr. Robert Moynihan
WASHINGTON, DC, December 13, 2007 -- We have tried hard to keep it a secret. We felt there might be a danger in revealing publicly what we were doing. And so we have worked quietly.
But now it is time to end the secrecy. And to tell a Christmas story, in a way which may seem simple, because it is very simple. Christmas is a time for simple stories.
Many years ago, in a far-away country, a strong and rugged Slavic tribe converted to the Christian faith through their prince, Vladimir. And that people became so deeply imbued with their new faith that their country eventually became known as a "holy" country: "Holy Russia." "Holy Mother Russia."
And in that country, the search for holiness, the search for God, was not mocked, but honored. And in that country, holy men and women were not ridiculed, but sought out for their wise counsel, and church bells rang on festival days in every village throughout the land. And throughout that country there sprang up convents and monasteries where prayers were lifted up to God, prayers for peace, prayers for justice.
And everywhere in Russia, churches and shrines were dedicated to Mary, the Holy Mother of God, so that the entire country came to be known as "Mary's House." This was not a single house, like the Holy House of Loreto in Italy, but an entire nation devoted to Mary, protected by Mary. Russia itself was "Mary's House."
But, human nature being what it is, corruption and sin crept in, and where the people prayed for peace and for justice, there was war, and injustice. And eventually, in 1917, 90 years ago now, a group of ideologues took power in Russia, and decided to purge that country of all traces of its profound religious faith.
And so, during the ensuing 70 years, thousands of churches and shrines were dynamited to rubble; tens of thousands of priests and nuns were imprisoned; hundreds of thousands of simple faithful were arrested, and died in gulags (prison camps). And "Mary's House" was changed. "Holy Russia" became "Atheist Russia" -- Russia without God.
This is not the time or place to discuss the profound reasons for all these events, and in any case, I do not really know or understand the reasons.
But this is the place to report that something is changing in Russia -- even if haltingly, even if partially, even if still superficially.
Because, since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, churches are being re-built in Russia, icons are again venerated, and songs of praise of God are once again being raised from earth to heaven.
Something is changing.
And, in sign of this, the leadership of Russia, haltingly, gropingly, is attempting to find its way, to support -- and perhaps in part (some fear) to direct and control -- that process whereby the Russian people rediscovers its spiritual roots, its heritage, its true "home," which is, to continue the metaphor, the home where Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, is the home-maker.
And so, this summer, when my friend, Hilarion Alfeyev, the 41-year-old Russian Orthodox bishop of Vienna, Austria (where a small Russian Orthodox community resides), asked me if I would be willing to help him prepare a Christmas concert in America at Christmastime, and to find a place to host an exhibition showing the spiritual renewal of Russia in the post-Soviet period, I said, "Sure."
And so, beginning this summer, the staff of Inside the Vatican tried to help prepare an exhibition and a Christmas concert.
At first, we did not know where to hold the concert, or where to locate the exhibition. Someone suggested Carnegie Hall. (We called, and found it was booked for the next two years.) Someone suggested the Kennedy Center. (It, too, was booked solid.) Someone suggested the Memorial Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution (and we considered the proposal). Someone suggested the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress. (Both turned us down.) Someone suggested St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington (and we considered it).
We were looking for a concert hall the way another couple long ago was looking for an inn to spend the night.
In northeast Washington, next to the Catholic University of America, there is beautiful church, the largest Catholic church in America. It is called the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is the chief church in America dedicated to Mary. And it popularly known as "Mary's House."
This seemed somehow appropriate to me -- that an exhibition and concert should come from "Mary's House" (Russia) to "Mary's House" (the basilica).
And so I went to have a conversation with Archbishop Donald Wuerl, the new archbishop of Washington, and I explained the situation to him, and asked if perhaps the basilica might be an appropriate place for the exhibition and concert. "Perhaps it would be," he said. "You will have to ask the rector, Monsignor Rossi."
So I went to the rector of the Basilica, Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, and said, "Would it be possible to hold a concert of Russian Orthodox Christmas music in the Basilica at Christmastime?"
And Monignor Rossi agreed.
During the three months since, we have been preparing this concert and the exhibit, which has already been on display for a week in the Memorial Hall on the lower level of the Basilica, beneath the main church.
Intentionally, we have not done much publicity. We decided not to "hype" this special event. We wanted it to unfold almost in secret, like a flower.
But now, I would like to invite all of you who can, to attend the concert. I would like the Russians to come from "Mary's House" to "Mary's House" and find they are greeted by a packed church. I would like Bishop Hilarion to look out upon a filled Basilica as his "Christmas Oratorio," an emotionally riveting reflection on the meaning of Christmas, is performed for the first time.
I am appealing to you, to simple people of faith. If you live near Washington D.C., or even if you live far away, and have the possibility of traveling to the Basilica to be part of this event, to be present when the Russians come to the Basilica of Mary, to sing her praise, at Christmastime, then come.
Let's make Monday evening, December 17, an occasion to remember: when the Russians, from "Mary's House," come to the "House of Mary" we have built for her in our country, during Advent, the time when Christ's birth draws near -- the time when the coming of Prince of Peace draws near.
So, if you can, come to the Basilica to attend the concert. Let's fill the church.
See you there.
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