Though I would not describe myself as religious, remnants of my Roman Catholic upbringing still draw me to places of religious significance. That’s how Ed and I came to visit The Basilica of our Lady of San Juan Del Valle - National Shrine in San Juan, Texas.
People come here to feel the presence of Mary, the mother of God, and pay for miracles just like one that occurred in nearby Mexico hundreds of years ago. The faithful believe that in 1623, through Mary’s intercession with Jesus, a young girl was brought back to life.
On our Sunday visit 2008, we saw people deep in prayer with their heads humbly bowed, eyes tightly closed, and hands folded to heaven. Some knelt on the cushioned kneelers in front of statues whispering their secret prayers asking for some personal miracle. Others had written their intensions on small bits of paper torn from a purse-sized notepad. We read a few through the side of the glass jar that held them: “Keep my son safe while he serves his country in Iraq.” “Bring health to my child.”
Prayers must be answered too. We saw evidence around the prayer room. The walls displayed military desert camouflage shirts worn by someone who returned safely from war. Wedding gowns represented the appreciation from brides for husbands who love them. Discarded crutches show evidence of healing. Infant clothes express the joy of a healthy birth.
We asked a custodian about all the stuff on the walls. He said every five to six weeks; he removes some things and places them in storage to make space for more offerings. He told us of his own personal miracle of finding work at the Basilica after an industrial accident severed the index finger of his right hand. The skeptic, Ed, had to ask, “You did have to apply for work here and be interviewed, right?” “Oh yes,” replied the man. “But my friends and I prayed that I would work here. It is a miracle that I am here,” he assured Ed and gave a joyful, convincing smile as he leaned on the tip of his push broom.
This conversation continued with our questions about the candle room. This is a room where candles lit by visitors are placed until they burn up and extinguish themselves. We learned that the candle room can hold over 5,000 candles and each candle burns approximately five days. “How hot does it get in there?” I asked only to learn that no one has ever measured the temperature. Nuns make the candles which are sold outside the Basilica and in the Gift Shop for $2.75 each. Only Basilica candles are permitted. The candle room is nearly full every day. Ed did a quick calculation and pondered at the potential million dollars plus revenue from candle sales alone.
We sat a while in the Basilica during the sermon of the Epiphany Mass listening to Father’s words about how there’s a TV in households for every member of the family unlike his youthful years when there was one family TV and only two broadcast stations. He remembered family arguments over which station to watch. Distracted, I thought based on the seating capacity, if everyone in the Basilica had a TV that would be 1,800 televisions. Wow! Lots of TVs and lots of candles…Back on track, I finally heard Father’s concluding message and it wasn’t for the congregation to head to Best Buy after Mass. His message was this: It is fine to spend time apart, but families must also find time to come together. He suggested dinner and I agree. Amen.
I squeezed Ed’s hand. “I want to go to the gift shop,” I whispered. Outside, I told Ed, “I want to buy a candle to light for a miracle and I want a St. Christopher metal.”
Separate from the Basilica in the Gift Shop, large statues of Mary and Jesus were for sale. There were framed pictures of the Pope, crucifixes of wood and silver, rosaries with beads the size of shooter marbles and as small as the tiniest pearl. We found candles for marriages and Baptism, holy cards, books, and blue-eyed baby Jesus statues half-price for the Christmas crèche, but no St. Christopher medals. In a store as big as a typical Dollar Store, it could take hours to find a little medal. Finally, Ed asked a clerk, “Do you have any St. Christopher medals?”
“St. Christopher,” she paused in thought. “You’ll find him in aisle 6.”
“Honey, St. Christopher is in aisle 6,” Ed said in a tone that caused us both to bust out with a laugh as if we were really going to meet the guy. We weren’t trying to be irreverent but it just struck us as funny in a Homer Simpson’s kind of way.
St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. He is pictured carrying Christ Child on his shoulders across a flowing river. He is the “Christ bearer” I remembered from lessons at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral School. As a child, I was reminded of this saint each time I road in a family car. All of my Catholic uncles had a St. Christopher medal pinned to the driver’s side sun visor of their cars or a plastic replica of the saint held by a magnet to the dashboard. When going through the Catholic book of names for boys, I decided my son born in 1983 would be named for this saint. Christopher had a St. Christopher medal in his first car “Zippy” the Acura; and, when I asked him about the medal during of Sunday evening phone call, he sheepishly admitted that it must have gone with the car with he traded it for his truck four years ago. Now, living on the road, I wanted St. Christopher to be in my coach. The metal I bought is clamped on the tie-back of my dinette curtain.
Ed and I took the candle that we bought back to the Basilica after debating on a miracle to pray for. We reached agreement before knelling to light the candle. The flame flickered and I was afraid it would go out, but it didn’t! Like a birthday wish, we’re keeping our “miracle” wish a secret.
Outside on the grounds of the Basilica is a ¾ mile path where the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross are depicted by bronze statues. I was reminded that at Cathedral School beginning at 2:30 PM each Friday during Lent, the Sisters of Charity paraded us kids grade 1 – 8 into the Cathedral to pray the Stations of the Cross. We looked angelic but in reality we were waiting on dismissal at 3 o’clock and hoping the heavy cloud of incense didn’t make us puke. Though it was a Cathedral, the stations were little 12” by 18” wall plaques hung on the plaster walls, barely visible to a bunch of kids under 13. At the Basilica, the life size statues appeared real. I could see the pain on Mary’s face when she met her Son on the way to Calvary. The exhaustion seemed real when Jesus pushed up on his hands and knees when he fell for the second time. And, it felt unjust to see Jesus nailed to the cross, crucified. This was a silent walk, a reverent walk, a fitting way to end our Sunday visit of The Basilica of our Lady of San Juan Del Valle - National Shrine in San Juan, Texas.
My words cannot describe the beauty of The Basilica of our Lady of San Juan Del Valle - National Shrine, so I recommend that you take a virtual tour at www.sanjaunshrine.org and if you visit, come during the Christmas season when it is decorated with the Nativity and numerous Christmas trees.
January 6, 2008