The July 4 closing of the Fortnight for Freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington drew a standing-room-only crowd, a fact that stunned organizers given the holiday, intense heat and state of emergency situation around the District of Columbia due to power outages.
I suspected we were headed into an overflow situation at the Mass when I arrived 40 minutes early and could find only illegal parking on The Catholic University of America campus, where the shrine is located.
In the church, the crowd was unusual, so dense that the procession of bishops and priests to and from the Mass could not take its usual route up the side aisle and down the middle but had to be led outside into the sweltering heat. That turned out to be nice for the people who were on the steps and couldn’t even get into the basilica.
The shrine church holds an estimated 3,500 people and about 5,000 made it inside. The congregation far exceeded the crowd when Pope Benedict XVI visited there in 2008, because the U.S. Secret Service charged with his safety wouldn’t tolerate the scene on July 4: blocked aisles with people sitting everywhere, including on the floor.
Spirit was high and the crowd burst into applause several times during the afternoon Mass. People clapped several times during Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s welcome and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap’s homily. Such applause happens occasionally at Mass, but this much clapping was unusual.
“Unusual” characterized the entire Mass, especially when Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who concelebrated the Mass, called on the congregation to open their cellphones and text the word “freedom” or “libertad” to 377377. It was part of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty text campaign, and in two minutes about 2,500 people suddenly joined the effort. Those who texted signed up to receive text messages about the campaign, which still continues. Archbishop Lori admitted that asking people to turn on their phones at Mass was a first for him – and likely a first for everyone in the congregation. (People who want updates on religious liberty can still text “freedom” or libertad” to 377377.)