The Arabic expression “Assalaam Alaikum” which literally means “Peace be unto you,” a standard Muslim greeting echoed from the altar of the Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception during the sign of peace. Over 350 African immigrants and African Americans of the archdiocese of Washington DC metro congregated in Mary’s shrine on Sunday September 16 to celebrate the annual mother of Africa pilgrimage.
“We are on pilgrimage to the house of the mother of Jesus,” said Msgr. Eddie Tollentino main celebrant and homilist. “We ask for her intercession under the title of Mother of Africa. We have come to gain deeper insight and intimacy with Mary’s only begotten son.”
This mass marked the 21st anniversary of the dedication of the chapel of Our Mother of Africa, one of over 70 chapels that make up and adorn the towering edifice of Catholicism in the nation’s capital. This chapel is tucked between the Crypt Church and the Our Lady of Lourdes chapel (which mirrors the Lourdes Grotto). It is the one spot where Africa features into the “tapestry of the Catholic faith” and the “mosaic of this great nation.” Small in size with a holding capacity of less than 20 persons, it harbors the distinctive artistic acuity of a Black Jesus and the image of a Black Madonna beckoning on the slavery ridden history of this great nation depicted in the bas relief on the wall of the chapel.
With Hurricane Florence raging in the Carolinas and many people having left home out of necessity, many have become part of the Diaspora, noted Msgr. Tollentino. This is the same experience of the prophet Isaiah in the First Reading who lived in exile not because of any hurricane but because his country people had become a rebellious people. It is also the experience of the African diaspora that had gathered in the nation’s capital. No matter what Diaspora you might be from, there is only one place we can come for healing: Jesus Christ.
He exhorted the community to seek the truth explaining that truth comes from hearing and the word of God. And with faith comes action.
“Our faith should be pulsating through our veins in the same way as the music,” said Tollentino.
The richness of African liturgical music came to life as the angelic voices of the Marie Reine du Monde Choir of the Francophone community of St Camillus’s parish animated. Not only did the prayers of the faithful receive the African flavor with renditions in dialects from Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia but also most of the songs originated from the heart of Mother Africa with songs in Ibo(Nigeria), Swahili, Bawule (Cote D’Ivoire), Serere (Senegal) among others.
While applauding the Africans who showed up for this celebration, Dr. Seikor Bundu, President of the African Catholic Association of the DC metro area regretted the fact that in spite of the groundwork his team put in place many Africans did not show up to fill the Upper Church of the Basilica.
Conspicuously absent at this year’s celebration was the traditional visit to the chapel itself during which people took turns to pray, like at last year’s. Many persons however spent some private moments there after the mass.
Visibly present at the celebration were Marian groups especially from Cameroon with the distinctive Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) – and the Catholic Women’s Organization (CWO) outfit.
Worth noting is the fact that the Mother of Africa chapel and its architectural accoutrements are gifts of the African American Bishops and National Black Catholic Congress (NABC). The scared dialogue that the chapel conjures is one that needs to be happening more between African immigrants and African Americans.
NABC describes the work of arts in the chapel thus: “The statue of Our Mother of Africa holding the Christ Child faces a bas-relief in the nave, which chronicles the African-American odyssey, and draws us to the Crucified Christ in the sanctuary.”
“It is good to see the African Diaspora in the Basilica of the National Shrine,” said Sandra Coles-Bell, program director of the Office of Cultural Diversity and outreach of the archdiocese of Washington DC who organized this mass.