Chattanooga’s Sts. Peter and Paul represents the goal of our life’s pilgrimage.
There’s nothing like a front-row seat. Although I wasn’t in the front row for the beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, I sure felt as though I was. From my seat I was able to overlook the vast crowd, estimated at more than 1.5 million, who filled St. Peter’s Square and the length of the Via della Conciliazione and beyond. Given my view, I felt I had a glimpse of St. John’s heavenly vision, when he beheld “a great multitude which no man could number, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” standing before the throne of God (Revelation 7:9).
This incredible, beautiful image of the universal Church became even more personal for me and for us as a diocese two days later. On May 3 I received the decree signed by Cardinal Antonio Llovera, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, declaring Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Chattanooga a minor basilica. This honor has been extended to fewer than 70 churches in the United States, and the church is Tennessee’s first basilica.
With this recognition from the Church, the basilica shares a special dignity and connection with the papal basilicas of Rome, particularly the pope’s cathedral church, St. John Lateran. Properly speaking, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga is now the pope’s church. In other words, Pope Benedict XVI has a home away from home, and the universal Church gains a historical as well as spiritual center of prayer and pilgrimage.
The basilica is not just a historical building but also a place of memory. It reminds us of God’s powerful presence in our history and of the faith of those who have labored to build up the local Church. It is a visible sign of God’s work in the midst of our diocese and in our lives. But it also reminds us that we must continue to labor with the bricks and mortar of our faith and works in order to further build up the body of Christ.
A basilica is a privileged place of encounter with the Lord. When we make a pilgrimage to a basilica, it is a sign of our life and the goal of our journey: heaven. A pilgrimage helps us better understand that we are created not merely to live and die but rather to live and triumph over death through the cross of Christ. It helps us long for the tender and loving arms of Holy Mother Church who brings us to the Father who is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4).
It is especially appropriate that Father George Schmidt is now rector of the basilica. His earthly pilgrimage has always been centered on this spiritual home. Sts. Peter and Paul is the church where he made his first Holy Communion, was confirmed, and in 1970 was ordained to the priesthood.
For the past 25 years he has served as its pastor, and as the basilica’s rector he will bear the title “Very Reverend.” Sts. Peter and Paul is one of the mother parishes of our diocese, and it is wonderfully coincidental that the declaration of the pope’s decision was made on Father Schmidt’s mother’s birthday. God’s ways are indeed mysterious.
The first words spoken by the newly elected Pope John Paul II in 1978—“Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!”—are words we should recall as we step through the doors of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and of all Catholic churches, where our eucharistic Lord waits to greet us.