As I headed down Harewood Road towards the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the Saturday morning of November 8, 2014, every parking space was taken.
When I reached the Shrine’s parking lot, the guard waved me on – no room. I drove to the parking lot of the new Saint John Paul II Seminary, found the only remaining parking place and walked/ran/jogged over a half mile to the Shrine.
After being ushered to my place in the sanctuary where more than 20 priests celebrants were seated, I gazed into the great nave of the Basilica, which has pews for 3,500 and a total capacity of 6,000. As reported by several press outlets, the over flowed Basilica was standing room only. The largest Catholic Church in North America, and the sixth largest in the world could not adequately accommodate the mourners who had come to celebrate the life, and the Mass of Christian Burial for their family member, classmate, teammate, or friend – Dominik Liam Pettey.
Dominik, a 17-year-old senior at Gonzaga College High School was a passenger seated directly behind the driver of a car that ran out of gas on the early morning of All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 2014. The driver had pulled onto the far right shoulder of the inner loop of the Capital Beltway shortly after crossing the American Legion Bridge. Dominik and three other Gonzaga students, and an older brother were seated in the car and had called the driver’s father who was enroute with a gas can. Because of the location of the car being on the opposite side of the Beltway, the father had entered the Beltway on the opposite direction and was able to see the boys’ car on the other side but had to make a turnbout at the next exit in order to reach them. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the scene, three minutes later, a 2013 Jeep Compass had crashed into their disabled 2009 Honda Accord. When the police arrived about 2 a.m., they pronounced Dominik dead at the scene. The driver of the Jeep and the four other passengers were taken to area hospitals. They all survived their injuries.
When Dominik’s family began planning the funeral, their pastor, Father Mark Knestout of St. Bartholomew Church in Bethesda, Md, told them that a rummage sale and flea market was already scheduled for Nov. 8, and the parking lot would be filled with cars. Additionally, St. Bartholomew Church only holds about 600, so if even half of the 950 students from Gonzaga attended, their parish church would be too small. The funeral was moved to the nearby Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, Md, which holds about 800 seated but 1200 standing.
The Gonzaga-St. John’s High School football game is the oldest rivalry in the Washington DC Metropolitan area dating back more than one hundred years and was scheduled for 2 pm on Nov. 8. Many players and fans of both schools, wanted to attend Dominik’s funeral Mass, so the start of the game was changed to 7:30 p.m. Now, Our Lady of Mercy would not be able to accommodate both schools, as well as the many family and friends that were expected to attend. Father Knestout asked his Archbishop, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Chairman of the Shrine’s Board of Trustees, for permission to use the Great Upper Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Funerals are very rare at the Shrine since it is not a parish church. The Shrine is usually reserved for graduations, ordinations, pilgrimages and weekend Masses. Three popes have spoken at the Shrine. A teenager’s funeral had never been held at the Shrine. Permission was granted nevertheless, and so the funeral was re-scheduled – at the Shrine. It began reverently at 10 a.m. preceded by the Rosary followed by the Divine Mercy Chaplet. A large painting of the Divine Mercy image was displayed on the altar during the Rosary, Chaplet and Mass.
Dominik was a popular student, football fan, and a star hockey player. Students from many of the public and private high schools with hockey teams wanted to be at Dominik’s funeral Mass. St. Joseph’s Preparatory School came from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Bishop Ireton High School, and Paul VI Catholic High School, came from the Diocese of Arlington. Langley Public High School also came from Virginia. St. John’s College High School, Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, St. Albans, and National Cathedral School came from Washington D.C. Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, The Academy of the Holy Cross, Georgetown Preparatory School, Connelly School of the Holy Child, Churchill and Walter Johnson Public High Schools, Landon School for Boys, and The Heights School came from Maryland. The Shrine was packed with family, relatives, students, parents, friends, and teachers. The boys were wearing dark blazers and neckties, and the girls were in dark dresses. At communion time they approached the Eucharistic Ministers with great reverence to receive the Holy Eucharist and many non Catholics came to receive a blessing.
I have been a Catholic priest for more than 60 years and have attended many liturgies at the Basilica of The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and other great churches, cathedrals and basilicas throughout the world. What took place that morning of Nov. 8 was the most perfect, flawless, awe-inspiring liturgy of my life. Human beings alone could not have provided the sound-quality, lighting, cantoring, congregational, choral, and solo singing, organ accompaniment, lecturing, preaching, presiding, ushering, etc. that took place that day. I have always dreamed that a liturgy could be that inspirational and holy and my dream at last came true. It was like being in heaven. The Holy Spirit was fully in charge of that funeral liturgy. I feel certain that you too, my dear readers will be convinced of this, as I continue the story of Dominik’s Requiem Mass.
The National Shrine has all hard surfaces. Several types of sound systems have been installed over the years with limited success. The real breakthrough came when Robin Jones, one of the world’s greatest audio engineers designed the present system. He had installed systems in all the great cathedrals of England with successful results. He decided on a distribution system (multiple speakers throughout the basilica), with a soundboard operated by an audio engineer for each liturgy. It was never perfect, but as long as you were seated in a pew near a speaker you could hear reasonably well. The sound coming out of the speaker in the sanctuary was the best I have ever heard in the 72 years I have been attending liturgies at the National Shrine. As I watched each person speak through a microphone, he or she were not using proper mike techniques that had been taught to me by Venerable Fulton Sheen, but yet the sound was the best I have ever heard in the Shrine. The Holy Spirit was guiding the audio engineer as he operated that soundboard.
The music was so outstanding that the Holy Spirit must have been guiding the fingers and feet of the organist and controlling the voices of the Gonzaga Chamber Choir as well as the cantors and soloist. I could hear every word spoken by every lector and deacon as they proclaimed the Word of God. The altar servers, masters of ceremonies and deacon executed every move timely and correctly.
When Father Knestout climbed the stairs to the high pulpit, the eyes and ears of the overflowing crowd of congregants hung on his every word as he tried to make sense out of the tragic accident that took Dominik at the pinnacle of his life. Fr. Knestout later acknowledged that the Holy Spirit guided him off his prepared homily as he explained the redemptive value of suffering and how Dominik’s sufferings had brought him closer to God. At Christmas time 2013, Dominik came down with appendicitis. He called for a priest to hear his confession before the operation. After the operation, infection set in and he underwent another operation. Dominik had a week-long stay in the hospital with numerous complications losing 17 pounds. He was a star player on Gonzaga’s champion hockey team. He had to temporarily drop out of hockey and school. During this time of depression and suffering, he developed a stronger devotion to the Divine Mercy. Because of his Polish heritage he had been introduced to Divine Mercy devotions at a very young age. When he was in grade school at St. Bartholomew, Father Larry Young, the Parochial Vicar at the time, and a carpenter before becoming a priest, had glued holy cards of the Sacred Heart image on thin pieces of plywood or Masonite, with a stand to hold them upright. He gave these to all the students in the upper grades. A protective coating had been sprayed over the card. It was on the nightstand next to Dominik’s bed, and when you examined it, you could see that the coating was worn off where he kissed it before going to school, hockey games or bed.
After helping to administer Holy Communion and after returning to my place behind the high altar, I began shaking all over. I lost control of my body and no matter how hard I tried, I could not stop the shaking. The priest next to me helped me so that I could remain standing and be part of the procession out of the Basilica.
Following the Rite of Commendation and the Final Blessing and Dismissal, the procession began down the nave of the Great Upper Church with the altar servers, deacons and priests, followed by the pallbearers, Dominik’s casket, and family. As we approached the interior back wall of the nave, my eyes were transfixed on the 52 feet long by 16 inches high sculpture, The Universal Call to Holiness, a depiction of Vatican II’s theme in the document Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Chapter five of the document states that “all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state.” All races and ages of people from all states of life are represented in the white marble sculpture. Cardinal Hickey initiated the project and is clearly recognized in the sculpture. I was searching for someone representing Dominik’s age group, when my eyes automatically turned to the top center where the Holy Spirit, represented by a white dove, was brilliantly illuminated by a spotlight. It looked so real that I thought the wings were going to start moving. At that moment something happened to me that I have never before experienced. I broke into uncontrollable tears and sobbing. Tears were gushing from my eyes and my chest was heaving up and down. When we reached the Narthex near the front door, the priests formed a column on each side. The casket came between us, and the funeral directors removed the Pall, exposing the plain wooden box that had been constructed by the Trappist monks in Iowa. At that moment, the crying and the tears so intensified and weakened me that I could hardly keep standing. I embraced Dominik’s mother and shook hands with his father, brother, and sister. Then I grabbed on to the arm of newly ordained Father Timothy Daniel. He helped me back to the shrine’s sacristy where I took off my vestments and sat on the bench for about one half hour until the sobbing stopped. The onlookers probably thought I was just another 85-year-old crybaby, but I did not initiate the tears and sobbing and I could not stop them. For more than 30 minutes I had no control over those emotions.
I consulted Stella Davis, president of Christian Women in Action, a charismatic organization located in the Diocese of Arlington, to explain what happened to me on that November day at the National Shrine. She said it was gifts to you from the Holy Spirit. The gift you received after helping to administer the Holy Eucharist and returning to your place in the sanctuary was the Gift of Travail. Someone in the Basilica was in great distress, most likely Dominik’s mother or other family member or friend. The gift you received while your eyes were transfixed on the Universal Call to Holiness sculpture was the Gift of Tears. The tears manifested God’s empathy and understanding of the sorrow in the hearts of Dominik’s mother, father, older brother and younger sister. It was the Holy Spirit’s way of manifesting His own presence at Dominik’s funeral Mass. The Holy Spirit was speaking and ministering to the thousands of students, teachers, and parents through the principals involved in the funeral Mass, and that is why it was flawless – above and beyond their human talents and capabilities. It could also indicate that Dominik was in a safe place and was being cared for by the Holy Spirit.
Why can’t every liturgy in every church be like Dominik’s funeral Mass? It could happen if we surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit, step aside, and allow him to speak, proclaim the scriptures, pray, sing, and preside, through our limited human abilities. It is my prayer that this will happen in your church and in every church. One way to make it happen is to gather those officiating and say together, before beginning every liturgy, the Holy Spirit Prayer Card – the prayer that was revealed to me which I authored upon returning home from the Basilica that day.
Msgr. John B. Brady is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He recorded all of the major retreats given to priests for the last eight years of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s life. These conferences were reproduced and distributed throughout the world on cassette tapes. In retirement he has assisted at St. Bartholomew, Our Lady of Mercy, and other parishes. Currently he is living in residence at St. John the Evangelist, Clinton, Md. He is the Spiritual Director for Christian Women in Action, located in the Diocese of Arlington. During the summers he has served as chaplain at the Goshen Scout Reservation in the Diocese of Richmond.