Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a retreat with my Pontifical Mission Societies peers from dioceses across the country. We gathered at the Marywood Retreat House in St. John's, Florida to pray about our shared ministry under the guidance of our retreat master, Monsignor Peter Vaccari, Executive Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. This Association is also a Pontifical one -- they are responsible for the care and evangelization of our brothers and sisters in Eastern Catholic Churches.
Monsignor skillfully used encyclicals from both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to lead us through a prayerful examination of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Our days were filled with opportunities to pray, to celebrate Mass, and to enjoy the camaraderie of our colleagues.
Midweek, we had the opportunity to visit the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Augustine where we sat in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The grandeur of this church cannot be described in this short space! I lit candles at the small altar of Saint Patrick, Patron of the Archdiocese of Boston, for my loved ones and for all benefactors of the missions, living and deceased. If you are reading this, you were prayed for!
We also visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, the site of the first Mass celebrated in what would become the United States. When Spanish explorers arrived in La Florida (now Florida) in 1565, they brought a Franciscan priest chaplain with them. As they came ashore, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales carried a cross. After the ship's commander venerated the cross, a crude wooden altar was built, and the missionary priest began Mass. Today, a 208-foot-tall cross marks that spot along with a bronze statue of a priest with his arms lifted in prayer. They call it the "Sacred Acre."
Spanish settlers to the area brought their Marian devotion with them and built a mission chapel dedicated to Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto -- Our Lady of the Milk and Good Delivery. The images of Mary nursing the infant Jesus all around the shrine were a powerful, prayerful reminder of the reality that God came to earth and became one of us.
As I stood at the place where Christ in the Eucharist was first made manifest in our country, and Christ in his humanity is acknowledged by honoring the simple act of his mother feeding him, I was reminded that every day, with help from The Propagation of the Faith, missionaries are creating new "Sacred Acres."
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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