March 25 is special in Nazareth, Mary’s home when she was invited
to become the mother of Jesus. This year the Feast of the Annunciation
will be even more extraordinary because it marks the 2,000th
anniversary of Jesus’ conception. To commemorate this event,
Pope John Paul II plans to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation
and celebrate Mass there.
When Mary answered
the Archangel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your
word” (Luke 1:38), she unleashed a revolution in human history:
the Son of God becoming one of us! Betrothed but not yet married,
Mary trusted that God, who made this awesome yet troubling invitation,
would help her carry out the role she accepted that day. Her
decision was so significant that in parts of medieval Western
Europe the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated as the first
day of the year!
Mother of Peace, comes from Korea.
all times and cultures have acknowledged Mary’s faith and her
pivotal role in God’s plan. In his 1987 encyclical Mother
of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Certainly the
Annunciation is the culminating point of Mary’s faith in her
awaiting of Christ, but it is also the point of departure from
which her whole ‘journey toward God’ begins, her whole pilgrimage
of faith” (#14).
When the Good
News of Jesus Christ spread to men and women in the farthest
corners of the world, local artists represented Mary and Jesus
as people of their own time and place, as members of their
culture. That is as valid in 20th-century Japan or Cameroon
as it was in 14th-century Italy! The Church describes this as
In his 1990 encyclical
on the Church’s missionary mandate, the pope explained, “Through
inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different
cultures and at the same time introduces people, together with
their cultures, into her own community. She transmits to them
her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that
already exist in them and renewing them from within. Through
inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible
sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of salvation”
A little later
in the same encyclical, John Paul II quoted from Paul VI’s 1969
talk in Kampala, Uganda, “It will require an incubation of the
Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that
its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised
harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal
Engelbert Mveng, S.J., designed Our Lady of Africa, a gift
from Cameroon. Women offer the fruits of their labors to
Jesus and Mary.
The artwork inside
and outside Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation reflects
this inculturated universality.
is the fifth church on this site, previously occupied by a third-century
Jewish Christian church, a fifth-century Byzantine basilica,
a 12th-century Crusader church, plus a modest chapel built in
1730 and enlarged in 1877. That structure was demolished in
1955 to allow important archaeological excavations prior to
the 1960-69 construction of the present Basilica, which was
solemnly consecrated on March 25, 1969.
Members of the
Order of Friars Minor came to Nazareth early in the 13th century,
soon after Francis of Assisi visited the Holy Land himself.
Except for the years 1363-1468 when they were expelled under
Egypt’s Mameluke Sultans, the friars have remained in Nazareth.
In 1542 the entire community was martyred on orders from the
Seljuk Turks, who controlled the region from 1517 until World
War I. Over the centuries the friars have served as pastors
for the local Catholic community and as spiritual guides for
pilgrims from across the globe.
Bagatti, O.F.M., and Emmanuel Testa, O.F.M., worked with architect
Giovanni Muzio and a group of theologians to plan the artwork
in the Basilica. More than 20 countries or regions on five continents
accepted an invitation to provide copies of locally honored
images of Mary.
images provide a powerful reminder of the universal, multicultural
face of God’s people on whose behalf Jesus suffered, died and
rose from the dead.
Vasko, O.F.M., and the Franciscan Printing Press (Jerusalem)
provided the photos for this article. Information was drawn
from The Basilica in Nazareth: Where Jesus Became Our Brother,
by Gumbert Ludwig, O.F.M., La Nuova Basilica di Nazaret
and Santuari e memorie della Madonna in Terra Santa (Centro
Propaganda di Terra Santa, Milano), plus additional research.
John Paul II on Visiting the Holy Land
Karol Wojtyla of Krakow visited the Holy Land in 1965,
he addressed a poem to Jesus, including these words: “How
I long to know that the stones I am treading in Nazareth
are the same which her [Mary’s] feet touched when she
was your only place on earth. Meeting you through the
stone touched by the feet of your mother....I will walk
away as a witness who testifies across the millennia.”
On June 30, 1999,
Pope John Paul II quoted that poem in his letter Concerning
Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation.
Recalling the importance of sacred places and the desire
of many Christians to visit the Holy Land in the Middle
Ages, he writes, “And providence decreed that, alongside
the brethren of the Eastern Churches, for Western Christianity
it would be the sons of Francis of Assisi, the saint of
poverty, gentleness and peace, who in truly evangelical
style would give expression to the legitimate Christian
desire to protect the places where our spiritual roots
are found” (#4).
Commenting on his
own, hoped-for pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the pope says,
“First of all, I very much want to visit Nazareth, the
town linked to the actual moment of the Incarnation and
the place where Jesus grew ‘in wisdom, age and grace before
God and men’ (Luke 2:52). Here Mary heard the angel’s
greeting: ‘Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you!’
(Luke 1:28). Here Mary spoke her fiat [Let it be]
to the message that called her to be mother of the Savior
and, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, to become the womb
that would welcome the Son of God” (#7).
“To go in a spirit
of prayer from one place to another, from one city to
another, in the area marked especially by God’s intervention,
not only helps us to live our life as a journey, but also
gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us
and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a
God who does not look down on us from on high, but who
became our traveling companion” (#10).
McCloskey, O.F.M., is associate editor of this magazine and
author of Day
by Day With Followers of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony
Messenger Press). He visited Nazareth in 1990 and 1998.