Winning altar design announced for papal Mass in Washington

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

Zoey Di Mauro

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The crowd of people who will gather at Pope Francis' open-air Mass in Washington in September won't be able to experience the interior beauty of the Basilica of the National Shine of the Immaculate Conception during the Mass.

So the winning students of an altar design contest decided to bring the architecture of the grand church out to the people.

A jury consisting of representatives from the Washington archdiocese, the national shrine and The Catholic University of America picked the design of the winning team, featuring Catholic University architecture students Ariadne Cerritelli, from Bethesda, Md.; Matthew Hoffman, from Pittsburgh; and Joseph Taylor, from Eldersburg, Md.

Their design for the altar, ambo, and other pieces of liturgical furniture, which was unveiled Tuesday at Catholic University, features arches in the Romanesque-Byzantine style of the national shrine and consists of two types of marble that match the church's interior pillars.

A symbol featured in the center of the altar will pay homage to Mary, for whom the shrine is dedicated. The papal Mass will be celebrated Sept. 23 on the east steps of the shrine, overlooking the Catholic University Mall. The students' designs were based on the assumption that the papal Mass furnishings could find continued use after Sept. 23 as permanent fixtures inside the shrine.

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl thanked the architecture students for embarking on the "extraordinary task" of making the altar that millions around the world will see when Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Washington. "Thank you for reminding us, whatever we do, we do it to the glory of God," he said.

The cardinal attended the announcement of the winning altar design, along with Msgr. Walter Rossi, the national shrine's rector; John Garvey, Catholic University's president; and Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout, the chair of the competition's jury.

The winning design team noted the front of the altar will have four columns to represent the four vows that Jesuits, like Pope Francis, take to join the Society of Jesus. The three arches symbolize the Trinity. The banner that will hang from the shrine will feature a background of yellow and white, the colors of the Vatican, and a blue Calatrava cross, which appears in the coat of arms of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The pope is the former archbishop of Buenos Aires.

It is an emblem that would have been familiar to Blessed Junipero Serra, whom the pope will canonize during the Mass.

"It's clear to me that the contestants all did their homework. They put a lot of thought and creativity into their designs and rationales," Rossi said.

Eighteen teams of at least two students each participated in the design competition at Catholic University's School of Architecture and Planning, which was sponsored by the Washington archdiocese and the national shrine. The teams had to build a scale model of at least one of the furnishings and make presentations of their designs to the jury on May 15.

Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit the national shrine and Catholic University, following Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. The papal visit to the United States will be the first by Pope Francis, and Serra's canonization will be the first such ceremony held in the United States.

An 18th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary, Serra served in what is now California, then a part of New Spain -- from 1768 through his death in Carmel in 1784. He is credited with directly founding nine missions in the present-day state of California, and one in Baja California in Mexico, and with reinvigorating established missions in central Mexico. Friars under his tutelage founded many other missions across California.

After arriving Sept. 22 in Washington, Pope Francis will be welcomed to the White House by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Sept. 23. He is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, making him the first pope to do so.

His U.S. trip includes a Sept. 25 address to the U.N. General Assembly. He will be in Philadelphia Sept. 26 and 27 for the World Meeting of Families.

The altar design competition marks the second time that Catholic University students have designed furnishings for a papal visit to Washington -- they also did so for Pope Benedict XVI's visit.

Details of the Washington stop are not finalized, and the archdiocese has not yet announced information beyond confirming the dates and the three Washington itinerary items. Those interested in receiving email and texts from the Washington archdiocese about the pope's visit can sign up for those at

[Zoey Di Mauro is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington archdiocese.]

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