- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

Overflow crowds turned out at two D.C. churches to celebrate Easter Mass with the archbishop of Washington, who attributed the huge turnout to a recent archdiocesan campaign, to economic hardship and, above all, to a spiritual revival.

Nearly 2,000 people attended Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl’s service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, almost double the cathedral’s capacity. A similar overflow showed up for his Mass later in the day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“I’ve been here 24 years, off and on, and I’ve never seen the numbers I’ve seen here today,” said Monsignor W. Ronald Jameson, the rector of St. Matthew’s. “It was just magnificent to see that expression of praise for the Lord.”

Archbishop Wuerl was clearly delighted by the turnout, starting his homily by mentioning a radio report Sunday morning of Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass. “It said there were tens of thousands of people in the square,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “They had nothing on us.”

Archbishop Wuerl went on to describe Easter as more than a simple celebration, but as a renewal of faith and baptismal promises.

“Easter Sunday, the empty tomb … these are not merely commemorations of events that transpired nearly two millennia ago,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “They are an invitation to faith today … to a whole new way of seeing.”

After the Mass, Archbishop Wuerl presented a special medal to Thomas Stehle, the director of music at St. Matthew’s.

The Benemerenti Medal, issued by the Vatican, recognized Mr. Stehle’s supervision of the music for the pope’s liturgy at Nationals Park last April.

The pews filled quickly before the service began Sunday, and hundreds of worshippers had to stand in the aisles, against the walls, or anywhere else they could find room. The main doors at the front of the cathedral, which are usually closed once the service begins, were left open to accommodate the crowd.

Some people were even allowed to stand in the Eucharistic chapel - a first for the cathedral, according to Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The crowd was diverse, seeming to represent all ages and races. Some were dressed casually, in jeans and sweatshirts, but many dressed up.

A quartet of small children posed for a picture in front of the altar, three blond girls in identical pink dresses and one boy with a matching shirt and a blue blazer.

“It was very emotional, very special for all Catholics,” said Luis Miguel Garcia, a Colombian who is visiting the District with his wife and two sons.

Laura M. Laybourn, of Arlington, attended the service with daughters Caroline, 8, and Jeanie, 6, who proudly showed off their Easter gifts: new clothes for their American Girl dolls.

“It was fabulous,” Ms. Laybourn said. “I’ve been here for Easter about four times … this is the most crowded I’ve seen it.”

Mass at St. Matthew’s began at 10 a.m. and ran for a little more than an hour. Archbishop Wuerl had to leave promptly to prepare for his noon Mass.

The Archbishop’s second Mass, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, was as crowded as the first. Ms. Gibbs estimated that about 4,500 people attended, though the Basilica only has a main-church seating capacity of about 2,500.

After the services, Archbishop Wuerl attributed the huge turnout to a renewed interest in matters of faith among Americans.

“There seems to be a spiritual revival going on,” he said in a phone interview. “These are unsettling times. We’re going through a lot of change, the economy is despondent … people are worried about their kids, worried about where things are going. When that happens, people turn to faith.”

Archbishop Wuerl also suggested that the pope’s visit last year and a recent campaign inviting people back to church contributed to the crowds.

He said afterward that, upon observing the crowd at St. Matthew’s, he “turned to the rector and said, ‘You have to find a place for them. We invited them and they came.’ ”

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