The Main Sanctuary
One of the first sights to a pilgrim's eyes is the beautiful main sanctuary of the upper church. At the center of the sanctuary set against a backdrop of gold, is the main altar. The altar, which took two years to build, has a total weight of more than forty tons. It is supported by three piers each five feet square. The altar proper is sculptured in Tavernelle marble. This marble will acquire a hue similar to old ivory with age. The altar table is a monolith of Botticino marble twelve feet long, three feet wide, and five inches thick. It rests on an antependium of six columns. The five front panels, also of Botticino marble, illustrate ps. 42:1, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, 0 God." The words are engraved in Latin on the outermost panels.
The seven streams flowing from the fountain in the center panel are symbols for the seven sacraments of the church. The lion-headed spouts from which they flow signify their effectiveness in spiritual warfare. The entire fountain with the symbol of Christ above represents the Lord Jesus Christ as the water of life according to Jn. 4:14, "but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
These words from the Imitation of Christ, which refer to the Eucharistic Liturgy, are engraved in English on the left side of the altar: "When a priest celebrates, he honors God, he brings joy to the angels, he edifies the church, he helps the living, he obtains rest for the departed, and makes himself partaker of all good things" The words engraved on the right side of the altar, which refer to the celebrant, are from the life of St. Norbert: "What then are you, 0 priest? Nothing and everything. 0 priest take care lest what was said to Christ on the Cross be said to you, 'He saved others, Himself He cannot save"' (Mk. 15:31). These quotations are not visible to the pilgrim.
The crucifix above the top of the altar is on a background of red Verona marble. It is encircled with an outline of gold mosaic. The outline symbolizes Christ's eternal Kingship. The areola of blue, red and gold marble inlay is studded with thirty-three inserts of blue marble that represent the earthly life of Christ. The entire piece is part of the back of the altar (reredos) above the tabernacle.
High above the hand-hammered bronze tabernacle, which weighs 500 pounds, is the triple crown of Christ. The triple crown represents Christ as prophet, priest, and king. It also symbolizes the Chair of Peter and church unity. The crown is supported by four bronze columns that extend over thirteen feet above the altar table. The area between the top of the tabernacle and the base of the triple crown is called the throne. The throne is two and one-half feet square at the base. It represents the city of God. A dove, symbol for the Holy Spirit and wisdom, is set within the throne but directly underneath the triple crown. The double door of the tabernacle features a cross with a wheat and grape design imprint. The cross is over a sunburst background.
The reredos is carved "Floradine" (sic) marble. Eight original compositions of the doctors of the church, along with the coat of arms for their religious orders, are carved into it. A brief description of each follows:
St. Alphonse, a bishop and doctor of the church, was born in Naples in 1696. He is the founder of the Missionary Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. He died at the age of 91 in 1787.
St. Bonaventure, the seraphic doctor of the Order of St. Francis. The saint died while attending the Council of Lyons, and was buried by the assembled bishops in 1274. Sanctity and learning raised him to the church's highest honor.
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Africa and doctor of the Church, was born in 354 at Tagaste in Africa. For thirty-five years he was at the center of ecclesiastical life in Africa and a great fighter against heresy. A prolific writer, he is best known for his theological work The City of God and his Confessions. He died in 430.
St. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria in 412 and doctor of the church, courageously defended the doctrine of the Incarnation against Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople. (Nestorius denied the two natures of Christ and the Divine Maternity.)
St. Cyril was victorious in 431 when 200 bishops assembled at the Council of Ephesus and deposed Nestorius in the name of Pope Celestine 1. The council declared Mary to be the God-Bearer (Theotokos) and thus confirmed the dual nature of Christ. St. Cyril died in the year 444.
St. Thomas Aquinas was born at Aquino, Italy, in 1226. The title of Angelic Doctor was given to him. It indicates that his writings as philosopher and theologian were inspired. He died on his way to the general council of Lyons in 1274.
St. Bernard, doctor of the church, was born at the Castle of Foun-taines in Burgundy. His works reveal his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. One day while visiting a church at Spire, Germany, he cried out the words that the church added to the Salve Regina: "0 clement! 0 pious! 0 sweet Virgin Mary!" He died in 1153.
St. John of the Cross was born the son of a weaver in Ubeda, Spain. After entering the Order of Carmelites he became the great helper of St. Teresa in the reform of the order. St. John's many works on mystical theology earned him the title Mystical Doctor. John was an artist as well as a writer and man of prayer. He lived a life of penance and died in 1591.
High above the main altar is the beautiful canopy of white Cordova stone. The canopy is more than seventeen feet in width and thirty feet in height. The harmoniously balanced moldings and fillets arch forth to represent the spread of the gospel throughout the world. The architectural masterpiece is crested by two ornamental features bound by an endlessly interwoven line work. This line work represents the eternal plan of salvation. (The design is repeated over the outer entrance to the upper church.)
The canopy is supported by four red Verona marble columns, each quarried from a single piece of marble sixteen feet long. The columns weigh more than two tons a piece. Each is set upon green marble bases. The capitals, also of Cordova stone, are carved with the symbols of the four evangelists. The bases are carved with the names of the Old Testament prophets and priests.
The three panels of the canopy contain the beautiful mosaic, The court of Heaven. The center panel of the mosaic protrays Jesus at the right hand of the Father, with Mary and Joseph below. The outer panels are illustrations of the twelve apostles. This mosaic was designed in Munich, Germany by the Van Treck studios and contains a combination of 90,000 pieces of glass and ceramic.
The beautiful large hand-wrought bronze candle holders in the main sanctuary and the shrine chapel stand over seven feet high. They match the smaller candle holders on the altars, which are about 3 feet high. The communion railing, an artistic piece of forged iron and bronze, harmonizes perfectly with the candle sticks. The communion railing symbolizes the temple vale of the old testament. The railing carries an inscription that acts as encouragement and invitation to every pilgrim who enters the Shrine of Mary - Help of Christians. On the left from the book of Kings, "Elijah (Elias) ate and drank and walked in the strength of that food unto the mount of God," and on the right from Jeremiah, "I have brought you into the land of Carmel to eat its fruit and the best things there of."
The best that Carmel and Holy Hill can offer the pilgrim is a place to be alone with the Lord. A contemplative place of retreat from life's battles where one can be nourished by the bread of life. Take the time to come to Him and be nourished, for as he says, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and He who believes in me will never be thirsty...I am the bread that came down from heaven...Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Jn. 6:33, 35, 41; Mt. 11:28).