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Diocesan priest is rector of ‘America’s Church’

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is one of the largest churches in the world. The man who gives both temporal and spiritual direction to the shrine is a diocesan priest from Scranton, Pa.

Msgr. Walter R. Rossi has been with the shrine for 12 years, the last four as the director and rector, welcoming nearly 1 million visitors annually and managing a staff of more than 180 employees. It's a challenging job, much like the head of a large business, but Msgr. Rossi loves what he does.

"This is the best job in the world," he said.

The shrine is celebrating its 50th anniversary in November with a yearlong jubilee celebration leading up to the Nov. 20 anniversary. The cornerstone was laid in 1920, and the Crypt Church was completed in 1926. The Great Upper Church was finished and dedicated in 1959.

Msgr. Rossi was born in Scranton and raised in the adjoining borough of Dunmore, a town with a population of about 14,000 people. He is a graduate of the University of Scranton and studied for the priesthood at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Scranton in 1987.

After ordination, he served as parochial vicar of St. Matthew Church in East Stroudsburg, Pa., and St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre. While at St. Nicholas, he was appointed director of pilgrimages, which led him to Washington, D.C., and his relationship with the shrine. Msgr. Rossi still considers St. Nicholas his church and celebrates Mass there when he returns to the Wilkes-Barre area.

In 1990, he went to Washington to study at Catholic University, eventually earning a licentiate in Canon Law. While at Catholic, he frequently concelebrated Mass at the shrine and heard confessions when asked. In 1996 he was invited by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to take over the job as pilgrimage director from Msgr. Roger Roensch, when Msgr. Roensch was appointed to a position at the Vatican.

"After consultation with my bishop, Bishop James Timlin in those days, I accepted the position beginning in the spring of 1997 so that I would be able to complete my canon law degree," Msgr. Rossi said. "To be assigned to the shrine is a great privilege."

Msgr. Rossi said the shrine was established by the U.S. Bishops as a tribute to the Blessed Mother and it's an honor to serve.

The rector serves at the discretion of the USCCB, and Msgr. Rossi reports to the USCCB twice a year on shrine matters. As rector, he serves as secretary to the shrine's board of trustees, which governs its operation.

In 2005, he was chosen by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick to succeed Msgr. Michael Bransfield as rector, when Msgr. Bransfield was named Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston.

His most memorable event at the shrine was when Pope Benedict XVI visited in May 2008.

"I've been a priest for 22 years and never would I have expected that I would welcome the pope to a church where I was (rector)," Msgr. Rossi said.

He is totally dedicated to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

"This place is my life," Msgr. Rossi said. "I don't (look) beyond the shrine."

"I have had a wonderful priesthood," he said. "My involvement with the shrine for the past 12 years has been a blessing."

Where else can you see Catholics from around the world walk through your door, he said.

"While we at the shrine are here to serve and assist our pilgrims as they seek to encounter the Lord through the guidance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, they in turn, strengthen our faith through their witness," Msgr. Rossi said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009