Catholics gather at city Arena to pray to Virgin Mary Participants come from around world for praise, study

September 12, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Thousands of Roman Catholics from around the world converged at the Baltimore Arena yesterday to pray to the Virgin Mary, including a frail archbishop who recited the rosary secretly while imprisoned by the Chinese Communists for 22 years.

To be precise, "22 years, 4 months," said tiny, 84-year-old Archbishop Dominic Tang, S.J. Seven years of that 1957-1980 captivity for unspecified crimes against the rulers of the People's Republic of China were in solitary confinement.

He flew into Baltimore from Hong Kong, where he now lives, with stops in Honolulu and San Francisco. At 9:45 a.m. tomorrow, he will describe for the congregation in the arena how "Our Lady's rosary saved me from a godless prison."

He said the diocese of Canton, of which he is the exiled head, covers 40,000 square miles and has about 30,000 Roman Catholics in a population of more than 10 million.

But yesterday, Archbishop Tang was part of a crowd of the elderly with canes and the fresh-faced young in parochial school uniforms, families with little children and priests and nuns, all drawn by their religious convictions about the importance of the mother of Jesus to the Marian International Conference of Baltimore.

The cavernous sports arena has been turned into a quiet, dimly lighted church for prayers, Masses, sacred music, sermons and lectures. Lining it are stalls selling publications, pictures and other religious objects with Mary as their focus.

As of last night, said a spokesman for the five-day conference that ends Tuesday, about 3,500 had registered. That number was expected to rise to 5,000 today.

The darkened arena, where it is more usual for raucous hockey fans to cheer and boo and rock bands to bounce their sounds against the rafters, was eerily silent yesterday afternoon as a rapt audience listened to Sister Philip Marie Burle, C.P.P.S, speak from a pulpit on the stage about "The Scriptures of the Rosary and Way of the Cross for Family Healing."

"Pray unceasingly and never lose heart," the sister from St. Louis said in a low voice that was intense and compelling.

As with all lecturers at the conference, her image was projected on a huge screen behind her as she spoke.

A spotlighted statue of the Virgin Mary was on the stage surrounded by flowers, and nearby was a lighted icon, the so-called Missionary Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The conference occurs at a time when religious devotion to the mother of Jesus, given reduced prominence by the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, has had a popular resurgence in many parts of the world.

"Our feeling is that this is the time and the place," said M. Jenkins Cromwell Jr., a Baltimore businessman and Catholic layman who helped to organize the event.

Marylanders were among the many thousands of pilgrims in recent years to visit the Yugoslavian village of Medjugorje, where six children have described daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1981.

Increasingly, similar visions have been reported elsewhere.

Even locally, images of Mary at Roman Catholic churches in Northern Virginia and at Oxon Hill in Prince George's County are said to have "wept" during the past year in the presence of a priest bearing wounds similar to those of Christ at the crucifixion.

While the faithful have flocked to the locations, skepticism about some of the reports has been widespread, both inside and out of the Catholic Church.

At the Baltimore Arena yesterday, there was no suggestion of such skepticism.

Archbishop Tang spoke matter-of-factly in an interview about recent appearances of "Our Lady of Zoce" to thousands of Chinese near Shanghai, including many on junks cramming the canals off the Yangtze River.

"China is devoted to Our Lady," he said.

Her appearances near Shanghai twice a year have been more spiritual than realistic, "like a big light," he said.

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