ORLANDO | “We leap for joy at the reopening of the basilica. We leap for joy at the installation of its fourth rector, Father Robert Webster,” announced Bishop John Noonan on the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aug. 15, 2020 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe.
The day was chosen to honor Our Lady, after whom the basilica receives its name. Because Mary is the patroness of the diocese, Bishop Noonan seized the opportunity to re-consecrate the diocese to Mary, Mother of God.
Father Robert Webster, expressed his joy, noting his connection to the basilica since the days of its groundbreaking. As secretary to both Bishop Thomas Grady and Bishop Norbert Dorsey, and as director of liturgy, he worked behind the scenes during the construction of the shrine. Addressing those gathered for the special occasion of the basilica’s reopening (closed March 15 for repairs and refurbishing) and his installation as rector, he told those assembled he was present at every groundbreaking, dedication, designation and blessing. He was even the one who drew up the papers to request its designation as a basilica.
Recalling his long connection to the church, Father Webster said, “That’s been sort of what my role has been here — in the shadows as a worker. I find it certainly ironic and I’m humbled by the thought — all of the sudden, here I am, walking in the footsteps of my predecessors, who were heroes to me. Here I am, humbled by what it is that I am called to do and being here.”
Bishop Noonan recollected Father Webster’s path leading to his installation. Ordained in 1986 by Bishop Thomas Grady, after attending St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., he first served St. Paul Parish in Daytona Beach. In 1989, he became associate pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park. He was named secretary and director of the Office of Worship in 1991.
From 1994-2006, he served as pastor of St. Paul Parish, and was instrumental in its designation as basilica in 2006. As Director of Liturgy for the diocese (2006-2012), his duties overlapped with those as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Clermont (2008 until July 2020).
Father Webster succeeds Msgr. Joseph Harte (1993-2007), Father Ed McCarthy (2007-2011), and Father Paul Henry (2011-2020) and interim administrator Father Richard Trout (March — July 2020).
The rector spoke fondly of Father McCarthy, who was the vocation director who brought Father Webster to the diocese, and frequently challenged him to do even better. Father Paul Henry, “was another hero,” said Father Webster.
The new rector said he especially learned many lessons from Msgr. Harte, who died this past June 2020. The monsignor cultivated in him a love for the basilica. Referring to the pilgrims that come to Disney, “the happiest place on earth,” Father Webster noted, he hopes, “they get a taste of the real happiest place, the kingdom of heaven,” when they come to the basilica.
As for the future, Father Webster smiled and said, “Buckle up your seatbelts and get ready for a fun ride.” He pointed to changes in the way we worship, caused by the COVID pandemic and said, “We have to discover a new way.” He noted that things have changed since 1975, when the shrine originated. “Here in 2020, it’s almost like a new and fresh beginning, not only for the entire church, but for these particular churches.” As he looked ahead, he was hopeful and excited.
Following his installment, Bishop Noonan re-consecrated the beautiful basilica to Mary, Mother of God. He reminded those gathered, “Mary inspires and guides us because she is always ready to follow Christ.” He noted Bishop Grady’s words at the ground breaking of the basilica, “Above all, we want it to be a spiritual home, the real heart of Jesus Christ.”
The bishop affirmed, “Today, this house of prayer continues to inspire those who come to worship here, to pray and to engage in quiet contemplation. Through the celebration of liturgy, prayers, the viewing of sacred art, the receiving of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, faithful from all over the world, pilgrims on journeys, including those here in Central Florida, find spiritual renewal amidst the hectic pace of the world today.” He prayed it continues to be “an instrument of hope and love.”