Amid seaside blessing, Rocky Mountains crossing, shrine stops, pilgrimage’s ‘highlight is always the people’

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NEC24 NEP ROUNDUP WEEK4 BILOXI DIEGO ROUTE
The St. Juan Diego Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage processes from Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to St. Paul Chapel in Pass Christian, Miss., June 11, 2024, as it made its way across the southern United States to the July 17–21 National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. (OSV News photo/Mark Peeler, courtesy Diocese of Biloxi)

(OSV News) — As the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage enters its fourth week with a continuous string of large-scale events on each of its four routes, its perpetual pilgrims continue to notice God at work in simple, unexpected encounters.

Amayrani Higueldo, a perpetual pilgrim from Philadelphia traveling with the Eucharist on the eastern Seton Route, said one of the highlights of her past week was running into a Catholic family at Walmart. The family noticed the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and asked what they were doing. They talked for 15 minutes, and the pilgrims invited the family to join the next day’s procession. And they did.

“It was just amazing because they were such a holy family — so full of love for the Eucharist, from the littlest one, which was 5, to the oldest one, which was about ninth grade and she’s discerning religious life,” Higueldo said. “We just asked for their prayers for us, and we just know they’re going to be heard.”

Higueldo shared the story during a June 12 media call, speaking from the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, on the route’s second jaunt into the state. The Seton route’s pilgrims spent May 30-June 5 in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Harrisburg before traveling through the Archdiocese of Baltimore June 5-7 and the Archdiocese of Washington June 8-9.

“It feels like we’ve been on this pilgrimage for three years now because it’s so jam-packed,” Higueldo said.

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage in an unprecedented journey through 27 states and 65 dioceses, covering a combined distance of 6,500 miles by foot and by van, that began nearly a month ago in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas. Accompanied by priest chaplains and members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, 30 young adults — including seven seminarians — are traveling as “perpetual pilgrims” with the Eucharist on the pilgrimage’s four routes.

With stops for Mass, Eucharistic adoration and processions at parishes, shrines, and other sacred and secular sites along the way, the pilgrims are heading to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21, the pinnacle of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative of the U.S. bishops to deepen love for and understanding of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.

Journey through the eastern Seton Route

June 6 was a special day for the Seton Route pilgrims, as they spent hours in Emmitsburg, Maryland, home to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, their route’s namesake and patroness.

With an estimated 1,500 gathered for Mass at the shine’s basilica, Archbishop William E. Lori spoke in his homily of “Mother Seton” — a New York socialite who felt compelled to convert from her Episcopal faith to Catholicism after meeting Catholics in Rome, where her husband died, and witnessing a Eucharistic procession, during which she “spontaneously knelt in the street.”

“The mystery of the Eucharist, the true presence of Christ’s body and blood had what I might call ‘a gravitational pull’ on her heart and mind and spirit,” he said.

Seton Route
People pray during the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage Mass June 9, 2024, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Mass marked the closing event of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Seton Route stop in the nation’s capital. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)

The next day in Baltimore, a procession drew around 500 Catholics, but it also attracted non-Catholics, including Carolyn Armstrong, a Methodist who struggled to hold back tears as she spoke to the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Armstrong said she didn’t know what the solemn morning event was until a woman gave her a card noting that the procession was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. “I think it’s beautiful and it restores my faith and it makes me cry because I love Christ so much,” she said.

In Washington June 8, the Seton Route’s pilgrims participated Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception followed by a 1,200-person Eucharistic procession that wound through the nearby Brookland neighborhood, sometimes called “Little Rome” for being home to The Catholic University of America and many other Catholic institutions. Meanwhile, a stationary pilgrimage was underway at the adjacent St. John Paul II National Shrine, featuring a Mass and events for those who are deaf or live with a disability.

Southern Juan Diego Route highlights

Pilgrims on the pilgrimage’s southern Juan Diego Route spent June 7-9 in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, with Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond celebrating Mass June 9 at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France followed by a short public procession in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter.

While there, the pilgrims enjoyed beignets and conversation with local Catholics at the iconic Cafe du Monde — an impromptu stop that underscored the pilgrims’ efforts to make individual connections amid large-scale events, said Chenele Shaw, one of the project leads for the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage.

Juan Diego route
The St. Juan Diego Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage processes from Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss., to St. Paul Chapel in Pass Christian, Miss., June 11 as it made its way across the southern United States to the July 17-21 National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. (OSV News photo/Mark Peeler, courtesy Diocese of Biloxi)

“It’s great to see the pilgrims kind of embrace the flexibility of like, ‘We’ve been invited, we know that we have time, and we’re going to partake in fellowship with other people,'” she said.

The southern route pilgrims entered the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi, June 10, where on June 12 they gathered in Long Beach on the Gulf of Mexico shore for a blessing of the sea.

There, approximately 300 Catholics, many of whom are used to dealing with hurricane-related insurance hassles, sought protection from God to calm the waters of the sea during the Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1.

After an evening of praise, worship and adoration inside St. Thomas the Apostle Church, its parochial vicar, Father Vincent Ajayi, carried the Blessed Sacrament across a highway to the beach for the formal Rite of Blessing.

Juan Diego route
The Eucharist processes through the French Quarter of New Orleans June 9, 2024, as part of the St. Juan Diego Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage through the southern United States. (OSV News photo/Meagan Martin, courtesy National Eucharistic Pilgrimage)

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters, the God of Glory thunders, the Lord over vast waters,” said Father Ajayi, holding the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament over the placid gulf waters.

Longtime St. Thomas parishioner Phyllis Seal, who lived through Hurricanes Camille and Katrina, is thankful she was able to witness the blessing.

“I have just been so awestruck by today’s events,” said Seal. “I’m just so glad that God let me live to see this. This is a lifetime experience for me. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just absolutely amazing.

“Watching the pilgrimage come down the beach this morning, I just cried,” she continued. “Again, I’m just so thrilled to see this and that it’s at my church. I’m just praying that this blessing reaches out to all the world. To know that this sea touches people all over the world is an amazing thing.”

Earlier that morning, a little boy had made signs for his yard saying, “Jesus is coming! Jesus is here!” and gave handmade cards to the route’s eight pilgrims that thanked them for walking.

“Sometimes we don’t give children the benefit of the doubt that they have a conceptual idea of what’s happening,” Shaw said. “But it’s cool to see kids be like, ‘Wow, this is really cool, and in a real way, Jesus is here.'”

Juan Diego Route pilgrim and Texan Charlie McCullough called that moment “so incredible.”

“The highlight is always the people,” he told OSV News June 13. “Everywhere we go, the people of God surprise us with their faith, generosity and devotion.”

Northern Marian Route’s devotional journey

The northern Marian Route pilgrims also experienced that faith and devotion as they processed over the Mississippi River — a river they had crossed many times over three weeks in Minnesota — into the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, to a June 7 Eucharistic rally called “The Answer.”

Brother James Miller grave
The grave of Blessed Brother James Miller, a farm boy turned Christian Brother who died a martyr in Guatemala in 1982, is seen at St. Martin Church Cemetery in Custer, Wis. The Marian Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage stopped at his grave June 10, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Diocese of La Crosse)

On June 8, they visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in bluffs outside of La Crosse, before healing northeast to Ellis, Wisconsin, to pray at the grave of Blessed Brother James Miller, a farm boy turned Christian Brother who died a martyr in Guatemala in 1982.

On June 12, the northern route pilgrims entered the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they participated in a Eucharistic boat procession at a Catholic camp, followed the next day by a 7-mile procession along the state’s Mountain Bay Trail.

On June 16, they will join Bishop David L. Ricken for a Mass at the much-anticipated National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, the site of the first and only approved Marian apparition site in the United States — and the source of the Marian Route’s name.

Western Serra Route’s Rocky Mountain experience

One unanticipated snag the pilgrims noted is maintaining the pilgrimage’s particular equipment. Patrick Fayad, a perpetual pilgrim from Omaha, Nebraska, on the western Serra route, said he’s become the “team mechanic,” noting that “none of these liturgical items were built to withstand driving for hours a day and being shaken in the car.”

“A lot of things have fallen apart, and some of these things were made with nonstandard parts or European parts, so I haven’t been able to actually find some replacement parts for different things,” he said. “I’m spending a lot of time in Ace Hardwares right now.”

He and other Serra Route pilgrims spent June 5-12 in the Archdiocese of Denver, where nearly 5,000 people turned out for a June 9 procession in Denver’s downtown.

A literal high point, however, was driving through Rocky Mountain National Park June 6.

“We got off at a point right near the Continental Divide — the highest that we could get in the park and still park the van — and there were people that had followed us all the way from the beginning of the park. … We did a little procession, not more than an acre around, because that’s all we had,” Fayad said. “Benediction was done over the Rockies, over the entire area, and it was beautiful.”

From there, they continued through Estes Park, stopping at Chapel on the Rock, a Catholic chapel on the grounds of the St. Malo retreat center. There they happened to encounter a group of summer campers praying.

Serra route
A man lays prostrate as the Eucharist is processed through downtown Denver June 9, 202 4,along the St. Junipero Serra route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. (OSV News photo/Martin Jernberg, courtesy National Eucharistic Pilgrimage)

“It was probably 40 children on their knees chanting Latin in a song of adoration. It was a very beautiful, serene moment,” Fayad said. “We only had five minutes to be there, but everyone was so grateful. Apparently people had heard we were coming, and they sprinted to their cars to drive there. It actually shocked us. … We were not expecting this many people.”

He and other perpetual pilgrims jumped into action for a procession, grabbing the processional cross, candles and canopy.

“That was the Rockies — just absolutely breathtaking,” Fayad said, “and even more breathtaking with our Lord.”

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.