‘Jesus cannot help but pour himself out’ on National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, pilgrim says

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Father Jon Chalmers, pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover, Ala., carries the Eucharist in procession June 17, 2024, as part of the St. Juan Diego route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. (OSV News photo/Mary Dillard, Diocese of Birmingham)

ATLANTA (OSV News) — Shayla Elm has gathered a trove of memories from her first five weeks along the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s southern route.

Over a week in Louisiana alone, she and seven other “perpetual pilgrims” traveling the full 1,900-mile St. Juan Diego Route processed with the monstrance on a fire truck in Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux; stopped a train as a stream of Catholics crossed railroad tracks during a procession in the Diocese of Baton Rouge; and, in New Orleans, emerged in a post-Mass procession from St. Louis Cathedral to an unexpectedly quiet French Quarter, their hymns filling a space best known for jazz.

A memorable encounter in Sugar Land, Texas

But one moment from weeks ago in Sugar Land, Texas, still stands out in her mind: During Eucharistic adoration at a parish, a group of priests and deacons were processing around the church with the Eucharist when a little girl broke away from her family and ran up to a deacon. She pointed to the monstrance.

“What is that?” Elm recalled her asking.

“That’s Jesus,” the deacon said.

“And so she goes to the monstrance, she kisses her little hand, and she touches the bottom of the monstrance and then runs away,” Elm said. “And it was this moment in my own interior where I was aware of, like, ‘I’m that little girl right there.’ … I just started weeping. Because that’s what we’re called to be: where we are the children of God.

Joining the pilgrimage

Elm, 25, said her own deepening love of the Eucharist compelled her to take an interest last year in the National Eucharistic Revival and ultimately apply to be — and be chosen as — one of 30 perpetual pilgrims walking the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s four routes.

“This entire pilgrimage, for me, has just been calling us to be childlike, to be small, to be little and just like that little girl, to have that simple faith,” she said. Along the way, the moment reminds her, she said, “to just give Jesus these ‘little kisses’ — to do little things for the Lord and for the people that we meet, to do things for them.”

Sharing her journey with the media

Elm shared her experience of the ongoing pilgrimage June 20 with Catholic journalists and communications professionals gathered in Atlanta for the Catholic Media Conference, an annual gathering of the Catholic Media Association. The Juan Diego Route pilgrims will spend the June 21-23 weekend in Atlanta after leaving Brownsville, Texas, May 19 and traveling east through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. They will continue through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, arriving in Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21.

Deacon Mark Thompson of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., carries the monstrance containing the Eucharist during the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s June 15, 2024, stop in Mobile. (OSV News photo/Rob Herbst, Archdiocese of Mobile)

There they will converge with the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s other three routes: the western St. Junipero Serra Route, whose pilgrims began in California and spent the week of June 16 crossing Nebraska; the eastern St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Route, whose pilgrims began in Connecticut and recently left western Pennsylvania for northern West Virginia; and the northern Marian Route, whose pilgrims began in Minnesota and are in eastern Wisconsin.

Daily activities and experiences

Each day, the perpetual pilgrims stop at parishes, Catholic institutions or secular sites for Mass, Eucharistic processions and other worship. Their continuous companion is the Eucharist, carried in a specially designed monstrance or reserved in a special tabernacle in their support van.

Brother Damiano Pio of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal shares his pilgrimage testimony June 16, 2024, at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover, Ala. (OSV News photo/Mary Dillard, Diocese of Birmingham)

Elm grew up in Minot, North Dakota, and works in Denver for Christ in the City, an outreach to homeless men and women. She joked about being a “North Dakota girl” sent to walk in the Texas heat, where temperatures during their first week hovered around 100 degrees. They began their journey in the Diocese of Brownsville on Pentecost Sunday, where Catholics called out “Viva, Cristo Rey!” — long live Christ the King.

“It’s so beautiful to be like one of the Apostles — to receive the Spirit and to be sent out,” she said.

Elm said that walking in this unprecedented pilgrimage was “something ordained in my heart for a while.” Last year, she had planned to walk the Camino de Santiago — a major pilgrimage route in Spain culminating at the tomb of St. James — and had requested the time off for June 2024.

“Then when I heard this pilgrimage come up, I was like, ‘Woah, that’s the American Camino.’ I thought, ‘I have to do this. I have to be part of this,'” she said. “The Eucharist has been just the center of my life for my whole life, but I think especially in my college years” while she was studying communication at University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Embracing her faith

Elm grew up Catholic and received good catechesis, she said, “but I didn’t necessarily have that personal relationship with Jesus, and in college that was really fostered in some deep moments of suffering. … It was either, ‘I believe or I don’t,’ and that meant ‘everything.’ So I either believe that the Eucharist is really Jesus’ real presence — his real body, blood, soul and divinity — or I don’t. And I can’t be lukewarm about it, because that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be all in about it.”

“Since then, I’ve decided to be all in, and Jesus has just shown up for me in a very real way,” she said.

In receiving Jesus’ “tender invitation” to be a perpetual pilgrim, Elm hopes she can help others truly meet him in the Eucharist. While their journey has taken them to downtown cathedrals and parish neighborhoods, they also have walked in places of suffering, visible and hidden. The first few days of their journey, they walked along the U.S.-Mexico border wall. In Corpus Christi, a Eucharistic procession of 1,000 people stopped to pray at a prison. In the Diocese of Victoria, they visited Presidio La Bahia, a Spanish frontier fort that was the site of a famous massacre during the Texas Revolution.

“So a place of death became a place of life,” Elm said. “We had Eucharistic adoration right there, where it was so stunning. They set up an outdoor altar, and Jesus was there. We gave testimonies that night. We had these prayer teams and confessions all night long. The spirit was very moving. It was one of everyone’s favorite evenings from the entire pilgrimage. It was just a very beautiful night.”

Connecting with people along the way

In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Elm met a woman with a lot of questions about practicing the Catholic faith and who also was struggling in her marriage. Inspired by her experience with the prayer teams at Presidio La Bahia, Elm asked to pray with the woman right then.

“And so we prayed, and it was such a beautiful prayer,” Elm said. “It was just another very profound moment for me on pilgrimage.”

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville told the pilgrims multiple times that “Jesus cannot help but pour himself out” — a phrase Elm said reminded them “what pilgrimage is all about.”

A humbling experience in Lake Charles

At St. Henry Catholic Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the pilgrims were met after a 7-mile procession June 4 by a group of Latino women in full-skirted dresses. Elm expected they might dance, but instead, they washed the pilgrims’ feet.

“I felt so honored and so humbled to let them wash our stinky, smelly feet,” she said. “It was humbling because you didn’t want to disrespect them in any way, but that’s not what it was about. So these women in these beautiful dresses get down on their knees and wash our feet and massaged our feet, and put powder on them, and put our socks and shoes back on, just like so motherly. Their hearts were so motherly. And it was an extreme moment where I was like, ‘There’s Jesus again, and he can’t help but pour himself out through his faithful.'”

In the Diocese of Biloxi, they walked along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast for three days, and then joined a daylong Eucharistic celebration in the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama. From June 17-19, they rested on retreat at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, which, like the adjacent Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, was founded by Mother Angelica, who launched Eternal Word Television Network in 1981.

A musical gift

While there, Elm wrote a song on a banjo she was unexpectedly lent in Louisiana by Catholic media personality Katie Prejean McGrady. Elm told the Catholic Media Conference audience she — a banjo amateur — would play it for them.

“I’ve never wrote a song before, and I’ve never played to a live audience before,” she said with a laugh while the audience applauded.

“It’s based on the Song of Songs, from the Song of Solomon,” she explained. “These verses have been ringing in my heart all week.”

A song for Jesus

Against simple chords, Elm sang a love song for Jesus, with a chorus that began, “This is the voice of my Beloved. Behold, he comes.”

“I’ve noticed that in my own heart, the more time that you spend with Jesus, the more you become like him and the more you see others like he does,” she later told OSV News. “I’ve noticed in my own self more patience, more virtue, more love for others, more openness, more willingness to receive, more docility to the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been so maximized because we’re spending so much time with Jesus. I crave that time with him now because it’s making me the best me, the best version of myself, because I’m becoming like him.”

Her song, she said, conveys how she has “experienced her belovedness to the Lord.”

“He has been so loving and tender to my own heart, my own soul, and the song … is (about) two who are in love, and I’m just growing in love for my Lord, and he is just showing his love to me. It’s been extreme mercy and extreme joy to be with him in this time, and it just overflows, and I have to sing it. I had to write a song about it, because there was no other way. I had to sing this out loud.”

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.