‘Perpetual pilgrims’ are eager to start the 6,500-mile journey

(OSV News) — Just days before the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage launch, Jaella Mac Au was making last-minute supply runs to REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and tucking preemptive moleskin bandages and a first-aid kit to her brand-new backpack. One of 23 perpetual pilgrims walking one of the national pilgrimage’s four routes, Mac Au had been texting the others for packing advice to see if she had overlooked anything she needed, especially for hiking.

“I’ve learned a lot about Merino wool in the past couple of days,” she said with a laugh May 17, the day before flying from Georgia to San Francisco to begin the trek.

In her bag were pairs of new Altra and Brooks shoes and a journal to chronicle what will essentially be an unprecedented 12-state Eucharistic procession.

Journeying on the St. Junipero Serra Route

Mac Au is journeying on the St. Junipero Serra Route, the pilgrimage’s longest route, which launches from San Francisco May 19. Over eight weeks, she and five other perpetual pilgrims, two seminarians and priest chaplains from the Francisican Friars of the Renewal are traveling more than 2,200 miles across California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

The pilgrims on all routes begin their treks May 18-19 — Pentecost weekend — from San Francisco; New Haven, Connecticut; Brownsville, Texas; and the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota.

Their routes — a combined 6,500 miles across 27 states and 65 dioceses — all converge in Indianapolis for the July 17 opening of the five-day National Eucharistic Congress in Lucas Oil Stadium. Along the way, the pilgrims will go through small towns, large cities and rural countryside, mostly on foot, with the Eucharist carried in a monstrance designed for this particular journey.

Along the way, the pilgrims will stop at parishes, shrines and Catholic institutions for Mass, Eucharistic adoration and other events. With the pilgrimage’s starting points on the United States’ East and West coasts, at the U.S.-Mexico border and in Northern Minnesota, organizers describe the routes as “tracing the sign of the cross over the nation.”

Mac Au, 20, was born in Chicago but has spent a decade living in Georgia, where she studies human development at the University of Georgia. Most of the journey will be new terrain for her, both physically and spiritually. In prayer, she’s “reminding myself that the Lord is a good father and he is a provider,” she said. “I think I’ve been called to a lot of detachment.”

Criteria and selection of perpetual pilgrims

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and National Eucharistic Congress are major parts of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative launched in 2022 by the U.S. bishops to inspire a deeper love and reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist. The pilgrimage is modeled on the Gospel account of Jesus’ journey with two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection from the dead.

National Eucharistic Congress leaders selected the perpetual pilgrims for their roles because of their love for the Eucharist and desire to share Jesus’ real presence with others. Criteria included being a baptized and practicing Catholic between the ages of 19-29, be in good physical condition and capable of walking long distances, and be committed to upholding Church teachings. Initially, 24 perpetual pilgrims were chosen, but Christopher Onyiuke, who had planned to walk the Seton Route, needed to bow out for personal reasons.

Joining the perpetual pilgrims are seven seminarians, who, like the perpetual pilgrims, are from all over the United States. On the Marian, Juan Diego and Serra routes, a series of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal will serve as priest chaplains for legs of the journey. Father Roger Landry, the Catholic chaplain at Columbia University in New York, will walk the entire Seton Route with the chaplains.

Traveling on the Seton Route

On that Seton Route, perpetual pilgrim Zoe Dongas, 25, will be going through her hometown of Manhattan, where she works in young adult outreach for the Archdiocese of New York. As she finished packing May 16, she said the last thing she needed was sunscreen. The following day, she planned to take the Amtrak train to New Haven, where she would join other pilgrims for a Pentecost Vigil Mass.

“I’m looking forward to being able to kick off on Pentecost Vigil — getting to be part of the liturgical life of the Church and to get to start on this new adventure,” she said. “It’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit moving.”

Dongas hopes that the pilgrimage changes her life and the country.

“If my heart is even just a little bit more like Christ by the end of this summer, I think that would be the greatest blessing,” she said. “The Lord wants to transform this country, and starting with our own hearts.”

Walking the Marian Route

Matthew Heidenreich, a rising junior studying mathematics at the University of Alabama, is a perpetual pilgrim walking the Marian Route. He arrived in Minnesota a few days before the pilgrimage launch and took time for quiet reflection.

“The Lord has really just granted me the ability to enter into peace — into his peace — and to just be refreshed going into this,” he said.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Heidenreich recently took a four-day, 50-mile backpacking trip with friends, in part to test his strength and stamina. “Physically and gear-wise, I feel ready,” he said. Like the other pilgrims, he is also taking prayer intentions from friends and family with him.

While the routes and their daily stops have been meticulously planned out by each diocese and the Minnesota-based U.S. pilgrimage nonprofit Modern Catholic Pilgrim, Heidenreich, 20, is a self-described “planner” and doing his best to let go of things out of his control, such as the weather, he said.

“It’s such a beautiful place of trust,” he said.

Following Mass May 19, Heidenreich will process with the other pilgrims in Itasca State Park alongside Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, chairman of the National Eucharistic Congress Inc. When they arrive at the 18-foot-wide stream from which the Mississippi begins its 2,300-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, Bishop Cozzens plans to bless the headwaters with the Eucharist.

“I think that’s the moment it’s actually going to click that this is happening,” Heidenreich said. “That we’re starting.”

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