Pilgrimage Impossible

Editor’s note: this important pilgrimage is fast approaching. To sign up, visit their website.

By Susan Lloyd

A tiny slip of a nun took the stage, cleared her throat, and put on her best “man” voice. “Dear Reuben, we have a problem…” She wore a roomy men’s blue oxford shirt with tie over her full black habit. Jammed on top of her veil was a red Saint Louis Cardinals hat. It was skit night at the twenty-fifth annual Pilgrimage for Restoration. Sister played Greg, who is the director of the Pilgrimage and my husband. Sister-Greg was texting Reuben DeMaster, Greg’s stalwart fellow organizer and partner in pain.

One by one, people ran up on stage and announced some issue, some problem, some insurmountable obstacle that surely, this time, definitely would make it impossible to hold the Pilgrimage. One by one, Sister-Greg shooed them away.

Some of the obstacles were based on real events, like Covid penalties in New York State. One month before the Pilgrimage was scheduled to happen, administrators at the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, where the Pilgrimage has always been held, warned Greg off. Did he not receive their earlier letter, saying that just stepping foot on shrine grounds would be fines of $2600 per person per incident? He did not.

Other problems were slightly exaggerated like a phone call from Mrs. Moneybags who refused to support the Pilgrimage if it was held anywhere else! (If only she existed.)

One by one, people – including a nun playing our daughter Melanie with pony tails on top of her veil. One by one, the obstacles got bigger and bigger until finally somebody announced the end of the world: “The Prophets Enoch and Elias have returned to earth!” “Not yet!” cried Sister-Greg. “Tell them to wait until after the Pilgrimage!”

Whatever the actual details, the Sisters got the main thing right. The problems that came with this year’s Pilgrimage were legion. Recall 2020, when everyone’s sacred duty was to stay in their homes lest they breathe on their neighbors. In New York, the only groups allowed to gather outside were the ones chucking bricks through store windows. Meanwhile neighborhood playgrounds were roped off with yellow caution tape. Clearly, the Pilgrimage could not go on in New York. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t go on at all.

Destination: Pennsylvania. The PA State Constitution had prohibited the wolves in government from suppressing religious rights; public outdoor spaces were open; and most of the Pilgrimage organizers lived in PA and knew the lay of the land. Still, relocating the Pilgrimage was far from easy.

Greg, Reuben, and a team of volunteers whose names are written in the Book of Life, had to start almost from scratch. In one month’s time, they had to scout new routes through city, town, and countryside; they had to find new campgrounds or sometimes no campgrounds but farms instead; they had to get new permissions and new permits from Church and state authorities; they had to find new vendors to supply portable toilets, tents, and U-hauls. Most importantly, they had to find a fitting shrine as a new final destination and obtain permission to use it.

Meanwhile, over three hundred pilgrims waited for word. Just like the Sister showed, one by one people called Greg or sent messages. Are you going to cancel? One by one, he shooed them away. If God wanted the Pilgrimage to go on, it would. To Greg, the bigger the obstacle, the more obvious it became that God wanted it.

Contrast this to the long months of shutdown when many Catholics stayed home and waited for the Church and state authorities to let them worship or even receive the Sacraments. One bishop even denied his priests permission to visit the dying in need of Anointing. What would Jesus do? Tell the lepers to call Him on zoom?

You don’t cancel the Pilgrimage because of these things. You have it because of these things.

The Pilgrimage has always been about making reparation for sin, praying for our nation, and most of all giving public honor and glory to God. It has never been easy, ever since it began. Each year has brought its share of work-filled nights, emergency meetings, and dry toast on the run. But when your inspiration is Saint Isaac Jogues, who sailed home to France to ask if he could still offer Mass after his little flock chewed off his fingers and then sailed back to Auriesville knowing he would be martyred, you figure God will find someone to cover your porta-potty bill.

The patronage of Jogues and his glorious companions and the previous twenty-four years of hard work were the perfect preparation for this particularly impossible year.

Along with all of the above, preparations were not over once the Pilgrimage began. Organizers were still mapping out the final twists and turns of the routes one day ahead. No, the night before. These they would deliver to the safety team. During the Pilgrimage, the lead safety would run ahead and warn the others, via walkie talkie, of blind turns, busy intersections, and narrow shoulders. But you can’t plan for everything in hostile times such as these. Melanie and the girls handing out bottled water stopped on a dirt road adjacent to a farmer’s field. Fearing BLM, the owner came out guns a-blazing and fired a warning shot into the air. The ladies quickly scrambled back into the truck, catching their long skirts in the door as they made their escape.

In the evening of that same day, the column of weary pilgrims filed down the long steep winding drive of its improvised campground, a Mennonite farm. The family brigade was already there. Her husband John and a few helpers were setting up huge tents and rows of tables and chairs. John even built temporary showers by draping tarps over wooden scaffolds and threading a hose through the top. Family tents lined the perimeter of a newly mowed field. Small kids enjoyed catechism and cow gazing. Moms and dads chatted. The sun shone. The choir practiced. The food team prepped the soup. If time was ever to stand still, it should pick the hours spent on that farm. The next morning, in the blackness before a misty dawn, priests of the Fraternity of Saint Peter offered a solemn high mass and Pilgrims pressed on toward the city.

The next destination was Reuben’s farm. Weeks before, he had come into possession of an adjacent property which included a large airy two story barn. His wife Tessa would tell of the boom of their organic farm during Covid when everyone feared empty shelves at the grocery store, and how it led to this, a perfect resting place for hundreds of pilgrims.

That night the barn would serve as a stage for the skit that summed up the whole crazy adventure.

After the skits, another Sister got up to tell the real story of Greg’s twenty-five years of hard labor to bring the Pilgrimage into being. She has seen it herself, ever since an early Pilgrimage when she first discerned her calling.

The final day, the Pilgrimage came home, quite literally. The final destination turned out to be a mile from our house, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Immaculate Conception, the Allentown parish in which it lies, is the parish of Greg’s childhood. A jewel in the rough, it was founded by Saint John Neumann. In 1857, he traveled the 63 miles from Philadelphia to what was then an outpost of that Archdiocese. The cornerstone he laid is now embedded in the sidewalk out front, having been cracked during renovations. Greg will never forget sitting in a front pew preparing for his First Holy Communion as Sister shouted over the din of jackhammers. Men were dismantling the high marble altar, once lovingly wrought from the offerings of the Irish and German immigrants in the neighborhood. Later one of their sons would bring glory back to Our Lady’s house. In 1974, a family friend named Sam McGovern, procured a life size replica of Saint Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma and got the parish dedicated as her national shrine.

On that final day, seeing hundreds of pilgrims march into the city, ascend the steps, and file past that miraculous image, singing, made it clear that this year’s Pilgrimage was not just a quick and dirty substitute for the “real one.” God wanted it to be exactly where it was, as it was.

Mass would be sung outside in the church yard, in the heart of the city, on ground consecrated by a saint, just steps from Sam’s grave, in the home parish of the boy who started it all.

There isn’t space to tell of all the obstacles, nor of all miracles which marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pilgrimage for Restoration. Let’s just say that God willed to be glorified. He would not stay hidden in our hearts, behind closed doors, a virtual reality. He would be praised in the open, out loud, for the world to see, now more than ever in this impossible year.

Reprinted with permission from The Latin Mass Magazine. Photo provided by the author.

 

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