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Walk around the block to Jerusalem?

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Parishioners modernize an ancient practice by making a virtual pilgrimage during Advent or Lent.

WASHINGTON - Some parishes have modernized the ancient practice of making a pilgrimage - making the long journeys to holy sites a collective effort of several walks around the block, the local track or even inside shopping malls.

For centuries, Christians have made pilgrimages to sacred places or shrines to venerate a relic, pray for spiritual direction or fulfill a religious obligation. The pilgrimage site that has always topped of the list is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, said to be the burial site of Jesus.

Our Lady of Lourdes North American Volunteers presented a virtual spiritual pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, last week at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls.

Today, while it might not be feasible for many U.S. Catholics to make such a pilgrimage, they can still get the sense of this journey, as well as the physical benefits of exercise, if their parish sponsors a virtual pilgrimage. These programs, such as "Walk to Jerusalem" and "Walk to Bethlehem" were designed for church groups by St. John Health System, a Catholic health care system that runs several Michigan hospitals and clinics.

The Catholic Community of St. Jude in DeWitt, Mich., followed this program after Terry Humenik, the volunteer parish nurse read about it in a parish nurses' association newsletter. The article highlighted a parish in Hawaii whose parishioners virtually walked to Jerusalem and back during Lent.

When Humenik looked for more details from the parish she realized the program originated at a nearby hospital that supplies necessary materials and a how-to guide - found at stjohn.org/WalktoJerusalem.

According to the Web site, the virtual pilgrimage is "accomplished by individuals within the church or organization logging their own walking miles each week." The walk usually begins in January with the goal of accumulating enough miles to reach Jerusalem by Easter. The fall version is the "Walk to Bethlehem," which begins in September with the intent of reaching Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations.

For St. Jude parishioners, the equivalency of a walk to Jerusalem from their parish was 6,680 miles one way. By the time they finished the 12-week program, about 350 parishioners walked, jogged, golfed and otherwise exercised the equivalent of nearly 27,500 miles - enough for two round trips with some 700 miles left over.

The parish had a little fun with the extra miles indicating in the parish bulletin that they used the extra miles to make the journey to Hell and Paradise - both Michigan towns - before returning to DeWitt.

Humenik said many parishioners called the pilgrimage "just what they needed" to get moving and also to strengthen their faith through the prayers and meditations.

For each week of the "journey" participants received handouts on spiritual reflections and information on countries they would have passed en route with details about their culture and challenges the local residents face in daily lives.

All forms of physical activity were included within the program, but walking was the most popular. To fit within their concept of a "virtual" trip, about 20 minutes of aerobic activity was equated to about one mile of walking.

Every week parishioners tallied their miles in a parish notebook.

The parish health ministry took some of the guesswork out of local mileage calculations, determining how many laps around the church parking lots, the parish center or in the church itself would equal a mile.

When the program got started, some parishioners were skeptical, thinking they could never complete the mileage necessary to get to Jerusalem. But as Humenik pointed out, the pilgrimage was not determined by individual effort but by the combined efforts of parishioners. And that in itself, provided another spiritual lesson.

As she put it: "That gave us the chance to remind them that we improve our individual prospects of getting to heaven when we act together as a community."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010