Papal pilgrims walk to Philly

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People making the trek to see Pope Francis, either in Washington, New York or Philadelphia, all will have stories about how they got there with street closures, public transit issues and the size of the crowds.

For 22 people participating in the Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy, they are hoofing it from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore through the city, through the counties of Baltimore, Harford and Cecil, and into Pennsylvania with the end goal of Philadelphia for the pope's Sept. 27 outdoor Mass at Ben Franklin Parkway.

Channeling their inner pilgrim and embracing the spiritual aspects of pilgrimage, not to mention relying on any athletic prowess, the group set off Sept. 20 to average 16 miles per day, stopping overnight at schools and parishes along the way. Support vans will accompany the pilgrims.

Father John J. Lombardi, pastor of St. Peter and St. Patrick Churches in Washington County, Md., a professional pilgrim having made these treks before, will lead the group.

The Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, organizers of this pilgrimage, will walk the walk with Managing Editor Paul McMullen also covering it, posting updates on social media.

Tony Antenucci, a parishioner of St. James Church in Falls Church, was asked to join the group of pilgrims. Contemplating doing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela next year, Antenucci sees it as a "mini dry run."

The second day of the pilgrimage, students and staff of St. Ursula's School in Parkville, Md., gave the pilgrims a grand sendoff after they spent the night at the parish. The students lined Harford Road, block after block, clad in their uniforms, jumping up and down, cheering, waving, holding signs that read, "Good luck," and "We walk with you in faith."

The pilgrims, in their neon green T-shirts even got support from cars passing by with encouraging toots of horns.

With a 104-mile trek, the pilgrims will have time to get into a rhythm, which Antenucci said leads his mind to go blank, similar to centering prayer, "where the goal is just to listen. So my goal is just to listen."

Crowd size predictions for Philadelphia have varied over the past few months.

"The bigger the crowds, the better the welcome for the pope," Antenucci said, adding that he wants to "add to the crowds to show him that I appreciate his coming."

Antenucci wants to make a point as well. "I want our increasing secularized country to know that there are still many of us who participate in the church."

When the group of pilgrims gets to Philadelphia, they'll be rewarded with standing tickets to the papal Mass. No seats for the weary, but a guarantee of getting close enough to see the Holy Father.

"I could see him better at home on TV," Antenucci said, but he'd welcome the unlikely opportunity to greet the pope. He said he would tell him, "Good leaders don't focus on the power and privileges of their office but rather on its burdens and responsibilities of leadership. Since I think he's a good leader, my question would be what can I do to help."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015