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Putting the pedal to parish mettle

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At 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, 10 sleepy-eyed parishioners assembled in the St. Rita Church parking lot in Alexandria to commemorate a largely overlooked, centuries-old tradition in the Catholic Church: Rogation Days.

Historically, the springtime rite, often centered around prayers for an abundant growing and harvest season in the months ahead, also featured a procession around the parish to reinforce boundary lines before maps became commonplace. That procession is sometimes referred to as the “Beating of the Bounds,” especially in Europe.

Now in its fourth year, St. Rita’s observation has taken the form of a Rogation Boundary Bike Ride — a 7.5 mile loop illustrating where the parish abuts the boundaries of neighboring churches such as the Basilica of St. Mary, Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Joseph. 

“My Dad woke me up at 5:30!” shouted Max Bowman, 7, as he pedaled up to the church in the gathering sunlight with older brother Gus, 8.

Their father, Josh Bowman, organizes the outing each year.

“My goal of starting the boundary ride was to recover a wonderful and beautiful ancient tradition,” he said. “The beating of the bounds emphasizes that our parish community joins our houses together.” He added, it “also recalls the walls of the vineyard or the sheepfold that appear so often in the Gospels.”

According to “Question Corner,” a syndicated column written by Father Kenneth Doyle and published by the Catholic News Service, Rogation Days take their name from the Latin verb “rogare” meaning “to ask” and were first instituted in France during the fifth century following a period of great pestilence and natural disaster. Four hundred years later, Father Doyle noted, Rogation Days were observed by the universal church. As the global economy gradually grew more industrialized, the practice became optional starting in 1969, observed at the discretion of local church leaders.

Participants gathered for prayer inside the church, where overnight Eucharistic adoration was still underway. Following a short trek to the starting point at Four Mile Run Park, they recited the Litany of Saints (a Rogation staple) and listened to Psalm 69 before setting off on the ride. At various points during the trip, bikers paused to demarcate the borders with washable chalk blessed by Father Nicholas Schierer, parochial vicar at St. Rita.

Bowman said the parish ride has alternated, marking different variations on Rogation Days. In the beginning, he chose the “minor rogation,” which falls on a different date each year based on the Ascension. After the onset of the pandemic last year, he shifted to observe the “major rogation,” which was first instituted by Pope Gregory the Great and always falls on April 25, by selecting a Saturday near that date. “Even without the richness and depth of meaning in all the rituals and traditions, it's a glorious way to start the day.”

“My hope is to someday host a sanctioned cycling rally that roughly follows the route, so that the tradition becomes inculturated in a way that those who thirst for the truth can approach it afresh and anew,” Bowman added.

Reflecting afterward on the ride, his son Max said, "I felt great and strong."


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021