Church's Affordable Care Act protest to pass through Catonsville

In the past three years, the Rev. John Lombardi's pilgrimages have included walking through Spain to the tomb of Saint James, traveling to Peru to help charities and visiting Native American reservations in western United States.

This year, the Catholic priest from St. Peter Catholic Church and two dozen other members of the church started on July 29 a 100-mile trek from his church near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in Hancock, Md., through Catonsville to Baltimore and the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The pilgrims will attend a 4:30 p.m. Mass Aug. 5 at the basilica and receive a blessing, Lombardi said.

The group's "Religious Freedom Walk 2012" is to bring attention to "the injustice of the federal mandate against Catholic churches, institutions and other private groups coercing them to provide contraception and sterilization procedures against their conscience and religious convictions," Lombardi said.

Initially, Lombardi planned an eight-day walk by himself to start July 29.

Then more than 20 people agreed to take part in the trip and others wanted to join for portions of the trip.

"A pilgrimage is an ancient, holy way to live one's faith and trust in God," Lombardi said.

"You put yourself at the mercy of the elements and the weather and pizza makers and hotels," he joked.

The group plans to walk into Catonsville via Baltimore National Pike before being picked up on Aug. 4 by Catonsville resident Laura Hamilton.

After the walkers sleep at St. William of York Catholic Church on 600 Cooks Lane in Baltimore, Hamilton will drive them back to the gas station where they will complete the remaining 9.3 miles into Baltimore and attend Mass at the basilica.

Among the walkers in the 13.8-mile leg from Cooksville in Howard County to the 6600 block of Baltimore National Pike will be Hamilton's husband of 32 years, Pat.

Hamilton's 23-year-old son, Kevin, walked the first leg of the pilgrimage.

"We hope that it will just show people that there are those who will walk 100 miles to get the point across that we don't want to be forced," said Hamilton, a friend of Lombardi. "We want to challenge the loss of our religious freedom.

"We feel deep down that it's a slippery slope that's taken away freedoms on which this country is built," she said.

Hamilton and her husband did the 100-mile walk in Spain with Lombardi in 2010 but didn't have the time to walk for eight days this year because they have to make preparations for her son's wedding in early August.

Walking such a great distance is a challenge that requires training, Hamilton said, but one worthy of the cause.

"You don't know how you do it, but you just do it," Hamilton said, noting that she and her husband walked three miles a day to train for the pilgrimage in Spain. "Little things along the way will keep them going."

Lombardi said people's kindness has been "snowballing" since he began planning the pilgrimage in early July.

About a dozen priests rejected Lombardi's request to cover his Masses while he went on the pilgrimage, but eventually a priest he didn't know volunteered to fill in for him.

The group has also received donations of services, such as the professional driver who will transport the pilgrims on their trip, and money.

Pledges for more than $1,000 will go to organizations that directly help the poor, Lombardi said.

"Pilgrimages are a fun adventure," Lombardi said. "You can raise other people's awareness and charity moneys for others."

As the pilgrims walk six hours each day, they will talk, pray, sing and take the opportunity to appreciate their surroundings.

"Toward Baltimore, it's beautiful to observe and appreciate God's creation," Lombardi said. "When you're buzzing by at 65 mph, you can't appreciate it as much."

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