A group of Carroll County Catholics joined a pilgrimage walking 108 miles from Baltimore to Philadelphia to attend mass with the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis. The walk was sponsored by the Arch Diocese of Baltimore and Catholic Review Media.
Paul McMullen, managing editor of the Catholic Review, a bi-weekly newspaper that goes out to Catholic households within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, spoke of how it all started.
"We were planning transportation for more than 900 people to see the Pope," McMullen said. "I said, 'What if some of us walk there?' I immediately thought of Father Jack [Lombardi]. His pilgrimages have always had strong Carroll County participation from [St. John Catholic Church in Westminster]."
Father Jack Lombardi, from St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock, has made a 100-mile pilgrimage annually since 2012. He'd just returned from a 100-mile walk in Ireland when he heard from McMullen.
"In Ireland they use the word "scheming" when they are planning something. The email [from McMullen] said he was scheming about walking to see the pope. I thought that was a sign," Lombardi said. "And I liked the idea."
Lombardi met McMullen in Baltimore on July 22, and the two drove from Baltimore to Philadelphia to plan the walking route, dividing it trip into an eight day journey. Invites went out and 22 walkers responded for the full journey. Throughout the walk, others joined them at various locations.
Of the 22, six were from Carroll County. St. John Catholic Church youth minister Kevin Brown, of Westminster; Shanon Pieper, 17, of Union Mills; Clara, 17, and Madelyn Milstead, 16, of Eldersburg; and adults Joe Landry, of Westminster; and Scott Sainz, of Manchester, all made the walk.
Several others arrived to walk the last leg of the journey, including Shanon's father, Matt Pieper, and brother, Logan, 14.
The pilgrimage began with mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Baltimore Basilica.
"That first day of walking was physically exhausting," Shanon said. "It was all uphill with almost the entire day in Baltimore City. It was worse than any other day."
Wearing bright shirts, they took Route 1 most of the way. A walker at the front of the line carried the papal flag and near the end someone carried the American flag. They stopped about every 16 miles for dinner and to spend the night, usually at a Catholic Church or school. Each morning Lombardi gave mass.
"The first day after we finished walking I was really tired, but not as sore as I thought I'd be," Clara said.
On the eighth day of walking they walked into the mass where they took communion with Pope Francis.
"My daughter, Madeline, sprained her ankle just before the walk," said Catherine Milstead. The Eldersburg mom is principal of Christiana Homeschool Academy in Westminster. She drove one of the support vans accompanying the walkers.
"My worst day was Tuesday," Madeline said. "On Tuesday there was a lot of uneven ground and I kind of re-twisted it. I also have asthma and I was running up a big hill to catch up with the group. I started seeing dots and almost passed out."
On Wednesday, Madeline rode in one of the three vans that followed walkers with water, snacks, luggage and supplies.
During the walk they had dubbed the Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy, the group sang church songs and even Disney songs. They chatted, shared stories and spoke to people along the route. They also used the opportunity to raise awareness about their church mission, Feet for Francis, through which gently used shoes are collected for the poor.
"The Pope says to go to the margins and reach out to the poor," Lombardi said. "During the walk we would speak about Feet for Francis and hand out cards so people could go online and find out how they could help. We have collection sites set up throughout the diocese."
Along the way meals were donated by churches, the Knights of Columbus and individuals.
"We were in a pizza restaurant and people kept giving money to the servers for us. They knew who we were. We ended up paying only about $40," Pieper said.
"The bill would have been well over $200," Milstead said.
Logan said they were given so much food they were able to give the rest out to the homeless and needy on the streets. She said fellow walker Sainz was moved by the opportunity to give to people who needed it most.
"He got to give them some of our leftover snacks," Logan said. "He said it touched him when he saw those kids looking so happy. You could tell they were struggling and he was super touched by that. Those things, and being with all those people was great."
The walkers were followed on the journey by NBC Nightly News and the Washington Post. They appeared two nights in a row on NBC Nightly News and were trending on Twitter before the end of the week.
Paula Tiller, of Clear Spring, a tutor at Christianna Homeschool Academy in Westminster, walked with her two sons, Eddy, 17, and James, 14, and daughter Philomena, 9.
The youngest in the group, Philomena said she knew she wanted to walk as soon as she learned of the pilgrimage, but it was harder than she thought.
"I thought about my feet hurting and I was tired and everything but I didn't really question why I did it because I knew I wanted to do it," Philomena said. "And at the end I was right in front of the Pope. I liked that."
Shanon said the pilgrimage wasn't easy, but it was worth it.
"Every day at the end of the day I asked myself, 'Why did I do this?' and every morning I woke up going, 'Because I want to see the Pope," Shanon said. "Because I love my faith. Because I think this is cool and interesting and something I will remember for the rest of my life. That is why I am doing this.' And when kids lined up outside their schools just to see us and to cheer, that's when I knew why I did it. All the people who donated things for us, and all the people who honked their horns when they passed by or gave us a big thumbs up and all the people who noticed that we were doing God's work — that is why we did it."
More than a million people turned out for mass Sept. 27. Inching forward through the crowd was more painful, members of the group agreed, than the longest day of walking. Catherine asked for a wheelchair for Madeline, whose ankle was swollen.
"We pushed her into the mass in the wheelchair and that got us ahead in the line. That and the NBC News people with us," Catherine said. "We were praising God. Instead of waiting six hours we only had to wait about two."
And when they saw Pope Francis, walkers said, it was worth painful steps, sleepless nights, uphill climbs and hot pressing crowds.
Pieper said they were all struck by the universal love and admiration people felt from the Pope. His daughter agreed.
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"It's his love," Shanon said. "He is so happy to see people, to be out and to minister. He has so much joy. It is the most amazing thing."