Jason Medinger had a shot at running for Calvert Hall College's varsity track team yesterday, but gave it up to walk in Baltimore's first Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Pilgrimage for Young Adults and Youth.
"This was a little more important," said the 15-year-old freshman from Lutherville.
He had been part of a similar youth pilgrimage during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Denver, Colo., last year. That was, he said, "just one of those life experiences you have to do."
Jason said he hoped the Baltimore march yesterday would be an extension of that spirit of Denver.
Baltimore's pilgrimage unfurled under bright parish banners from small amphitheater in Rash Field on the southern end of the Inner Harbor early yesterday afternoon. The march drew approximately 500 people, mostly high school students, with a smattering of college-age young people.
The event marked the start of Holy Week and recalled Palm Sunday, which Christians observe today. The Bible recounts that Christ rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a path made colorful by palms and cloaks.
The Baltimore pilgrims' destinations were, first, the Paca Street home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Catholic to be canonized, and then the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Cathedral Street.
On the grounds of the Seton house, Archbishop William H. Keeler blessed palm fronds, which young people distributed through the crowd and handed to passers-by along the rest of the marching route. The archbishop later celebrated a Palm Sunday Mass at the Basilica.
As head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Keeler chaired the weeklong papal visit to Denver in August 1993. He said yesterday he was inspired to bring the Denver pilgrimage back to Baltimore, "when I saw the enthusiasm the young people had in being with one another."
Mark Pacione, director of the archdiocese's office of youth ministries, said the idea of reviving the ancient custom of pilgrimages came to many minds at one time.
"The kids and the archbishop had a good time in Denver, and the kids were saying, 'Could we do this in Baltimore?' and at the same time the archbishop was saying, 'We could do this in Baltimore,' " he said.
The 73-year-old pontiff's visit to Denver in last August brought approximately 186,000 young people to the city for Masses and rallies and a pilgrimage through the streets.
Jason said he had anticipated that the Denver visit would be "the most incredible meeting of youth ever," and he wasn't disappointed. But the pilgrimage through the western city on a hot summer day taught him about the "Denver mile."
The "Denver mile," Jason explained, is an incentive plan where they tell you you're going to march 2 miles, and the distance turns out to be 6 miles. He suspected that yesterday's walk through Baltimore might also be 6 miles under the guise of 2.
But a city street map showed that the local organizers had played it straight.
The pilgrims and their youth ministry advisers marched under the banners of parishes from Baltimore City, Timonium, Catonsville, Dundalk, Walkersville and Hagerstown. Some said they came for the social experience, some to deepen their religious faith and some admitted that participation was part of the requirements for confirmation in their churches.
For Howard Community College student Jacob Cain, 18, of Columbia, the experience was an opportunity to be with people his own age and a return of the sense of a community of faith he found during the pope's visit in Denver.
Mr. Cain said he was brought up in the Catholic faith, but his father never took an authoritarian tack with religious education.
"You know some parents say, 'That's how it's supposed to be and that's it,' but he'd give us explanations," Mr. Cain said.
Mr. Cain said he has been busy with his studies -- he hopes to become a writer -- and a job and playing keyboard in a local band, so he's missed a few Sunday Masses.
"But my beliefs are the same," he said.
Jessica Waughman, 15, a sophomore at Walkersville High School in Frederick County and member of St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Walkersville, traded her chance to sleep in and scrimmage with her school soccer team to attend the Baltimore pilgrimage.
"But this is better," she said.
Archbishop Keeler said that if he could have the young people take away one thing from yesterday's experience, it would be, "a sense of the strength that comes from working with others their age."