CHARLESTON—Five priests and seminarians are traveling 1,400 miles — from Florida to New York — in order to promote religious vocations.
The catch? They’re doing it on bicycles.
Wearing helmets and team shirts with the Biking 4 Vocations logo on their chests, the men flash down the highways and back roads of the East Coast, admiring the beauty of God’s creation and slapping palms with well-wishers as they pass by.
Riders include Father Joseph Fitzgerald, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York.; Father Marc Swartvagher, academic dean for Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston, New York; and seminarians Stephen Rooney from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Dominik Wegiel from the Diocese of Brooklyn and Steven Diaz from the Archdiocese of New York.
So far, they said, they journey has been amazing.
One of the highlights: meeting friendly, curious people along the way — at gas stations, restaurants and Walmarts, Father Fitzgerald said.
“We have constantly encountered Christian non-Catholics who are wowed by what we are doing,” he said.
Of course they’ve also met plenty of Catholics too as they’ve stopped at parishes along their route, with a goal of covering 28 cities in 29 days. The miles average out to 50 a day, but some are shorter and others longer. The longest so far was almost 80.
Over Memorial Day weekend, the group stopped in Charleston where they took a day to rest and visit people they knew, including Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who was a priest in their home diocese of Rockville Centre.
During Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Pentecost Sunday, the bishop was honored to confirm one of the team drivers, Torey McNeil, into the faith.
Later that same day, the biking crew celebrated Mass at Blessed Sacrament, where they spoke about the purpose of their journey and shared their own vocation stories. They noted that a religious vocation isn’t something that falls out of the sky and hits you on the head; it takes prayer and support.
Afterward, people took a moment to talk to the priests and seminarians and wish them safe travels.
Father Fitzgerald said prayers are welcome, and sometimes needed. Recently, a driver “who was obviously texting” got too close to one of the bikers and hit him with the mirror of their car, the priest said. The rider was OK, but it underscored the dangers, which also include intense heat, already brutal with highs in the mid-90s.
All five of the riders are in good shape, but Father Fitzgerald, who was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Handball Team, said long hours on a bike can take a toll.
“It’s testing me,” he acknowledged. The physical challenge is all part of the process, though.
“We believe there is something unique about the physical and sacrificial element of biking to our pilgrimage,” Father Swartvagher wrote. “We feel strongly about our task to promote vocations, and we truly intend to give our all, including physically to this journey.”
Steven Diaz, 25, said being a seminarian is a process of constant discernment and the pilgrimage has provided a strong spiritual component for the riders that has been inspirational.
Along with daily cycling, the priests and seminarians pray the Liturgy of the Hours five times a day, which requires periodic spiritual breaks. They have also kept the celebration of Mass at the center of their routine.
“It’s been very inspiring in regard to my vocation,” Diaz said. “The Lord has confirmed his invitation to the priesthood on this journey.”
Diaz said he isn’t a cyclist, but was invited to participate by Stephen Rooney, who had previously bicycled across the United States with an organization called “Bike and Build” to raise money and awareness for affordable housing.
Rooney thought the same idea would be a great way to promote the priesthood.
The team began their jaunt on May 17. They left Charleston May 25, heading to Pawleys Island, Myrtle Beach, and then into North Carolina.
Father Fitzgerald said they timed the ride so they could end the pilgrimage on June 14, in time to celebrate priestly ordination at the Cathedral of Saint Agnes in Rockville.