“Lord, I need you to pick up my foot. And I will put it down.”
As Nick, Rob, Benedict, and Carl arrived at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, there was no time to waste. “Our Goal was to make it for 11:00 a.m. Mass,” said Nick smiling … and that is exactly what they did.
After Mass on the grounds of the Shrine, the four men and their loved ones stepped outside of the chapel, dropped their backpacks, and rested in the sun. A feeling of gratitude surrounded their little group – gratitude to the Lord for the Grace given to accomplish their long pilgrimage.
Seminarians Nick Vande Hey, Rob Reynebeau, Carl Oman, and Benedict Wood
Diocese of Green Bay Seminarians Nick Vande Hey, Rob Reynebeau, and Benedict Wood, as well as Diocese of Superior Seminarian Carl Oman joined together to complete a 225+ mile walking pilgrimage from the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion.
Their pilgrimage, in total, was 11 days long and consisted of walking, praying in silence, singing, and sacrificing together. “We sang a lot,” Vande Hey said chuckling.
When asked what their favorite songs were to sing, they said, “Any Marian Hymns.”
“But also, some country!” added Reynebeau.
For lodging along the journey, they called ahead to parishes in the communities and the Priests connected them to parishioners who would be open to hosting the Seminarians. “We knew where we were going or at least we knew there was a person expecting us, but sometimes these were complete strangers,” said Vande Hey.
After determining their stops and their six rules of life on the pilgrimage, they were off.
The Six Rules
The four men kept six rules to connect them to God and embrace the spirit of pilgrimage:
1. Embrace the Cross
Overall, no complaining. Unite their sufferings – the blisters, the cold feet, the frustrations that arose – to the suffering of Christ.
2. If you need something, ask. If you don’t need something, don’t ask. Accept whatever is offered to you.
This was ultimately how the four Seminarians approached the concept of begging.
“We were begging for our basic needs throughout the course of this pilgrimage as a way to surrender to God’s providence,” said Wood.
3. End Every Day with Zero Dollars or a Plan to Give it Away
In the spirit of ‘give us this day our daily bread’ they would end their day with zero dollars. While sometimes given money throughout the pilgrimage, the four men did not want to get a donation and be set for the week, only to take care of themselves.
“We wanted to give people the opportunity to enter into the pilgrimage by helping provide for us, and for us to trust that God would provide,” said Wood.
4. Live Liturgically
This was how they prayed throughout the course of the pilgrimage. They would begin every day by praying through some of the intentions they were carrying and then spending 45 minutes in silence. They would do the same after lunch – 45 minutes of silence preceded by praying half the sheet of the intentions they were carrying. Every day, they prayed all five of the hours of the Breviary on the road together or sometimes complete evening prayer at the place they were stopping for the night. They would pray several rosaries together and, if walking during the 3 o’clock hour, they would pray the stations of the cross.
“As we progressed through the pilgrimage together, there would be longer periods of silence, more prayer, more growth in our interior life as we got closer and closer to our destination,” Wood explained.
5. Live with a spirit of trusting spontaneity
They wanted to trust that not only would God take care of them, but that God would provide awesome opportunities in front of them. Sometimes, they would go off trail to check out a church and pray there for a while, or just take risks.
“One day we were staying with a family, and they had a 7-year-old who was asking for ice cream. So, we went out to Dairy Queen and got them Dilly Bars because we had money that we had to donate that day,” said Wood. “It was just embracing this joy and trusting that, while we are embracing the cross, we are also going to be provided opportunities to give, to love, and to enter into the joy of the Lord.”
6. Become a Saint
“This life is passing. We are called to strive and trust that God will supply the grace we need to enter into eternal life,” said Wood looking out into the Shrine’s grounds. “That is the purpose of the pilgrimage – to remind us that in our day-to-day life, we are pilgrims marching towards the heavenly Jerusalem, marching towards eternal life. That is the goal. That is what our life is oriented towards.”
The Spirit of Pilgrimage
What does pilgrimage mean to each of you?
Nick Vande Hey
Pilgrimage is an opportunity to draw closer to the Lord with an eternal perspective and for Him to draw close to you… to recognize in a small way the larger journey that we are participating in.
Pilgrimage for me is an opportunity to depend totally on the Lord. Particularly related to this pilgrimage – when you are pushing yourself to your physical limit, when you are begging for your needs, when you are living a life that radically is dependent on God – any ideas of independence start to disappear, and you come face to face with your poverty before the Lord. There were times with every step I would pray “Lord, I need to you pick up my foot, and I will put it down.”
Pilgrimage is a microcosm of life. In these 11 days, we were able to experience the whole journey – with its joys and struggles. It makes a big analogy to life itself, our journey as pilgrim Church. When we first started off, it was exciting and full of anticipation. Then a few days in, we are on the longest, straightest stretch of highway and you start to recognize you can’t just do this anymore on your own. But this shows us a glimpse of our own life – and especially as seminarians, our life as Priests.
I really relate pilgrimage to the full journey of life. Throughout this pilgrimage, I’ve felt the full range of emotions that we experience in life. Time spent on pilgrimage allows us to be more attentive to the full movements of our heart and to create greater intimacy with Jesus. Especially as a Seminarian, I was grateful to fully claim this time to discern what Jesus wanted to reveal to me on this pilgrimage, while simultaneously reflecting on my life – who I’m trying to serve, what my goal is, what my intentions are.
Rector of Champion Shrine, Fr. Joseph Aytona, gave the four men a blessing when they arrived to the Shrine.
A connection to the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage
From May-July 2024, the National Eucharistic Revival will begin its National Eucharistic Pilgrimage across the United States. Four different routes will be offered for pilgrims to participate in, all converging in Indianapolis on July 16 for the 10th National Eucharistic Congress. One of the routes, known as the Marian Route, will pass through many Midwest Shrines devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Including the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, the first and only approved Marian Apparition Site in the United States.
The Marian Route will follow in similar steps to what these four men did in walking from La Crosse to Champion, Wisconsin. “We are just warming up the trail for them,” said Vande Hey smiling. “Make straight His paths.”
We are all called to pilgrimage
When asked if they would recommend pilgrimage to others, “Of course!” said Vande Hey. “The Lord just reveals so much and pours forth an abundance of Grace when we give Him our time.”
While we may not all be able to walk 225+ miles from La Crosse to Champion as these men did, the spirit of pilgrimage lies in the hearts of us all. Whether intentionally traveling to a sacred site, living out our vocation and nurturing it in others, or by doing God’s will daily – we are all pilgrims. The question remains for each of us to ponder: How can we best embrace our journey as we walk towards our heavenly destination?
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pray For Us!
Our Lady of Champion, Pray For Us!
To plan a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, check out championshrine.org/visit to find resources, planning guides, and travel information.