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Article: 'He goes everywhere': National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, Philly-style

Jack Figge

The Pillar (Link to original article on

June 4, 2024, 9:02 AM   

Editor’s note: As Catholics traverse across the country as part of nationally organized Eucharistic pilgrimages, The Pillar features reporting from Catholic student journalist Jack Figge, who has spent time this month as a ground-level correspondent with the pilgrims.

The bridge crossing into the St. John the Evangelist Parish parking lot pales in comparison to the looming Golden Gate Bridge. 

The small suburb of Newton, Pennsylvania lacks the vibrance of Bronx avenues pulsing with life. 

The classroom-turned-chapel at Holy Family University — with its bare walls, low ceilings, and modern stained glass windows — is well short of the grandeur of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. 

And no matter where you're from, Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, with needles scattered on the curb and the people doing drugs on the side of the road, can seem like a very different world. 

But Christ came to those places.

As June began, the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage brought the Blessed Sacrament across that small bridge, and walked with it down Newton’s main street. 

It stopped in the Holy Family University’s simple chapel. 

And celebrated living in Kensington, as pilgrims walked with the Eucharist last weekend through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  

When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a three-year National Eucharistic Revival, bishops expressed a desire to help shape a grassroots movement that would invite people from all walks of life to encounter the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. 

A major component of that three-year revival is the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, a set of four pilgrimages that launched from California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Texas. 

After two months on the road, all four pilgrim teams will convene in Indianapolis, to mark the July 17 kickoff of the National Eucharistic Congress.

Over the course of 65 days, each pilgrimage stops daily at parishes in small towns and large cities, with locals joining in the walking routes through their own towns. 

On May 19, the Elizabeth Anne Seton route started walking in New Haven, Connecticut, with a route winding through the Northeast as it heads to Indianapolis.  

For five days at the end of May, the pilgrimage traversed through the streets of Philadelphia and neighboring suburbs.

Like everywhere the pilgrims travel, they met people who said they’d encountered Jesus in powerful ways. 

‘I did not expect to be moved this much’

Kyle Kay, a dad in his early 30s, was driving to his house in Newton, Pennsylvania on May 30, when traffic stopped along his route, to allow the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage to make its way to St. Andrew’s Parish.  

Kay told The Pillar he was impressed by the crowd of people he saw from the driver seat of his Range Rover that Thursday.

“It looks like a unifying event,” Kay told The Pillar. “There are a lot of people coming together for this. I am not a big religious person, but I am happy for them; they look at peace.”  

He watched only for a few minutes before the procession passed, a traffic light turned green, and Kay drove home.

Still, he said, the pilgrimage had made an impression.

“I took a couple photos because I was intrigued,” Kay said. “I will definitely remember it.” 

Parishioners from St. Andrew’s, like Steve and Liz Tolkach, told The Pillar they hope a procession in their neighborhood might spark curiosity among neighbors like Kyle Kay — and might even lead them to the parish.

“There are many graces that will flow from the Lord being here,” Liz Tolkach told The Pillar as she walked with the Eucharist. 

“My hope is that the people that observed this in town will think, ‘Wow, something is happening and going on at St. Andrew’s; I want that.’” 

It’s not clear whether Kyle Kay — or other spectators in Newton — will make a visit to the parish after seeing the procession. 

But if they do, St. Andrew’s has a lot to offer them.

The parish has grown exponentially under the leadership of Monsignor Michael Picard, who has been pastor for 35 years, and who celebrated his 86th birthday the day the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage came to town. 

St. Andrew’s is a wealthy suburban parish. An in-house parish film production crew taped the Eucharistic procession, and the parish provided perpetual pilgrims with an elegant Italian meal as they passed through.

But the parish hasn’t always been that way. 

It’s grown with the development of the neighborhood, Picard said.  

“When I first came here, the parish was small; it was a small rural parish, which made it personable,” Msgr. Picard told The Pillar.  “As the suburb has grown, so too has the parish.”

Picard says that as the parish has grown, he’s aimed to keep parishioners connected to each other. 

“We started these small faith groups that have helped build a vibrant community where people know each other,” the priest said.

More than 400 parishioners showed up to walk with the Eucharist on Thursday afternoon — for a procession that some said helped them to feel more connected to the parish community.

“This procession was interwoven into the community,” Steve Tolkach told The Pillar. “You were walking with one person that you know, then switched and were talking to somebody else that you know.”  

The Tolkachs were not surprised by the large turnout.

“This is a community with a deep love and reverence for the Eucharist, so all you had to say was that Jesus was in town, and they showed up,” Liz Tolkach said. “I know it took a lot of organization to organize, but here at the parish, people just showed up because they love the Lord.”

The procession also gave the Lord the chance to bless the people Liz and Steve see every day, for Christ to walk along the route they regularly drive, they said.  

“Knowing that the Lord is moving through our town, blessing our town, was powerful,” Liz Tolkach said. 

“Seeing non-Catholics just going about their daily lives, just stopping, and seeing that the Lord is blessing them is just very beautiful.”

The Tolkachs, who described their faith life as strong, said the procession left a deep impression on them. 

“The procession worked on my heart more than I thought it would,” Steve Tolkach said. “I did not expect to be moved this much.” 

“There are moments that the Lord gives us …  a glimpse of what heaven is like here on earth, and that is what happened here during the procession.” 

Picard said he’d be glad if the procession helped his parish appreciate more the gift of the Eucharist.

“Even though we’re good, faithful Catholics, we can get kind of used to the Eucharist where we might not take it as seriously as we should at times,” the priest explained.

“This type of thing really stirred up a stronger interest and a stronger faith in the Eucharist, especially knowing that this was happening throughout the country, so I think the benefits will be long-lasting.”

While the parish has hosted Eucharistic processions in the past, this one was different, Msgr. Picard shared. It connected parishioners to something beyond their own parish.

“We've had processions before for Corpus Christi, and not many people would view it because of the street’s geography,” Msgr. Picard said. “But with this national pilgrimage, we will get some publicity going as well as follow up with other events where we go out to more people in the area and invite them to come to events.”  

That night, they had their first event, a Theology on Tap, where Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson Perez talked about the Eucharist, and answered Catholic questions. 

More Eucharistic events are already in the works for the parish community, Picard explained.

‘Next level intimacy with Jesus’

On their second day in Philadelphia, Eucharistic pilgrims made their way into a more urban neighborhood, with a visit to Holy Innocents Parish, in Philadelphia’s Juniata neighborhood.

The parish offers Mass in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. And over the past two decades, several nearby parishes have been closed, leaving Holy Innocents as the area’s Catholic nucleus.

Charles Matamoros, Holy Innocents’ director of religious education said the parish needs revival, especially after Covid.  

“This parish is a hub,” Matamoros told the Pillar

“Throughout the years, it was mostly white people, but now it has been shifting, and we have a large Hispanic population because this whole area here is more Hispanic. Even though it is a big parish, we are not at the level of attendance we once were before Covid.” 

Matamoros told The Pillar that the pilgrimage offered a unique catechetical and evangelization opportunity for his parish. 

“It is a privilege to host the pilgrimage,” Matamoros said. “Personally, I work with a lot of families whose children are in the public school, and they come here every Thursday for the sacrament education. It is a big help to see that God is coming and visiting this parish.”  

When they heard the Eucharistic pilgrimage was stopping at Holy Innocents, parish leaders worked with the archdiocese to coordinate an evening of adoration, followed by a parish reception. 

Their target audience was local families and young adult communities, as the parish tries to find new ways to draw those groups in. 

“The younger generations are really shifting away from the Church because parents often do not bring their children to church,” he continued. 

Matamoros said he hoped that the pilgrimage might spark a change.

“This pilgrimage can help parents in that struggle, because these parish events are easy things to bring children to, and if children see that their parents are coming here … because they wanted to, that can leave a lasting impact.”  

“I hope that by coming here, they will be reminded that with Christ, anything is possible and that He wants to help them,” he added.  

When a bilingual prayer service began May 31 at Holy Innocents, hundreds of people did show up.

Parishioner Sue Lee, a social worker, said that when young people talked about loving the Eucharist during the parish adoration night, she was reminded of her own experience —  falling in love with the Eucharist after converting from her evangelical church. 

“When you're in the presence of Jesus, it just makes the love of God and the presence of God that much more tangible and real,” Lee said. “Having grown up Protestant, I missed out on the Eucharist my whole life.” 

“Since joining the Catholic Church and receiving the Eucharist, I have experienced next-level intimacy with Jesus,” she continued.

At the parish event, Lee experienced the same intimacy that she has encountered so many times before. Throughout the night, she prayed that her fellow parishioners would have a similar encounter.  

“I hope that people are drawn to come tonight not out of obligation, guilt, or fear, but that they will be drawn to the Eucharist out of desire,” Lee said. “I hope people realize that having Jesus in our lives is the best thing ever. There's nothing like it. I hope it leads to the parish being more vibrant and devoted to experiencing the presence of God in the Eucharist.” 

Matamoros told The Pillar he was glad that the Eucharistic pilgrimage had come to a parish like Holy Innocents.

“In this area, many people struggle with money and work; maybe here people are more hurt, especially by crime,” Matamoros said. “People tend to be more closed off than in other areas. I don't know. It's different than in Newton or other areas. But that is why they are doing this national pilgrimage; it is to just reach everyone.”  

Lee saw the visit as evidence that the pilgrimage is following the example that Christ set in his own ministry.

 “When you look at the life and ministry of Jesus, he always went to marginalized people and marginalized communities—to people who the rest of society might look down on or judge in some way,” Lee said. “ But it's also in these places where you find people with the most incredible faith.” 

‘Where Christ wanted to be’

On Saturday, their third day in Philadelphia, pilgrims joined a Eucharistic procession from Visitation Parish to McPherson Square and back, in the low-income Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.  

Kensington has a reputation in metro Philadelphia as a dangerous area — a place impacted by blight and neglect from landlords, where Missionaries of Charity spend time, often ministering to people caught up in heroin use, or in other cycles of addiction.

James Bilot is well-acquainted with the area. 

A volunteer with Mission Youth, a Regnum Christi-sponsored volunteer corps that serves the poor, Bilot frequently walks the streets of Kensington, offering assistance to homeless people in the area.

“Kensington is kind of scary,” Bilot told The Pillar

“You see people right in front of you with needles in their arms. They know you're there, but they don't care. You see people lying on the ground, and you can't tell if they're dead or alive. Sometimes they are breathing really shallow and slowly, and you have to ask the person next to them, ‘Hey, are they doing all right?’” 

“You might then have to call an ambulance, and that has happened. It's happened a lot.” 

But Bilot said the neighborhood’s people are not without hope.  

“Kensington is dark and lonely, but hopeful,” Bilot said. “There’s a lot of people there who have a lot of hope and a lot of faith. It’s really cool to see it.” 

By most accounts, that hope was alive and visible on Saturday afternoon as the Eucharistic procession made its way through the area, with about 70 participants walking through the area. 

As pilgrims — local and from other parts of the region — walked through the neighborhood, people took note. One man, seemingly homeless, was moved to tears when volunteers explained what the Eucharist was.

Another hunched over from fentanyl use did not flinch as the procession passed by. But when a volunteer checked in on him and explained what was happening, he lifted his head and watched the procession until it disappeared out of sight.  

“Jesus actually came to Kensington and walked among the people there, just like he did in the Bible,” Bilot said. 

“He didn't come for those who already were in a great place; he came for everyone, especially those who are most broken, those who are most in pain, and those who are most lost.”  

“We brought Christ to the people, and that’s where Christ wanted to be.” 

As pilgrims walked in the area, they distributed food packages and water to bystanders.

Many pilgrims in the June 1 procession were members of the Mission Youth volunteer corps, who go to Kensington at least once a month. 

“Every month Mission Youth sponsors a mission,” explained Bilot. “We come here to Kensington, and we pray with the homeless, we bring them food, and we just be their friends because honestly, what they need more than anything are relationships.”  

Mission Youth volunteers invited homeless people they recognized to join in the procession. 

The procession in Kensington also passed a young Amish couple, and people worshiping at a storefront Evangelical mission.

Bilot pointed out that Catholic missionary activity in the area is unique, in his view — and that’s because of the Eucharist.

“When I've talked to the homeless in Kensington, they always share how Protestant groups come, but they don't really talk to us. They don't really meet with us. But they say that we come, and are present with them, trying to learn who they are,” Bilot said. 

“That’s what we did today with the Eucharistic procession. We met and served them, but it also gave us a chance to show how real our faith is, and invite them into that.” 

‘One Church’

As the four Eucharistic pilgrimages cross the country, there’s been a great deal of discussion among Catholics about what they might accomplish.

Some participating in the Philadelphia area events told The Pillar that until they started walking, they also questioned the purpose. 

But the walk clarified things, they said.

For Picard, the Eucharistic pilgrimages were about connection.

“Parishes can get very insular, and people forget that there's more out there beyond their own parish,” Msgr. Picard shared. “This kind of thing wakes people up to the more universality of the Church, and that there’s more to the Church than just St. Andrew Parish or even the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”

“I think the more universal experience people have, the more they are going to see the universality of the Church overall.” 

For Bilot, the pilgrimages are a reminder of divine love.

“No matter how much money you have—whether you have a ton of money or don't have any—your heart is always capable of being empty,” he told The Pillar. 

“Sometimes it's a lot easier when you're rich to be empty-hearted. And sometimes, in poverty, it's easier to have faith because you have your life,” Bilot continued. 

“This national pilgrimage reminds us that God is love and loves everybody. When I am reminded that God loves me and He wants to love everyone, too, I am inspired to help. I want to bring Jesus everywhere.”


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