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Article: Two paths, one pilgrimage: Meet a Protestant and a grandmother on Eucharistic pilgrimage

Thanks to Jack Figge of The Pillar for another profile of what it's like to journey on the Seton Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. This article was published on July 1. It's been a joy to have Jan and Amanda join us on the Seton Route.

Neither Jan Pierson nor Amanda Newton ever thought they would follow a Eucharistic procession across the northeastern United States. 

Pierson, who is approaching her 70th birthday, found herself believing it, when family members told her a few months back that she might be too old to complete a 65-day journey from New Haven Connecticut to Indianapolis, Indiana. 

And Newton, 25, is not a Catholic. Not yet, anyway.

But Pierson still saved up money, packed up her Toyota Prius with camping gear, and has been following the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Seton route for its entire journey. 

Newton, who is preparing to enter into the Church this September, took time off from the Protestant ministry where she serves, walking with the pilgrimage as a kind of preparation for first receiving the Eucharist.

And while they come from different generations, Newton and Pierson struck up a friendship this summer, as they walked together on the National Eucharistic pilgrimage. 

They say that friendship is rooted in a common desire to grow as disciples of Jesus. 

Two paths, one pilgrimage

Pierson has always wanted to travel the Camino de Santiago, an ancient walking pilgrimage route that culminates in northwestern Spain. When she heard about the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, her first thought was that it sounded like an American Camino. 

And she wanted to do it. 

“I've always wanted to do the Camino, and I thought what better way to try it than in the United States with the Blessed Sacrament,” Pierson told The Pillar

“As I was preparing for it and talking about it in my Bible study, I began to see how this national pilgrimage is like St. Paul’s journey in the Acts of the Apostles.” 

“I kept thinking about what I would be doing all along this pilgrimage and I knew something was going to happen, that God would do something big.” 

But when Pierson first told her four adult children, and her elderly mother, about her plan to walk the entire pilgrimage, trailing the official group of pilgrims, they thought she was crazy.

“My mom said she didn’t think I should be doing this, and I asked ‘You don't want me to walk with Jesus?’”

“She said: ‘That’ is not what I mean.’ And then she tried to get my kids to convince me not to go,” Pierson said laughing.

But neither her children nor her mother could deter her. Pierson, a semi-retired public school math and science teacher, began saving money for the trip, and praying that God would protect her along the way. 

“I started saving back in August and September when I first heard about the pilgrimage and I wanted to sign up right away,” Pierson said. 

“I just went on this spending halt and I saved and saved as much as I could. And anything that I thought that I might need, and I would ask myself if I really need it. And that's what I've been doing since August.”

Saving was hard. But planning for the trip’s logistics was even more daunting — Pierson did not know what life on the road would entail, and had little idea what to expect. 

Pierson didn’t know how far the pilgrimage would be walking each day, and whether or not she would be able to find a hotel to stay at each night. So she prepared for every possible situation. 

“I was thoroughly preparing myself to go backcountry camping, following the pilgrimage,” Pierson said. 

“When I found out that the procession would be riding in a car everyday, I just went, ‘Okay, I know I can do this. I just have to get over my fear of the big cities.’”

But by the time she had faced her family, finances, and the prospect of camping for 65 days, Pierson said she felt ready for anything on the pilgrimage.

“I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day, but I've known all along that I could do it … that nothing would stop me from following Jesus and seeing what he does through this pilgrimage.”

Already, God has moved powerfully through the pilgrimage, Pierson said.

“Through this pilgrimage, God has been bringing me to other people, not just by walking and talking with me but also in the way I feel the weight of other people's prayers,” Pierson said. 

“I’m keeping their prayer intentions in a book and I read through it every single place we go and bring those intentions to the foot of the cross at whatever church that I’m in.”

Pierson met Newton early in the pilgrimage, and the two bonded over their plans to follow the procession. They’ve since become fast friends.

Newton had her own reasons for joining the pilgrimage. 

“When I heard about the pilgrimage I was already feeling a really intense longing in my heart to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but I was waiting and I'm still waiting until I am confirmed,” Newton said. 

“But I saw how radical Jesus’ love was for me and I wanted to respond to his love in some way.” And it felt like this would be a beautiful way to express that longing and desire to be united to Him in the Eucharist.” 

Growing up in a devout Protestant family, Newton was raised to be wary of the Catholic Church.

In her early 20’s Newton struggled with addiction, and eventually went to a Protestant recovery center in New Hampshire called His Mansion. After completing the program, she stayed on as a staff member to give back to the place that helped her. 

During her time at His Mansion, Newton met a local priest, and began learning more about the Catholic faith. 

A year ago, she decided to enter the Church. But after facing pushback from her family, she decided to stop attending RCIA. 

In December, Newton realized that something was missing from her life. She decided to return to RCIA, and expects to be confirmed — and receive the Eucharist — in the autumn.

“As a Protestant Christian, the only Catholics I really encountered were people who had left the Catholic Church and were living as Protestant Christians,” Newton said. 

“I loved Jesus, but the experience of the Catholic Church that was [conveyed] to me was very, like, wounded and almost very like sterilized. It sounded like the Catholic faith was lacking the love of Jesus.”

Newton said that through experiences at her new parish, many of her misconceptions have been changed. 

But participating in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage has deepened her sense of what the Church really is.

“My experience of the Catholic Church is really just my home parish,” Newton said. 

“By coming on this [pilgrimage], I've been able to see how huge the Church is. By following the processions I have learned that there are all these different ways of worshiping Jesus, in different languages and cultures and ways of worshiping Jesus and honestly, I think that's kind of relieved a lot of fear.” 

‘Can I hold your hand?’

The many ways the pilgrimage has helped Newton to overcome fears about her newfound Catholic faith has been one of the greatest graces she has received, she said. 

“The prospect of being a new Catholic is scary because I keep thinking about what parish I am going to go to, I don't know what the priests will be like or will the people be nice,” Newton said. 

“Getting to experience all these relationships with people, total strangers over the course of this pilgrimage has opened my eyes to how God moves and it has comforted a lot of my fears.”

“By seeing all these people showing up to the processions, it has relieved a lot of fear knowing that there are Catholics that are on fire for Jesus.” 

But even more profound for Newton has been the moments in private prayer, where she has experienced a deeper recognition of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

“The best parts of the pilgrimage have been the quiet moments when I am adoring Jesus in the churches we stop at,” Newton said. “It feels like an exchange of love that's happening and I just l cry. … I feel the intensity of Christ's love in these moments.”

Newton has found that those graces carry beyond the pilgrimage. 

Still working at His Mansion, Newton has had to jump in and out of the pilgrimage a few times to return to work. 

When she left the pilgrimage to return home for the first time, she was sad about leaving the road. But when Newton arrived at work, she found herself approaching her job with a new disposition, she said. 

“When I went back home it was really hard because I did not want to leave,” Newton said. 

“But when I arrived back in New Hampshire, and I showed up for work, I was more happy to be there. I was so joyful to be able to love the people that God has given me to love. And that was really a cool realization.” 

As for Pierson, the trip has been filled with grace-filled moments, she said. She said the Lord is helping her to see a deeper sense of unity in the Church. 

“There's hundreds and hundreds of Catholics in these processions, to see all of the people coming from a diversity of background is so eye opening,” Pierson said. 

“You realize that you are not just part of this little group, but are a part of this one, big Catholic family. And it feels so great and I have been screaming from my heart with excitement.”

Pierson said she’s found herself talking a lot on the pilgrimage with people who were struggling. In New York, she said, one woman approached her and began pouring out her heart, explaining that her husband had just died.Pierson, a widow herself, knew the pain this woman was going through. She walked with her for the rest of the day’s pilgrimage. 

As the woman told her story, Pierson recalled, “I just looked at her and I said, ‘I'm a widow also.’ She just looked at me shocked.” 

“She grabbed ahold of my arm and she asked, ‘Can I just hold your hand the whole way?’ And I said, ‘Sure no problem.’”

“We walked all the way to the next church, and we both just held on to each other. I told her, you can do it. You can do it. Just keep keep doing this.” 

Lived Discipleship

Newton and Pierson the best gift they’ve gotten on their pilgrimages has been a new sense of what it would have been like to live as a disciple of Christ, during his time on earth. 

“I always imagine that this is the way Jesus traveled with his followers during His ministry,” Newton said.

It was probably really similar to what we are doing —- they probably didn't know where he was going, and they definitely didn't know where they were going to sleep at night.”

 “People who traveled to go see Jesus were coming from far away, and were doing things that are far harder than whatever we're doing,” she added. 

Pierson said she hopes to bring lessons from the pilgrimage to her parish Bible study.

“Some of the stuff in the Bible is coming to life,” on the pilgrimage, she said. 

Pierson remembered a day in Connecticut, walking with thousands of people across a field, behind the Eucharist carried in a monstrance. When she looked back at the field behind her, she saw something she won’t forget.

“I looked back at the grass that we had just walked through and how we matted it down,” Pierson said. 

“I was thinking about what happened during the exodus when there were thousands of people going through, and what that would have looked like.” 

Then there was the time Pierson thought she saw Zacchaeus. 

“There was one photographer that climbed up a tree, and I was reminded of the story of Zacchaeus. [The photographer] was up in a tree taking pictures, and I'm trying to get my phone, to take a picture of her taking pictures — to capture this one moment,” Pierson said. 

“There's just so many moments where I just keep getting these little glimpses of moments in the Bible that keep coming alive.”

‘Keep walking’

After weeks with the pilgrimage, Newton returned home earlier this month, to resume RCIA and serve the women at His Mansion.

In July, Pierson will attend the National Eucharistic Congress and then drive back to Bloomington. There, she will resume substitute teaching at St. Charles Borromeo parish and continues acting under her favorite title — Grandma. 

Both women said they think the pilgrimage will change their lives. 

“The women I serve are in really wounded places with God and they often do not believe in God as they are recovering from unimaginable traumas,” Newton said. “They feel like their sin disqualifies them from the love of God,.” 

“After being on this pilgrimage, I feel on fire for the Lord, so filled with his love and I just hope that somehow I can help lead these women back to to Jesus and show them that He offers hope, that there is a God and He loves them.” 

Pierson said that when she gets home, she hopes she’s more vocal about inviting fellow Catholics to parish life.

“Seeing all of the people that are coming out to the procession who are publicly showing their faith, the love they have for the Church is so inspiring,” Pierson said. 

“These are people that are doing what the bishops have been talking about, to invite everybody back to Church. Seeing these people who were proud to say that they were Catholic, and saying ‘ I want those around me to be Catholic,’ has really inspired me to return to my parish and invite others in.” 

“I knew it wasn't going to be easy. It's not been easy,” Pierson said of the pilgrimage. 

“Some days you walk 17 miles in the heat. You’re sore, and sometimes disheartened, but I’ve learned not to even dwell on it. That’s just one lesson I have learned. Do not dwell on the problems. You just have to go to Jesus with your problems and he affirms you and you realize that it's okay — I can handle this and I just need to keep walking.” 


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