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Article: Walking with Jesus: Devout Catholics press on with nationwide journey

This article was published in the Altoona Mirror on June 28, 2024.

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — “Bye bye, Jesus!” a child called out as the riverboat chugged away from shore into the Ohio River, a solemn bell tolling amid the thrumming of an old-fashioned sternwheel.

Two Catholic bishops on board, representing dioceses on each side of the river, took turns holding aloft the guest of honor — the consecrated Eucharistic host, in which Catholics believe Jesus is truly present in the Communion bread.

Scores of devotees watched reverently from the shore on Sunday — nuns and families with clusters of young children — fingering rosaries, uttering prayers, singing quietly. Some knelt on the gravel surface.

The event culminated three days of devotions in this small Ohio city, launched by a procession through downtown streets on a sweltering Friday evening, where hundreds of devotees passed bars, shops, vacant storefronts and the curious stares of residents in folding chairs.

Among those in the procession were seminarians in black cassocks, nuns in habits, girls in First Communion dresses and members of lay orders in traditional garb. One girl’s T-shirt proclaimed, “Get holy or die tryin’.”

It’s just a snapshot of a wider project. Catholic pilgrims are in the middle of a two-month journey on four routes across the United States. They’re planning to converge on Indianapolis in mid-July for a climactic stadium gathering called the National Eucharistic Congress, the first such event in more than 80 years.

Everywhere, the center of attention is the Eucharistic host, held in a golden vessel known as a monstrance.

“The pilgrimage is a really exciting opportunity for us to literally walk with Jesus, like the apostles did,” said Zoe Dongas, one of a small group of “perpetual” pilgrims traveling an entire route.

Starting in May in New Haven, Connecticut, her group has processed through cities, ridden by boat to the Statue of Liberty and trekked through rural Pennsylvania in a heat wave. The group will travel from West Virginia across Ohio to Indianapolis, meeting up with pilgrims who started from California, Texas and Minnesota.

Organizers are hoping that — as with the child on the riverbank — the enterprise reinforces the core Catholic belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and not just symbolized by bread and wine, as many Protestants believe.

Some have questioned the need for the event, and the congress’s $14 million cost — saying belief in the Eucharist is stronger than feared, that the event is only appealing to those already drawn to traditional piety and that it’s partly the byproduct of a political debate.

But Bishop Mark Brennan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, said reinforcing Eucharistic faith is crucial.

“If that is weakened in our people, then they’ll be weakened in their response to Christ and to the service of God and neighbor that they’re supposed to offer,” Brennan said aboard the boat taking him and his counterpart from the Diocese of Steubenville downriver toward Wheeling.

If the scenes in Steubenville seemed like something out of another era, they are.

The last time a Eucharistic National Congress was held, it was in an era when urban Catholics thronged to massive devotional parades and stadium events. That kind of traditional piety began waning by mid-20th century.

But Steubenville, a Rust Belt city showing the wear of its post-industrial years, is a hub for some hoping to revive traditional piety. The region is home to a conservative Catholic university, a Catholic family camp and a cluster of religious orders.

Participants spoke of the Eucharist simply as Jesus.

The idea of taking Jesus out on a riverboat was natural in light of the assigned gospel reading at Sunday Mass, in which Jesus rides in a boat with his disciples and miraculously calms a storm, said Steubenville seminarian Sam Ivkovich.

“He preached from boats, so this seems fitting,” Ivkovich said on the wind-whipped Wellsburg Bridge, where he gathered with several devotees to kneel, sing and pray as the boat passed below.

The pilgrimages sprang from deliberations among U.S. bishops.

Their 2021 document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” arose amid debate over whether bishops should withhold Communion from Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden or Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrats who supported abortion rights. Following cautionary signals from the Vatican, the document ultimately did not directly address that question, though it called on Catholics to examine whether they align with church teachings.

Some bishops cited a 2019 survey that found most church members don’t believe Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. Bishops devised a three-year focus on the doctrine, culminating in pilgrimages and the Indianapolis gathering.


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