“I think we were all surprised at how tough it was.”
Eight Catholic teens participated in a four-day pilgrimage across central Maine, motivated by a desire to publicly express their faith and pray for their fellow teens who are struggling with addiction and depression, and who may be contemplating suicide. For the past year the teens have been part of a vocations discernment group in the Diocese of Portland, which encompasses the entire state of Maine.
Caleb Furst, 16, lives in Vassalboro, Maine, and was one of the pilgrims. He said the group provides an opportunity for young men “to hang out and talk about the faith.” The eight, who are all homeschooled and range in age from 15 to 18, were considering ways they could publicly express their faith in the state’s dominant secular culture, and “we decided on a pilgrimage. We thought it was a good way to send a message.”
Knowing that addiction and depression are common among teens both in Maine and nationwide, and that some are contemplating suicide, or had committed suicide and left behind family and friends who are hurting, the group decided to dedicate their prayers and sufferings during the pilgrimage to help them, Caleb noted.
To prepare for the walk, the teens began training. Caleb’s preparation included stretching, a series of hour-long walks, and ultimately two 10-mile walks in the days before the pilgrimage. Finding the right shoes and clothing to wear were an important part of the preparation.
The teens selected as their start and end points churches of historic significance to Maine Catholics. They began August 30 at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Augusta and ended September 2 at St. John’s Church in Bangor, a distance of about 70 miles.
St. Mary’s began serving Catholics in the mid-19th century; the current ashlar granite structure was built 1926-27. St. John’s was founded in 1855 by well known evangelist Jesuit Father Johannes Bapst (1815-87), who would later become the first president of Boston College. Fr. Bapst had repeatedly clashed with the anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” of his era; the year before founding St. John’s he had been tarred, feathered, and run out of nearby Ellsworth, Maine, on a rail by an angry mob.
The boys joined in the celebration of Mass at both churches; during the pilgrimage, diocesan priests met them along the way to offer Mass for them. The night before the walk they went to confession, and received a special blessing from Fr. Samy Santhiyagu, a parochial vicar at the Augusta parish. Additionally, the boys prayed traditional Catholic devotions along the way and maintained a spiritual focus throughout the pilgrimage.
Fr. Seamus Griesbach, the diocesan vocations director who leads the discernment group, noted, “Although members of the clergy offered spiritual support, this pilgrimage was not a diocesan event. The teens were the initiators, and they executed the walk themselves. It is a testament to their faith and perseverance.”
Although the weather was mostly good for the pilgrimage, the teens were surprised by how difficult four days of walking can be. Caleb noted, “By the third day, we were all very tired. We had sore feet, and our legs were worn out. It got painful.”
Patrick Carter, 17, another pilgrim also from Vassalboro, added, “I think we were all surprised at how tough it was.”
They encouraged one another throughout the experience, however, and pressed on despite the pain. At night they slept in parishioners’ homes, and camped out in tents. Camping out offered another opportunity to offer sufferings, Patrick said, as “tent sleeping is not comfortable.”
The group carried a large, navy blue flag with a pilgrim shell in the middle, indicating that they were on pilgrimage. People along the way were surprisingly friendly, noted Caleb, and sometimes offered gifts of food and water when they learned about their cause. Caleb said, “People were fantastic. Some would be driving by, and stop to ask us what we were doing. When we told them our story, they’d wish us good luck.”
As some were work commuters who passed the group multiple times, they could see the progress of the group each day, Patrick noted.
In addition to the friendly good wishes of those passing by, the group was surprised at the media attention they received from the local secular print and broadcast media.
Besides the spiritual benefits, the teens learned the value of friendship and cooperation. Caleb remarked, “I discovered that there is a lot we can do if we support one another. I leaned on my friends for support, and they leaned on me.”
Patrick added, “It was a great experience, and we are all enthusiastic about it, and are looking forward to doing it again next summer. For me, I learned I can do the extreme things God wants me to do, if I have the support of friends around me.”
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