Pilgrimage as a way to build vocation culture

Pilgrimage as a way to build vocation culture

By Sr. Carolyn Hoying C.PP.S., Fr. Ken Schnipke C.PP.S., c

In West Central Ohio, in a region rich in farmland and faith, Sister Carolyn Hoying, CPPS had an idea in 2003. She envisioned combining walking and faith in order to raise vocation awareness. Since at that time I was director of vocation ministry for the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, Cincinnati Province, Sister Carolyn contacted me, and soon we formed a committee to organize a pilgrimage for vocations. Our committee was composed of local youth ministers, religious education directors and teachers, parish council representatives, clergy and religious, and members of the vocation committee for the local deanery.

Our original intent for the vocation pilgrimage was to gather together young people, families and religious for a day of prayer, walking and talks on religious vocations. Our group wanted to host a variety of prayer and worship expressions, and the committee members hoped that walking would be a visible sign of vocation awareness, encourage conversations along the way, and tap into youthfulness and energy. We hoped that witness talks by dynamic religious would engage the imaginations and dreams of young people. We also saw the pilgrimage as a way to step up vocation awareness within the local population, thus building a culture of discernment. Since our first Vocation Pilgrimage in 2004, we have undertaken the pilgrimage many times, and I believe it has met many of our original goals—above all, the goal of improving awareness within the Catholic community of all types of vocations.

Practical first steps

Traditionally, a pilgrimage is a journey to a shrine or holy place for a specific reason. It presumes a profound belief in the power of prayer, a conviction that God is present and a desire that the journey be sacred. Often pilgrimages are challenging and employ sacrifice as a way of deepening faith. The path of the vocation pilgrimage needed to be arduous enough to challenge young people, yet also a realistic distance for a one-day journey. We wanted to use the beautiful churches in West Central Ohio that have nurtured our faith for generations, and we wanted to include the motherhouses of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood and the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

From the beginning young people were the target group to take part in the pilgrimage, particularly ages 15-30. Yet we have remained open to casting the net widely to welcome whomever God might send. We identified local youth and young adult groups, as well as religious education programs. We created a database of parishes, youth ministers, directors of religious education, parish council representatives, the Deanery Vocation Committee, Knights of Columbus Councils and other civic organizations involved with young people.

Choosing the itinerary

The proximity and historical significance of the local churches and other Catholic sites helped us to identify the path of the first pilgrimage. The subsequent pilgrimages have been similar, with stops changed according to parish schedules and other needs.

STOP ONE St. Augustine Church in Minster, OH was the logical place to begin. It was founded in 1835 and is the mother church of the region. People with single and married vocations were the first witness talks of the day since we would be visiting religious houses of the priests, brothers and sisters later in the day. The local director of religious education agreed to prepare a prayer service, and the pastor agreed to welcome pilgrims and lead prayer.

After prayer the pilgrims set out on a 3.6 mile hike through the streets of Minster and then through the surrounding country roads to St. Joseph Church, in Egypt, OH.

STOP TWO At St. Joseph’s young men and women discerning the priesthood and religious life shared their vocation discernment with the pilgrims, after which participants said a prayer for vocations. We hoped the youthfulness and vitality of the speakers would inspire those attending and provide assurance that God calls all people, even the unlikely. The first two years we hosted the pilgrimage, these talks were delivered by men and women discerning a possible call to a Precious Blood community. That was broadened by accident the third year. A young man in medical school had attended a Precious Blood Lenten Discernment Retreat. He was grateful for the weekend and described it as the best discernment retreat of his life. He then proceeded to say that he developed two clear insights from the weekend, first that he was not called to be in medical school, and second that he was called to be a diocesan priest.

STOP THREE The next stage of our first ever pilgrimage was a 4.4 mile hike to the Maria Stein Center, the former motherhouse of the Sisters of the Precious Blood and the Shrine of the Holy Relics. It is a place of peace, prayer and hospitality, and it includes the nation’s second-largest collection of holy relics. We provided lunch during this stop, and pilgrims had the opportunity to tour the relics and historical displays. In light of the many years that the Sisters of the Precious Blood had perpetual adoration at Maria Stein, we conducted Eucharistic adoration and benediction while we were there. A sister shared her vocation story and led prayer. A deacon witnessed his vocation and presided over benediction.

STOP FOUR The final destination of the pilgrimage was St. Charles Center, the motherhouse of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Since it is 7.4 miles from Maria Stein, we completed the last leg of the journey by cars and vans. A brother and a priest gave witness talks, and then the group celebrated the Eucharist. This last stop completed our first journey, and we have used this basic route with similar activities in subsequent years.

Details, details, details

Subcommittees handle the many organizational and logistical details that ensure a smooth pilgrimage. Here are the concerns that various people and groups focus on:

• designing and using a logo,

• promoting the pilgrimage through organizations,

• distributing a news release to media outlets,

• ordering T-shirts emblazoned with the logo,

• recruiting help to serve a lunch to pilgrims,

• finding volunteers to drive,

• recruiting and preparing musicians,

• recruiting volunteer police to ensure road safety,

• soliciting donations to cover costs,

• organizing prayers and speakers at stops, and

• recruiting a volunteer nurse for any medical issues.

Weather, growth and challenges

While we can plan for most aspects of the pilgrimage, the weather is always unpredictable. Our first year we were met with a cold, driving rain that deterred many. One year we even experienced snow in May. We learned to include vehicles and a driving pilgrimage to additional churches for those unable to walk or manage the inclement weather and to advertise the event as “rain or shine.” The driving stops along the pilgrimage have varied from year to year. Over the last seven years we have visited 20 parishes in two deaneries. Sites for the driving tour are flexible to account for weddings, funerals and other sacramental needs that may arise.

A positive change since beginning this annual pilgrimage has been the growth in participants. Each year we have had more pilgrims than the year before. Collaboration has also increased: the pilgrimage began as a joint adventure of the Sisters and Missionaries of the Precious Blood, and now it includes the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

The pilgrimage has received critiques and affirmations over the years that have helped shape and enhance it. Cars in the driving pilgrimage are now identified with red and white tassels on antennas, and the walkers carry a 2 by 8 foot red and white banner that announces “Stepping Up the Call: A Pilgrimage for Vocations.” Vocation prayer and song resources have been developed for the walkers, and someone using a loudspeaker accompanies them, inviting participation from onlookers along the way. We sport key rings with tiny tennis shoes, and we distribute refrigerator magnets to keep the annual date in sight. Nearly 500 “Stepping Up the Call” T-shirts have been distributed over the years. Red and white “Stepping Up the Call” T-shirts regularly appear at youth gatherings, community picnics, outreach events and even in the local grocery stores.

Our target group throughout the years has been young people, primarily those in high school or college. Admittedly we have had limited success with this group. About one third of the pilgrims are young people. A litany of other options always competes with our annual pilgrimage: school and family activities, work, prom, sports, etc. Our best recruiters are youth ministers and directors of religious education programs who encourage young people to attend and identify the pilgrimage as an opportunity for service hours.

The pilgrimage has also been fostered by families seeking a positive activity they can do together. Several years ago a daughter pushed a mother in a wheelchair all eight miles. Recently a father and teenage daughter walked to remember the anniversary of the death of their wife and mother. In 2010 an uncle walked with his two teenage nephews, one of whom is discerning a call to the religious life. We continually seek and discuss ways to increase the number of youth participating in the pilgrimage while at the same time remaining grateful for all who do take part.

Evaluating and adjusting

Is it worth all the effort? What difference are we making? While we are not getting as many young people as we originally had hoped, those attending have been inspired by the witness talks. The pilgrimage has helped forge relationships with local youth ministers and parishes, as well as with the archdiocese of Cincinnati. These relationships have opened doors for other vocation events. Nearly 1000 brochures are distributed annually throughout the region, making our Precious Blood communities more visible, and the annual effort has fostered a growing culture of discernment in an area known for its numerous religious vocations. There are no silver bullets for increasing membership to religious communities, but we have found the pilgrimage to be uniquely suited to our local area.

We have learned many valuable lessons over the years, and most boil down to a few key elements. We have learned to plan well and to be flexible at the same time. We have learned to be persistent in our efforts to grow in number each year. We have learned to brand a logo that is gaining recognition. Most of all we have learned to rely on the power of prayer and to be more attuned to the presence of God in our midst.

When the early missionary priests, brothers, and sisters came to West Central Ohio over 160 years ago, the going was rough. They traveled by foot and wagon, often upon wet, muddy roads. They came to minister to the German immigrants, to spread the Catholic faith and to build a future.

Over the past seven years new groups of pilgrims have traversed the highways and byways of West Central Ohio. They have traveled by foot and by vehicle in the sun, the wet and the snow. They have come to minister to the needs of the local church by praying for vocations and spreading the word that God calls each one of us. While far from complete, the pilgrimage has become a positive means of stepping up vocation awareness in our region.

Photos above: Rain or shine, pilgrims take part in Stepping up the Call: A Pilgrimage for Vocations each May in West Central Ohio.


Father Ken Schnipke, CPPS served as director of vocations for the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, Cincinnati Province for the eight years and is now pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Celina, OH and St. Theresa Church in Rockford, OH. Sister Carolyn Hoying, CPPS is coordinator of vocation ministry for the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Dayton, OH.


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