By Joseph Myers and Gina Christian | Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — With tired legs but lively spirits, six seminarians from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary got to know about 40 parishioners and guests of Epiphany of Our Lord Church in South Philadelphia in early August, when they ended their first day of the Biking for Vocations.
One of the people they met, Josie Maurizi, dubbed the six 20-somethings “the hope of our church.”
During a panel discussion that was part of the group’s Aug. 4 stop, she lauded the Biking for Vocations concept while also hoping to have more chances to learn about the seminarians.
“You really are so worthy of respect, especially when we think about all of the things that are out there that we all have to fight against as people of God,” Maurizi said. “I’m just so happy to be in your presence.”
“We’ll be signing autographs later,” quipped seminarian Thomas Cipolla to keep the air of levity in Epiphany’s lower church.
As part of the third annual tour of parishes and institutions in the archdiocese to promote vocations to the priesthood, the cyclists had left the seminary that morning and stopped at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Chester, Pennsylvania, and St. George in Glenolden in Delaware County along the way before their visit to South Philadelphia.
They traced an interior route of 11 parish visits across the city and inner-ring suburbs. Meanwhile a second group of four cyclists — three seminarians and Father Christopher Cooke — rode the perimeter, a more grueling tour of 10 stops winding from the seminary to southern and western Chester County and on through Montgomery and Bucks counties, and even up to Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Both legs of the tour ended the afternoon of Aug. 8 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, where the riders were met by Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez and the cathedral’s rector, Father Dennis Gill.
The archbishop told the seminarians he was “grateful to watch and listen in on some of the conversations you have had and how many times you’ve been able to bring it back to Christ and a relationship with him, so that’s been very encouraging. A lot of good, priestly things have been happening during these days. I think a lot of people have been encouraged by meeting you.”
While he acknowledged that the days of riding were no “stroll in the park,” Archbishop Perez noted the young men were fed well at the parishes they visited.
“That is an understatement, Archbishop,” said Cipolla. “We ate a whole pig at Resurrection (of Our Lord Parish).”
“As long as it didn’t eat you, that’s fine,” the archbishop replied.
The highlight of riding the interior route for seminarian Robert Bollinger was “where I got to see a bunch of people throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that were praying for me and that were trying to tell me how much they were supporting me and all of us biking, and even the guys at the seminary as well. That was probably the biggest highlight I didn’t see coming.”
In a first for Biking for Vocations, the perimeter route cyclists ventured into the Diocese of Allentown and visited Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Bally, Pennsylvania, and the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Siena in Allentown.
While every parish “has been incredibly generous” with a “huge welcome for us,” the faithful at Allentown’s cathedral “were really great, and they had a lot of people out waiting for us when we arrived and cheering us on when we left the next morning. They were very enthusiastic to have us there,” said Susan Matour, associate director of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Vocations Office for the Diocesan Priesthood, which sponsored Biking for Vocations, and a key coordinator of the event.
Allentown Bishop Alfred A. Schlert “was so appreciative that we came into the diocese,” she said. “He was outside (his residence) waiting for us when we pulled in,” and offered ice cream, water and Gatorade to the riders.
Back in South Philadelphia at Epiphany the need for more young priests emerged as the dominant theme of the hourlong interaction, and the seminarians, joined by Auxiliary Bishop John J. McIntyre and Father David Friel, director of the vocations office, spoke happily of their acceptance of God’s will.
They explained their trek from the seminary earlier in the day to Epiphany in the broader context of their journey to a vocation in religious life.
“Please ask God to send us more priests and to bless these seminarians who have heeded their different calls to ministry,” said Father Friel, in his first year in helping men to discern their path. “May he help us all to understand how important it is to promote the joys of vocations.”
Now entering his fourth collegiate year, Cipolla commented that God’s grace will prove the ultimate boost to anyone who feels called to the priesthood.
What is paramount to remember, as peer Mark Gomba explained, is that while they are listening to God’s voice, they are also feeding off the fire that each has for preaching the Gospel.
Epiphany’s pastor, Father James Casey, offered the seminarians words of encouragement on behalf of the whole parish.
“When so many people in the world seem against our choice to become priests, it’s great to receive any bit of support that we can, and we’re delighted that you are here with us to receive ours,” he said.
Having covered 32 miles in just their first day of a tour that eventually totaled some 370 miles by Sunday, the seminarians on the interior route came to Epiphany on “a beautiful day for a ride,” according to cyclist Alex Cross.
After praying the Liturgy of the Hours together at Epiphany, he and his fellow discerners spent the night as parish guests before tackling more concrete and asphalt the next day, and adding more memories to their formation stories.
“Do you feel hopeful for these individuals?” Father Friel asked the parishioners, who responded with positive applause. “Good, because God has placed them on a path that will heal so much that troubles us and give them a firmer will in the face of everything.”
Seminarian Dominic Mirenda got a glimpse of hope for the future in another sense as he rode the perimeter route and saw “so many beautiful moments on the bikes, off the bikes,” and especially as his group stopped at a parish in Wayne in Chester County.
“We had an absolutely amazing lunch with the youth group at St. Isaac Jogues Parish at the same time the student leadership from Bishop Shanahan High School was there,” Mirenda said. “We had a two-hour lunch with them and the kids were asking some amazing, really deep questions. And the Spirit was really moving … the kids were really engaged, loved hearing our vocation stories.
“Overall the hospitality was absolutely beautiful, at all the parishes we went to,” he said.