Catholic meteorologist keeps eyes on skies to support safety, success of Eucharistic pilgrimage

John Kelly, a meteorologist in New Hampshire, is pictured in a June 10, 2024, photo. Since beginning their journeys in mid-May, pilgrims on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage routes have braved excessive heat, thunderstorms and wind -- all of it closely monitored by Kelly. (OSV News photo/courtesy John Kelly)

(OSV News) – Since beginning their journeys mid-May, pilgrims on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage have braved excessive heat, thunderstorms and wind – all of it closely monitored by a meteorologist in New Hampshire.

John Kelley rises daily around 5:45 a.m. – earlier than pre-pilgrimage days – and, with coffee in hand, spends about 90 minutes compiling information from National Weather Service websites for each of the pilgrimage's four routes.

Kelley, 64, learned about the pilgrimage at his parish last winter during a small group series on the Eucharist. Curious about what weather-related support its organizers had for such an undertaking, he reached out with suggestions. When none of those ideas came to fruition, he offered his own time and expertise.

The information Kelley gathers is all publicly available, but he hopes to save pilgrimage organizers time and provide consistency. He emails his morning report to Will Peterson – president of Minnesota-based Modern Catholic Pilgrim, which has partnered with National Eucharistic Congress Inc. to organize the pilgrimage.

Kelley thinks of himself as "an extra set of eyes" and his emails as "virtually tapping him on the shoulder to make sure he's aware of potential weather threats for the next two days for each of the four routes."

"I'm not forecasting," Kelley explained, but rather "relying on The (National) Weather Service's products – their forecasts or watches and warnings or advisories. … I give them (pilgrimage leaders) a heads-up early in the morning, and then they take it from there. Of course, they're probably checking forecasts and warnings and cellphones and just looking at the sky to make their decisions."

The pilgrimage began May 18-19 in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas with 30 "perpetual pilgrims" journeying – often by foot – to parishes, schools, and other sacred and secular sites with the Eucharist exposed in a monstrance, en route to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21. The pilgrimage and congress are part of the National Eucharistic Revival, the U.S. bishops' three-year initiative to inspire greater devotion to and understanding of Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist.

While the pilgrims on the southern Juan Diego route began their journey amid a string of hot, humid days with highs in the high 90s in south Texas, Kelley has recently had his eye on the heat wave in the West, with Denver hitting its highest temp of 2024 – 93 degrees – June 7, the day the Serra Route pilgrims arrived in the Mile High City. Meanwhile, pilgrims on northern Marian routes have faced thunderstorms and rain, and even cold, as they've zigzagged across Minnesota and into Wisconsin.

Kelley's June 9 report to Peterson, for example, gave an overview of weather patterns and then bulleted "threats," including a "slight risk" of excessive heat and high winds affecting the western route, as well as slight risks of heavy precipitation for the northern and southern routes, beginning June 15.

On June 10, Kelley noted that for the eastern Seton route, the "unseasonably cool temperatures of Monday and Tuesday will come to end on Wednesday when the high temperature approach(es) 80 degrees and the upper 80's on Thursday," with "a chance of showers and thunderstorms returns on Friday as the pilgrims are in the Pittsburgh area."

Peterson said he is grateful for Kelley's support. "I can say it's been a huge help to have John's daily updates (and sometimes multiple updates in a day!) supporting our pilgrims each step of the way," he told OSV News on June 10.

Kelley said that the most challenging aspect of the role is looking at four different regions, but he expects the work to become easier as the pilgrims converge in the Midwest.

Watching the weather is a way of following the pilgrimage for Kelley, who thinks it's unlikely he'll meet up with the pilgrims in person. However, "it's reinforced the perspective that the Catholic faith is universal," he said. "I'm getting an education on these different churches and shrines and schools, and even the towns and cities I'm not aware of."

Kelley also follows the pilgrims through news stories, photos and, on the Seton Route, blog posts by route chaplain Fr. Roger Landry, who is chronicling the experience at setonpilgrimage.org.

"It's rewarding to see the people involved with both the perpetual pilgrims, the clergy with them, and then all the people who are participating and watching the pilgrimage," he said. "And of course when I look at those pictures and videos, I'll check to see what the weather was, how well they forecasted. I do enjoy when they mention the weather."

Kelley developed his love of meteorology as a boy growing up on an old farm in Peace Dale, Rhode Island, where at age 11 he began tracking daily weather observations such as the high and low temperatures and total precipitation and snowfall. At the end of each month, he sent his data to the state climatologist.

"I have continued to watch the weather every day since then," he told OSV News.

He earned a master's degree in meteorology from The Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from The Ohio State University. He works as an affiliate research professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

An extraordinary minister of holy Communion and member of the Knights of Columbus at his parish, St. Anne in Hampstead, New Hampshire, Kelley has a heart for volunteering and wants the pilgrimage to be safe and successful, he said. As a former EMT and park police patrol volunteer, and current volunteer in Hampstead's Community Emergency Response Team, Kelley said he has witnessed firsthand the impact that weather can have on individuals and communities.

"It is quite an endeavor," he said of the pilgrimage. "It's really the largest pilgrimage probably in the history of the Catholic Church, and I'm wanting to make sure it is a successful event and hopefully will change people's lives."

He added: "I hope that people who are able to participate or watch, that it will strengthen their faith, that it will bring back some people who have left the faith, and … that people have a deeper appreciation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist."



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