Northern pilgrimage begins with a call to holiness and a walk in the woods with Jesus

Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minn., offers Benediction along the Eucharistic procession route to the headwaters of the Mississippi River May 19 for the launch of the Marian Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. (OSV News photo/Courtney Meyer)

LAKE ITASCA, Minn. (OSV News) -- In full vestments and flanked by pines, Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens held high the Eucharist in a golden monstrance, making the sign of the cross over the stream that flowed gently from the placid lake behind him. Next to him, a signpost read, "Here 1,475 FT above the ocean, the mighty Mississippi begins to flow on its winding way 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico."

As the bishop had noted that May 19 morning at the opening of an outdoor Pentecost Mass, a French priest explorer had once named the Mississippi River "the River of the Immaculate Conception," making it a fitting point from which to launch the Marian Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, an eight-week journey with the Eucharist.

By this day, all four groups of "perpetual pilgrims" on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage's four routes had begun their treks -- the other three launching from points in San Francisco; New Haven, Connecticut; Brownsville, Texas -- that would converge in Indianapolis for the July 17-21 National Eucharistic Congress, the highlight of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative launched in 2022 by the U.S. bishops to inspire a deeper love and reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist.

At the Mississippi River headwaters, people silently knelt in the gravel before the Eucharist until Bishop Cozzens, bishop of Crookston, Minnesota, began walking with the monstrance toward the trailhead and into the woods of Itasca State Park.

For the next 5 miles, the pilgrims walked behind the Eucharist, alternating between hymns, psalms and contemplative silence. The Crookston Diocese's four seminarians held a processional cross, a pair of candles and an ombrellino, a "little umbrella" used above the Eucharist in processions.

As the Marian Route pilgrims passed through the wooded state park, cyclists and hikers respectfully stopped and waited. Some dropped to their knees.

Prior to these sacred moments of following the Eucharistic Jesus through the pines, Bishop Cozzens had presided at Mass in a field near the state park's entrance that drew an estimated 2,500 Catholics, most of whom would follow the one-mile Eucharistic procession into the park.

In his homily, Bishop Cozzens, who chairs the board of the National Eucharistic Congress Inc., which is responsible for overseeing the congress in Indianapolis, said that a nationwide Eucharistic revival must begin in Catholics' hearts. He encouraged Massgoers to receive the Eucharist worthily through frequent confession, ideally monthly.

"That's when the power of the Holy Spirit will be able to inhabit our hearts," he said. "All of us need repentance."

He encouraged the faithful, no matter their place on their journey, not to become complacent or settle for "a lukewarm spiritual life," believing that they have "reached their limit on holiness."

"There is no limit for holiness in your heart," he said. "The more you surrender to him (Jesus), the more he will work in you. What happens if the Holy Spirit actually begins to take over? What happens is you begin to love to pray. God's word comes to life, and you actually go there to seek practical answers for your questions. What happens is that you begin to be so in love with Jesus that you can't help but share him with others, because you just talk about what you love. What happens is that you begin to form friendships and small communities of people who support you, who are like-minded, who also want to see the Holy Spirit spread across the country."

Concelebrating the Mass were Bishop Donald E. DeGrood of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Bishop Daniel J. Felton of Duluth, Minnesota; Bishop John T. Folda of Fargo, North Dakota; Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Izen of St. Paul and Minneapolis; retired Bishop Donald J. Kettler of St. Cloud, Minnesota; retired Bishop John M. LeVoir of New Ulm, Minnesota; retired Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa; and Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of New Ulm.

Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph A. Williams of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Bishop Barron had also participated in the congress the previous day.

Massgoers sat on the grass in rows of lawn chairs and blankets. Among them was Cathy Galle, who brought her 1-year-old and 13-year-old daughters and five other youth from her parish in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the outdoor Mass and the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress in Bemidji, Minnesota,·two days earlier.

"We're so inspired by this. This is so amazing," said Galle, 38. "We're so happy to be part of this ... and to feel the unity of all these Catholics together in such a strong community, and just feeling the strength of the Spirit here."

Dark clouds in overcast skies threatened rain during Mass and the processions, but the precipitation largely held off, sending only a few quick showers later in the afternoon as the pilgrims walked along the park's trails.

Joining that walk was Lisa Gray of Fargo, a sister of Michelle Duppong, a FOCUS missionary from North Dakota whose cause for canonization is underway.

Gray, her husband and their five kids hoped to experience the historic element of the pilgrimage and "walk in the forest with Jesus," she said. Gray noted that a procession in nature was something that her sister would have particularly enjoyed. "She would have been all over this," she said of Michelle Duppong.

Several other moments felt providential. Cyclists Tiffany Goering and her 13-year-old daughter Magdalena, also of Fargo, dismounted their bikes and knelt as the small procession passed.

Magdalena began to weep, explaining that they had been at the Mass earlier that day, but had been too far back in the procession to see the Eucharist. She had prayed for another opportunity, but thought she had missed it. Magdalena said she felt the unexpected opportunity to adore Jesus in the Eucharist along the trail was a special gift.

When the pilgrims reached the park exit two-and-a-half hours after the river blessing, their van and trailer were waiting to take them to nearby Laporte, their next stop on the pilgrimage. While they drove, they continued adoration in the van with singing and silence.

That evening, during Eucharistic adoration at Laporte's small parish church, Bishop Cozzens read the Gospel of Luke's account of Jesus' walk with two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, which is the inspiration for the national pilgrimage. He encouraged those present to develop a friendship with Jesus, especially in adoration.

After adoration, some perpetual pilgrims stood outside as the sun set and reflected on the day, remarking especially on the contrast between the massive procession into Itasca State Park and the intimate procession with the Eucharistic Jesus through the forest.

"I didn't really know what I expected, but it definitely exceeded my expectations by quite a bit, especially the huge procession at the beginning was just incredible," said Kai Weiss, a Marian Route perpetual pilgrim.

In the parking lot of Laporte's church, Bishop Cozzens said he had been thinking about how the apostles must have felt at the end of the day on Pentecost when they went to bed.

"They must have been like, 'Wow, what just happened?'" he said. "I've been getting pictures all day from San Francisco and from Brownsville and Connecticut. ... I'm just thinking, wow, what's happening?"

"The grace of the moment," he said, "is so much greater than I could have anticipated."


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