Stories of conversion, 'amazing' encounters mark National Eucharistic Pilgrimage's first 10 days

On the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn., cathedral rector Father John Ubel holds the Eucharist in a monstrance as those participating in the Source and Summit Eucharistic Procession prepare to go inside for the final Benediction May 27, 2024. The procession was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and drew an estimated 7,000 Catholics. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

(OSV News) -- As a Eucharistic procession made its way May 28 through Victoria, Texas, a 20-something man sitting on the side of a street caught Charlie McCullough's attention. McCullough stopped to talk with him, explaining what was going on: The procession was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage en route to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress, and the Eucharist they were walking behind is really, truly Jesus.

"He had grown up in the Protestant faith and had never seen a Eucharistic procession before, and was at a time in life where he was asking a lot of big questions about what is the reason I exist for, what's the purpose of life, all these things," McCullough, one of six perpetual pilgrims on the pilgrimage's southern St. Juan Diego route, recalled May 29. "We talked briefly and I kept walking."

About five blocks later, McCullough looked over his shoulder and saw the man running after the procession. He caught up to McCullough and asked if they could talk more.

"He told me that that morning was the first time he had tried to pray in years. He opened his Bible, and he didn't know if the Lord had heard him. And when we walked by -- when Jesus Christ walked by -- he knew something was different. And he knew that he wanted to follow the Lord, and he had so many questions about how and what he wants to do, and there was this zeal welling up in his heart," McCullough said. "I just got to pray with him and encourage him."

"At the end of our conversation, he goes, 'I know this sounds crazy, but I want to go all the way to Indianapolis,'" he said.

McCullough, a fellow Texan, thinks it's unlikely the man will follow the pilgrimage to Indianapolis, "but I pray that he follows the Lord the rest of his life," he said. "He had a very profound experience, and the Lord stirred his heart through a simple encounter there, and it was very beautiful."

McCullough shared that encounter on a May 29 media call that included pilgrims from all four routes of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, which began May 18-19 in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas. Ten days into their journeys, the 23 perpetual pilgrims were in the Diocese of Victoria; the Diocese of Boise, Idaho; the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; and the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

Their second week included already iconic events -- such as when Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York blessed the city with the Eucharist from a boat near the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor May 27 -- and hidden moments -- like when a man got out of a truck in the middle of Oregon, far away from any towns, and genuflected as the Eucharistic caravan passed.

"It was just a moment driving by, but he had gone out that distance to make sure he knew he would be by Jesus," said Chas Firestone East, a perpetual pilgrim from Virginia journeying on the western St. Junipero Serra Route.

The pilgrims shared other stories of encounter and conversion: On the California side of Lake Tahoe, a photographer for a secular news outlet -- amazed by the masses of people turning out for processions -- told the perpetual pilgrims that he was inspired to learn more about the Eucharist and plans to begin the process for becoming Catholic. Meanwhile, a woman who isn't able to walk with the pilgrims has been joining each procession along the St. Juan Diego Route since Brownsville, Texas, on a retrofitted tricycle. Also in Texas, some perpetual pilgrims helped bandage a woman's wounded leg at a homeless shelter, and then the woman -- whose name is Hope -- asked the pilgrims to pray with her.

"It was just a beautiful moment to see Jesus ... getting to see him inside the person that we encounter," said Shayla Elm, a Juan Diego Route perpetual pilgrim originally from North Dakota.

The pilgrims have been amazed by the number of people who met them for Eucharistic processions, Holy Hours and Mass.

"I have been blown away at how hungry people are to show their faith and how thirsty Jesus is for their souls," Elm said. "Jesus really is thirsty for this whole country. He really wants so many souls to encounter him, and he's the one walking in the streets. He's leading us right now. So, it's really beautiful to have all of us walking alongside our Lord."

Meanwhile, the pilgrims have been bringing the Eucharist to places where people cannot join the public events. On May 28, perpetual pilgrims on the northern Marian Route visited a St. Paul, Minnesota, nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The visit was a day after a 7,000-person procession on a nearby avenue. A deacon with them pointed out that Jesus wanted to come to people, who due to age or infirmity, couldn't come to him, and his message stuck with perpetual pilgrim Kai Weiss, a German student who studies in Washington.

"Jesus is really seeking all kinds of different people out on this journey," he said.

While the perpetual pilgrims expected large turnouts in the cities along their routes, events in small towns have also drawn hundreds. Weiss noted that processions in rural parts of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, likely exceeded the towns' populations.

"The enthusiasm in those small towns was shocking," he said. "You just walk through these small towns and church bells are ringing, the first communicants have flowers ... people along the route come out of their houses to check what is going on and they're really moved. Many of them kneel down, but I think a lot of them are like, 'Wow, this is amazing.'"

On May 26, the Serra Route's perpetual pilgrims had driven a long time across the Nevada landscape without passing any towns -- an experience that East described as beautiful but eerie, especially right after spending time in major California cities. Then, they pulled up to a tiny mission church on the Nevada-Oregon border town of McDermitt, where they were warmly welcomed by a group of Catholics. That arrival "felt like there was a family waiting for us," East said.

In McDermitt, they met Bishop Liam S. Cary of Baker, Oregon, who accompanied the pilgrims in driving processions for the 24 hours they were in his state. The Baker Diocese encouraged the Catholics joining them by car to pray, sing and listen to Catholic podcasts. As the vehicles crossed into Idaho May 27, Bishop Cary knelt before the monstrance on a float pulled by a truck.

Zoe Dongas, a perpetual pilgrim from New York on the eastern St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Route, said a highlight from the pilgrimage has been "the amount of faithful bishops and priests we've been able to encounter."

"We were just on a boat ... with Cardinal Dolan and (Metuchen, New Jersey) Bishop (James F.) Checchio, (and New York Auxiliary) Bishop (Edmund J.) Whalen ... and getting to bless the Statue of Liberty -- that was wild," she said. "To get to spend time in adoration with all of these holy men that love their church so much and are willing to say 'yes' to this amazing adventure and to receive us with such great hospitality -- it's truly been such a gift."

On May 30, the Seton Route pilgrims had moved into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Juan Diego Route pilgrims were in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The Serra Route pilgrims were preparing to leave the Boise Diocese for the Diocese of Salt Lake City; and the Marian Route pilgrims were preparing to leave the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to enter Minnesota's Diocese of Winona-Rochester, which is led by Bishop Robert E. Barron, who in 2019 first proposed the idea of a National Eucharistic Revival.

On the May 29 media call, the perpetual pilgrims acknowledged that their packed days can sap their energy. As they aim to become more like Jesus through time with him in the Eucharist, that also means "ourselves becoming a kind of broken bread, and abandoning yourself to that," Weiss said.

"We've had some days where we would get up at 5 a.m. and we'll hit four or five different parishes by 10 a.m. And, it's like 10 a.m. and I'm like, 'Gosh, it's already so many parishes, and I can't keep them apart,'" Weiss said with a laugh. "But one of the beautiful things is that the Lord really provides then with some kind of spark, some kind of amazing encounter that really makes you realize again what is happening and the impact that the pilgrimage is having."


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