Seminarians make a Marian pilgrimage

Holy men find moments of grace on trek

The group of pilgrims included men from the dioceses of Charleston and Savannah, and the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

After more than 50 miles of walking, the group of seminarians arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope-Our Lady of South Carolina and all spontaneously fell prostrate in gratitude and devotion.

Father Stanley Smolenski, director of the Shrine, watched the young men with tears in his eyes. It was, for him, a dream come true.

“Father Stan was so emotional, he could barely even talk to them,” said Cathy Bell, director of pilgrimages. “He’s waited since 2005 for this — for seminarians to come here, for holy men to come here this way.” 

The arrival of the young men at the Marian shrine in Kingstree marked the end of a seminarian-led pilgrimage that began at Mepkin Abbey and crossed roughly 50 miles of forest land and country roads.

It’s a relatively short trip by car, but on foot it took the group four days to make the pilgrimage through the Francis Marion National Forest, past Lake Moultrie, and into Williamsburg County.

It was a journey that led the men to a deeper appreciation of what it means to give it up for the Lord.

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Inspiration calls

The inspiration for the seminarians to make a pilgrimage to the diocesan Marian shrine came from Peter O’Steen and Sebastian Barbosa. O’Steen had taken a couple of people to visit Our Lady and received graces to share the shrine with other seminarians and Catholics, said Bell.

He paired up with his friend and fellow seminarian, Barbosa, who had recently been on a pilgrimage in Poland. Barbosa said it was the most spiritually effective thing he’d done and thought it would be good for diocesan seminarians to do as well.

The two worked with Bell, Father Stan, and Father Matthew Gray, vicar for vocations, to hammer out all the details, addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the group.

Spiritually, Father Stan prepared prayers and devotions to guide them. The men also created a banner with an icon of Jesus and the phrase “Lord, I seek your face” to underscore the message from Psalms that we are the people who long to see Our Lord and Savior. The seminarians also took turns carrying a simple wooden cross and a bag containing relics from four of the saints. 

Physically, they mapped out the route, where to stash food and water, and the best places to stop and camp each night.  

The pilgrimage

Finally it was time.

The group spent the night before the pilgrimage at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, in spiritual reflection with the Trappist monks. On Dec. 21, after a 5:30 a.m. Mass, they set off into the rising sun — nine seminarians and one lay person. Father Gray was on a retreat when the pilgrimage began, but joined the group the next day.

By all accounts, the trek was a blessing and an awakening.

O’Steen said he, and most of the others, had never been on a days-long camping trip before.

“So many things could have gone wrong,” he said. “We had to trust in the Lord and trust that Heaven was behind us, and He really provided.”

Like the time the pilgrims missed their water and food drop by several miles. They were faced with the dilemma of going hungry and thirsty or backtracking an hour or so, O’Steen said. 

Their prayers were answered when a man wearing an “I love Jesus” hat happened by, with bottles of water in his truck and a willingness to drive them back to their provisions.

The most difficult part of the trek, O’Steen said, was the third day, when they had to cover 20 miles. Already exhausted by then, fighting blisters and cramps, they relied on their faith, and each other.

“We really had to look to God for the strength, to turn the pain and exhaustion into a prayer … turn it into something spiritual and to think of what Jesus went through in Calvary,” he said.

The other seminarians echoed that sentiment, and said they were constantly in prayer — not just for the pilgrimage, but also for friends, family, the community and the world — and felt and saw the results of those prayers.

Justin Damask said there were times he encouraged his fellow pilgrims, and times they encouraged him.

“When I was physically hurting with every step, those were the moments when I reached out to Christ in prayer that I felt and knew in an elevated way that He really heard and was answering my prayers for family, friends, and the people of South Carolina,” Damask said. “That realization has affirmed me in the belief that God is with us at all times, in a special way in the Eucharist, and in our brothers and sisters.”

Luke Bowdre, a seminarian from the Savannah diocese, said gaining a literal understanding of the value of redemptive suffering was the grace that stands out most for him.

Before the pilgrimage, he understood the concept intellectually, but “as my blisters and various aches/bruises formed and the miles got more and more difficult, I found myself truly asking the Lord to take whatever value there was in my soreness and pain so as to unite it with His own suffering and turn it for His greater glory.”

Bowdre recalls praying for a fellow seminarian and offering to take on some of his pain. Soon after, Bowdre’s ankle began to tighten and swell until he was barely limping along.

“I fully believe it was a response to my prayer and allowed for my fellow pilgrim to continue to the end,” he said.    

Father Gray said he witnessed similar phenomena along the trail. He recalled an allergic reaction that one seminarian had after petting a horse in a field. As his face grew red, and his eyes watered and swelled shut, he continued praying and continued carrying a fellow pilgrim’s pack, and told Father Gray he was OK, he could still mostly see out of one eye.

His own personal graces on the pilgrimage, Father Gray said, were watching the seminarians, who are already giving so much of themselves for the people of the diocese.

“They’re going to be fantastic priests,” he said.

Mostly, O’Steen said, they all felt blessed — by the weather, the companions and the purpose. He said celebrating Mass under the stars was the most beautiful Mass he’s ever experienced.

Ecumenism at work

On the final night and day of the pilgrimage, the ecumenical aspect truly shone through.

Bell said Beth and Billie Horton, who own a funeral home next to the Shrine, took s’mores to the campsite and toasted them for the seminarians on their last night. They also helped raise funds to pay for food and snacks for the pilgrims, and to put them up in a hotel when they arrived at the Shrine. 

Their son, who is a fireman, arranged a police escort into town for the group, where they were met with firetrucks, sirens and an enthusiastic crowd.

“When I saw these young men not afraid to express their faith publicly, and they were met with good will, it showed the great hope that the Shrine can engender,” Father Stan said. 

Reactions from the pilgrims upon finally reaching Our Lady of Joyful Hope were buoyant, with one seminarian literally jumping up and down with happiness.

“It was such a joy to experience our love we have for Our Lady and the Eucharist,” Barbosa said.

Barbosa and most of the others said they would definitely do it again, with some adjustments to make the miles more manageable. He said it’s a great opportunity to start an annual pilgrimage in the diocese, “and we’d love to invite a wider group of the public to do it with us.”

Despite some physical hardships — a little rain, aches and pains, even encounters with coyotes — the spiritual purpose of the pilgrimage was always a bright beacon that led them onward.

“Seeing the Shrine was just wild … it really made everything worthwhile,” O’Steen said.

See below for more snippets from the pilgrimage:

Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope included seminarians from three of the provinces originally part of the Diocese of Charleston. Father Matthew Gray, Vicar for Vocations, and diocesan seminarians Sebastian Barbosa, Peter O’Steen, Justin Damask, Daniel Perry and Hector Manuel made the trek, along with Luke Bowdre and Michael Downey from the Diocese of Savannah, and Arturo Merriman and Brandon Sheriff of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, plus layman Paul Pizzuti.

Moments of providence

Father Gray and the seminarians said they saw the hand of God at work even before the pilgrimage began.

It started when O’Steen and Barbosa were driving backroads, looking for the shortest route to take, and ended up stuck in the mud. O’Steen said a farmer, who “must have been about 93”, came along and pulled them out. They thanked him graciously and went on their way, never thinking they’d see him again.

Fast forward to the pilgrimage and on the second night one of their camping spots fell through. Scrambling, Father Gray called an area farmer to see if they could use his field. It turned out to be the same farmer who pulled the guys from the mud, and he was happy to help again.

Each time, it was a feeling of things falling into place, like when they needed water and someone came along who happened to have excess bottles of water. Or, on the first night of the trek, when they missed the designated drop spot and needed food. One of the pilgrims — who, Father Gray said, “didn’t read the instructions” about food being provided — brought his own food for the entire hike, so he had enough to share with everyone that first night.

“It’s how God put those people in our path when we needed it most,” O’Steen said.

A note from Justin Damask, Diocese of Charleston:

“For me, it was clear the pilgrimage was blessed by the hand of God just based on the crew he put together. For example, it turned out that one of the other pilgrims, Paul, and I had met 4 years earlier at a discernment retreat put on by the diocese. At that point we were two dudes just looking to see what God wanted us to do with our lives. Fast forward, and I am halfway through my 4th year of seminary, and Paul just got married a few weeks after the pilgrimage. It was so cool for me to reflect and see how God brought us back together on this pilgrimage to show us how He has been working consistently in both our lives and drawing us down different but intersecting paths to holiness.

A further blessing was being able to appreciate the diverse beauty of the state of South Carolina. I’ve driven across the state many times, but I have never fully appreciated the distinct beauty of our state’s many biospheres from a car. While we were walking through the woods and praying to God for the people of South Carolina, instead of being distracted by nature, [it helped me feel] so connected to the people of South Carolina who grew up in this land, and to the God who created and blessed the state with us in mind.

A final reflection from the pilgrimage was the importance of companionship for any journey. Walking close to 20 miles per day was much harder than I had anticipated. At certain points, other members of the crew were struggling and I was able to walk with them and encourage them to persevere through that voice in all of our heads that says we can’t go any further. At other times, I was struggling to continue walking, and those were moments when my brothers encouraged me. Further, when I was physically hurting with every step, those were the moments when I reached out to Christ in prayer that I felt and knew in an elevated way that He really heard and was answering my prayers for family, friends, and the people of South Carolina. That realization has affirmed me in the belief that God is with us at all times, in a special way in the Eucharist, and in our bothers and sisters.

Overall, this pilgrimage affirmed me in the belief that the Lord is actively working in my life to provide for my needs before I even know I have needs. This pilgrimage was an opportunity to come to know myself better, for me to taken ownership of that identity, and for me to give as much of myself as I have sofar come to posses for the benefit of my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the state of South Carolina.”