Stopping at an overlook along the trail.

(In the summer of 2009, six friars set off on a 300-mile walking pilgrimage that attracted national media attention. That journey has continued to shape their lives.)

Friar painting shed

Friar Cliff Hennings helping with chores.

I find it strange to reflect on the 10-year anniversary of the Virginia pilgrimage. So much has happened since that time. In these past 10 years I have finished an undergraduate program, received an MDiv, was ordained and have begun my fourth year of priestly ministry. I have undergone several “milestones” following that joyous summer. I rejoice in all these events; and yet in some sense my heart never left those winding roads.

I am often asked about those seven weeks, and I love to share the stories with parishioners and fellow friars. With that said, it is hard to see our time on the road as a “one-off” experience, as if it was a neat trip, a novelty to tell stories or bolster a resume. In its essence, the pilgrimage has been the light guiding my personal and fraternal journey all along.

The kind of radical trust it took to set out on such a journey is the trust I long to live with always. The freedom to go wherever the Spirit led is the freedom my heart desires even now. The witness to the Gospel we surely gave to those we met along the way is the witness I feel called to give for a lifetime.

Friars near Capitol in Washington DC

Friars in Washington, D.C.

That pilgrimage set the tone for how I envision friar life. It is what has given me consolation in trying times of discernment. I can go back to that time and remember what this life can be. That sense of fraternity on the road was unrivaled. We needed one another to get through it. The simplicity was unparalleled. Every meal we received, every bed we slept in, came with a face and a name. Even the most mundane things in life became moments of evangelization. We were never not being friars, never not proclaiming the glory of God, never not inviting others to come and know the mercy of the Lord.

This is the legacy of the pilgrimage for me. It is a reminder that our friar life is a total giving of self to the service of God. There should be no half-measures in this way of life. I know I do not live up to this call. The pilgrimage is a reminder of what is being asked of me. It is the measure by which I measure my own life. It is a challenge to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Gospel and remember that with God, all things are truly possible. And who knows? Maybe one day we will hit the road once more, saying, “Let us begin again brothers, for up to now we have done nothing…”

(Fr. Clifford Hennings is Director of Shrine Ministry at St. Anthony Shrine and Part-time Associate Pastor of St. Monica-St. George Parish/Newman Center in Cincinnati.)

Read the Washington Post story on the 2009 pilgrimage here.
Read Fr. Mark Soehner’s reflections on the pilgrimage.