September 5, 2019
It was a test of their faith and their feet.
On June 21, 2009, four young Franciscan friars and two of their teachers set off on the journey of a lifetime, a 300-mile walking pilgrimage along the highways and back roads of Virginia. Each had in his backpack one blanket and a handmade, spiral-bound worship guide. They took no food and no money.
They hoped to find themselves by losing life’s daily distractions. It was an act of trust, the biggest leap of faith they would ever make. Somehow, they prayed, the Lord would provide. God would keep them safe. And His goodness would be revealed through the people they encountered on the road.
They expected to attract attention. They did not expect the outpouring of ecumenical support that greeted them along the way – or the excitement generated by their walking witness. A blog we developed for the friars drew nearly 70 comments from those impressed by their objective and encouraged by their passion. “I am happy to report that the friars are real,” one woman blogged immediately after meeting them.
By the time they reached their destination, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., they had been interviewed by six media outlets. Their journey inspired thousands, thanks to a front-page story in the Washington Post (Article) and a CNS report reprinted in diocesan newspapers and posted on religious web sites throughout the country. In the past decade, it has inspired many more, particularly those searching for a role model or a religious vocation.
On the 10th anniversary of their pilgrimage, we asked two of those friars to tell us what it meant to them – and how it continues to shape their lives.
BY CLIFFORD HENNINGS, OFM
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 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.
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…”
(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.)
BY MARK SOEHNER, OFM
Mark takes a break during the pilgrimage.Our pilgrimage 10 years ago was amazing. I had just finished my first year as formation director, part of a team for the Temporary Professed in Chicago. Little did I know then that my life pilgrimage would take me to becoming the Provincial Minister for St. John the Baptist Province. I remember the surreal feeling in 2009 as we began the seven-week journey that seemed to stretch to infinity. But it all began with a single step of faith. There were certainly parallels as I was elected in 2017—first, that deer-in-the-headlights feeling—then the first step. The lesson: We do seemingly impossible ventures, one step at a time.
The Virginia pilgrimage strengthened the importance of “accompaniment” as a value, the actual walking and reflecting with people on a journey. While we walked together those seven weeks, we were learning together about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. During that time when we would stop at a rest area picnic table or sit on a log and talk about what was going on, we began to experience the deeper meaning of depending on God, or what it was like for the poor to go without a meal. And when we celebrated Eucharist together on a rock or at someone’s dining room table, we had the experience of the Risen Lord walking with us. We saw Him in the breaking of the bread and in the telling of our hopes and fears. We literally experienced His accompaniment of us!
Sometimes in my visitation with a friar, I feel blessed to be used by God as a catalyst, igniting ideas or self-examination in both of us. Simply by accompanying the friars in their various ministries and in their joys and hopes and fears, there are moments when the Risen Christ is so present. I suspect that many of our Guardians have similar instances as they help all of us in our lives when they know they’ve seen the Healing Lord touching one of us.
There are many stories from the walking pilgrimage, but the main point of the journey for me was not the attainment of our goal of arriving at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. (although that was a very joyful experience!). What I actually discovered is that the Holy Land was always under my feet. When I take a moment as Provincial, I discover the same and am grateful even in the midst of various stressors that come with this office.
The hunger, the sweat, the ticks all served as minor irritations or even humiliations to unseat my addiction to being in control. We ran into physical black bears on the pilgrimage, but I needed to face the bears that were scavenging in garbage cans in my dreams, corresponding to my undealt-with anger. I spent some time in the hermitage at the Poor Clares when I returned, and the healing began. I still find it important to have places of healing and quiet, as well as a spiritual director who monthly accompanies me and my life. Commitment to God’s transformation, where “God comes to you disguised as your life” (as Paula D’Arcy says), continues to be part of my pilgrimage with this band of brothers.
I am amazed today at the Providence of God. God cared for us all along that pilgrimage. We passed copperhead snakes without injury. People were generous. We ate at tables that were loaded with God’s goodness. As I look at my own life and see the many strands that I thought were totally unrelated, I can now see that Provident God weaving a tapestry with my life which has brought me to the undeserved ministry of Provincial. I hope to live as generously as God has been to me—and all of us on that pilgrimage!
— Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
BY LOREN CONNELL, OFM
Saturday morning, Aug. 3, 2019
Calvary Cemetery, Wichita, Kansas
St. Joseph Cemetery, on the edge of Olpe.This morning was overcast, and it began to drizzle as I entered Calvary Cemetery. I thought that I had written down good directions as to the location of our friars’ graves, but 15 minutes of driving in circles proved fruitless. I had the telephone number of the gentleman whom I contacted several months ago, but I was reluctant to disturb him on a Saturday morning. With much embarrassment I dialed his number. He remembered our earlier conversation and guided me from memory to our brothers’ graves.
Unlike our plots in Christ Our Redeemer, Holy Sepulchre, or Lakeview, our plot in Calvary Cemetery has no identifying provincial marker, but only the individual stones of the seven friars buried here. All are red granite, above ground, and identically shaped. The four priests’ stones have grapes and wheat etched into the upper two corners and a chalice in the lower center. The PHOTOS BY LOREN CONNELL, OFMSt. Mary Cemetery sits off the road.three brothers’ stones have plain upper corners and RIP etched in the lower center. Such was the mentality of the time.
Calvary is the last of the six cemeteries in which the friars opened a plot in the Kansas-Missouri area. How long did we live and minister in Wichita and its environs? When did we come here? Where did we minister, both inside and outside the city? When did we finally leave? We were already here in the late 19th century, at least 60 years before we buried the first friar, Oliver Krseminski, in Calvary Cemetery. Before that, friars who died here were buried elsewhere. Four of the other six friars eventually buried here were living in St. Vincent Home in Oklahoma City, leaving a total of only three of the friars actively ministering in the Wichita area at the time of their deaths.
Saturday noon, Aug. 3, 2019
St. Mary Cemetery, Maydale
Getting to Maydale was a pilgrimage in itself. The town of Maydale no longer exists, nor does the parish with Martin Hoeft’s combined church, school, convent, and rectory all under one roof. The cemetery is on a gravel road two or three miles off the main highway and five or six miles southeast of Olpe. After four or five miles of gravel but no sign of a cemetery, I was fairly sure that I had driven too far. I stopped at a farm and asked a lady there for directions, which she gladly gave me. No wonder that I missed it! The cemetery sits back from the road, behind an expansive 40 to 50 feet of grasses and milkweed.
The cemetery is small. A large crucifix stands over an altar in the middle. Martin’s grave is close by, marked with a large upright granite stone. Although the friars had plots in Olpe and Emporia at the time of his death, Martin is buried here, probably a testimony to the deep affection felt between pastor and parishioners. As a recently retired pastor, I can appreciate that reality.
Saturday afternoon, Aug. 3, 2019
St. Joseph Cemetery, Olpe
St. Joseph Cemetery is on the edge of town, less than half a mile from the parish church. A gray granite obelisk lists the names of Alexius Centner and Pius Bachler on the front. On the ground in front of it are Alexius’ and Pius’ two stones. Francis Wendling’s name is listed on the left side of the obelisk, and his stone, decorated with flowers, lies to the side and slightly to the back.
Of the cemeteries that I have visited so far, St. Joseph can claim the longest time span between the first and last burial of a friar, 110 years between Alexius and Francis. Our necrology says that Alfred Pimple is buried here as well, but I did not see any evidence of him among the other three friars. A native of Olpe, perhaps he is buried in a family plot.
Little Olpe has enriched our province with several brothers. At least three of them were missionaries in other countries: Francis in Mexico; and Alfred, along with Joe Moellman, in China. I am filled with gratitude for their response to God’s call.
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