ANTIETAM CREEK, Md. (CNS) — Three days and 30 miles into a 100-mile trek to Baltimore from the tiny central Maryland town of Hancock, Laura Dudich lost count of her blisters.
“My foot is covered in Band-Aids right now,” said the 17-year-old parishioner of St. Peter Church in Hancock, pausing briefly July 31 as she pounded the pavement along a farm-lined stretch of highway in Washington County.
“I’m determined not to quit,” Dudich insisted. “I want to go to the end. This is a cause I really want to stand up for.”
Supporting religious freedom was the goal of Dudich’s walk, which began July 29 at St. Peter and attracted 24 other Catholic pilgrims from throughout the area. Additional walkers joined the pilgrimage as it proceeded, swelling the group to 100 as it reached its final destination, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Aug. 5.
Organized by Father John “Jack” Lombardi, administrator of St. Peter as well as St. Patrick in Little Orleans, the trek was designed to call attention to a new federal health care mandate requiring all employers, including most religious employers, to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives, including some that can cause abortions.
Led by a man carrying a flag emblazoned with “An Appeal to Heaven,” the pilgrims walked 13 miles a day — stopping at Catholic parishes and other locations along the way to sleep and refuel. They wore bright neon T-shirts with a message on the back: “We’re Walking for YOU!”
As the pilgrims approached the basilica — America’s first cathedral and an international symbol of religious freedom — they were accompanied by a police escort and were cheered by supporters. Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden celebrated a special Mass and extended greetings on behalf of Archbishop William E. Lori.
Kimberly Mose, an 18-year-old parishioner of St. Mary Church in Hagerstown, said the pilgrimage had three goals: doing penance for the nation, alerting others to threats to religious freedom and winning souls to God.
“It’s a great way to spread our faith as we are taught by our parents,” Mose told The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper. “The Church is being forced to provide contraceptives and stuff like that. It’s going against our beliefs and it needs to stop.”
As a passing motorist beeped his horn in support while she marched in Washington County, Mose said she was encouraged by the people she met along the journey.
“We haven’t had any negative response,” she said, noting that the pilgrims distributed information cards and rosaries. “People are very interested and they want to know what we are doing.”
As walkers took a break July 31 beneath a hot sun, a man whose body was nearly covered in tattoos asked for rosaries. A non-Catholic who said he read the Bible while he had been incarcerated, the man bowed his head in prayer as one of the adult pilgrims prayed for him.
“None of them know me,” the man told the Review, asking not to be identified, “but they prayed for me. It means a lot when someone says they’ll pray for you.”
Bill Webster, a 60-year-old parishioner of St. Peter, said he hopes participating in the pilgrimage dispels apathy about genuine threats to religious liberty.
“I don’t think most Catholics realize the importance of where we are right now and what’s slowly being taken away from us,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do in Washington politically other than vote, but you can get out to walk and it might draw attention and change a heart or a mind — and get people stirred up.”
Webster said change must start at the bottom “with little steps.” “It’s not going to come from the top,” he said.
James Webbert, a 61-year-old parishioner of St. Ursula Church in Parkville, found the pilgrimage enriching.
“We’re physical and we’re spiritual,” he said. “Walking for religious freedom really compelled me. I want to do something with my whole person — body and soul.”
Father Lombardi said several businesses and supporters donated meals for the walkers. Pilgrims also received pledges for every mile traveled. More than $6,000 — $1,000 more than their goal — was raised for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore and the Interfaith Service Coalition in Hancock.
“The entire pilgrimage was a transcendent experience,” Father Lombardi said. “It was part roller-coaster ride, part marathon and part retreat all in one. You endure for the Lord and celebrate His compassion and also His challenge in the world to stand up for the faith.”
Matysek is on the staff of The Catholic Review, Baltimore archdiocesan newspaper.