Eight seminarians began their 150-mile bike ride across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on a warm Thursday morning, Aug. 8, as the inaugural Biking for Vocations tour began its four-day journey to nine suburban parishes.

After a 9 a.m. blessing by vocations director Father Stephen DeLacy, the seminarians pedaled out of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and began the 23-mile trek from Wynnewood, Montgomery County on hilly roads into Delaware and Chester County.

(See our photo gallery of scenes from the day here.)

About two hours later the seminarians arrived at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in West Chester, not one of the riders appearing even winded. Youth has its advantages.

They were greeted by some two dozen parishioners with hand-made signs and ringing cow bells, a tradition during organized bike races.

Among them was parishioner Erin Matonis along with two of her three sons, ages 12, 9 and 7.

“We thought it would be a good experience for the kids and for them to make posters and cheer (the seminarians) on,” she said. “It was really nice coming out and supporting them, and getting to see them.”

Her family has been praying for vocations at least since St. Maximilian Parish began encouraging its members to support Biking for Vocations around Memorial Day, and at each of the Sunday Masses for the past six weeks.

Deb Mirenda, whose son Dominic is among the seminarian riders, cheers on the men as they depart from the seminary. (Sarah Webb)

Building a culture of vocations awareness in parishes of the archdiocese is the whole purpose of the cycling tour, conceived about a year ago by seminarians and the planning for which began in earnest last December.

One of the lead seminarian organizers is Chris Massaro, entering second theology at St. Charles Seminary this fall. He described the first leg of the ride — and at 23 miles the longest of them — as “beautiful.”

“We got to go through Ridley Creek State Park, through Cheney University, (and) just a number of nice spots along the ride, some through wooded areas and some hills,” Massaro said.

With their bright yellow jerseys the riders caught the attention of the curious along the way.

“We had a nice conversation with some folks in (the park) when we stopped. I told them what we were doing, biking to promote vocations,” he said. “Hopefully as the weekend goes by, we’re able to have more conversations like that when we stop at various spots. I think that would be a great thing for promoting vocations and obviously the parish events are going to be a huge part of that. I’m looking forward to that turnout.”

Even as they spoke with passersby and enjoyed the scenery together, the seminarians remained aware of the spiritual component and mission of their ride.

“We’ve planned in time throughout the day to have moments of prayer, either personal prayer or collective prayer through the Liturgy of the Hours and obviously Mass every day,” Massaro said. “But in a particular way there’s the aspect of praying for vocations as we do it. I put one of the Biking for Vocations decals on the tube of my bike so when I look down I can see it. As I’m biking I will be able to pray for vocations and that will remind me to do that.”

Second college seminarian John Peter Zappe is studying for the Philadelphia Archdiocese but is from Sussex County, New Jersey, so the bike tour is helping him “to learn the diocese, experience the parishes. This is a great parish here at St. Max’s,” he said.

He is grateful for the presence of parishioners at each of the stops because the seminarians can make connections with young people, perhaps with far-reaching consequences.

Mia Rose Falini, age 6, gives Austin Robuck a high five at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, West Chester, before he heads back on the road toward St. Joseph Parish, Downingtown. (Sarah Webb)

“When you’re thinking about becoming a priest, you look at a priest and you think, ‘I can’t really become that.’ But when you see a seminarian, you can kind of see a stepping stone (and think), ‘I can be that; and then I can be a priest.’ That’s one reason I think it’s great that we’re doing this,” Zappe said.

He acknowledged the work of fellow seminarian Tucker Brown, another key organizer of the tour, and of the archdiocesan Vocations Office for Diocesan Priesthood.

At St. Maximilian Kolbe, the parish staff led by the pastor, Father Christopher Papa and Permanent Deacon Bill Hickey, hosted lunch for the parishioners and seminarians, who mingled and chatted together easily.

Deacon Hickey believed parishioners were learning that men discerning a call to the priesthood “are real people, they’re normal guys, they’re people who like all of us are discerning where God want(s) to move us in our lives. We’re hoping that will rub off on and influence our young people,” he said.

“Vocations are real,” he added. “God’s mission for all of us — all the baptized (and) the ordained — is to be in the world. So for our young people here to see the seminarians, being active young men, I think it’s very encouraging for them to see that discerning a life like this, asking God for guidance on this journey, it’s very natural and normal.”

After lunch and good-byes, the seminarians hopped back on their bikes and continued to St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown and an evening Holy Hour with parishioners and clergy.

The pattern was to repeat Aug. 9 with a late-morning stop at St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Norristown, followed by a trek to St. Eleanor in Collegeville and a Friday evening Holy Hour and Q&A there.

This weekend brings biking and stops at St. Rose of Lima, North Wales midday on Aug. 10; an evening Holy Hour at St. Agnes, Sellersville followed by Sunday morning Mass there Aug. 11; a midday stop at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Doylestown and in the evening at St. Andrew, Newtown; and continuing the final day with a midday visit at St. Catherine of Siena, Horsham before finishing at St. Charles Seminary around 4:30 p.m. with a planned concluding event.

All the faithful are invited to any of the parishes and the seminary for all the events.

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See a complete schedule and more information on the vocations office’s website, HeedtheCall.org, and follow Biking for Vocations throughout the journey on Facebook.

The riders along with seminarian Eric Tamney (in black) use a computer at St. Maximilian Kolbe to check their route. The men also used apps on the phones to track their progress. (Sarah Webb)