by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — They knew their names.
Now, they know their stories.
The annual pilgrimage of the seminarians of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas with Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann took 21 young men studying for the priesthood to the very birthplace of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Prior to this trip, explained archdiocesan vocations director Father Dan Morris, the seminarians “only knew the American-born saints, or those saints canonized in America, by name or a stained-glass window in church.”
“Learning about their stories and encountering them,” he said, “the majority of guys came away with [the feeling that] ‘I now have a relationship with these saints, and I’m going to allow that relationship to foster my vocation going forward.’”
The Aug. 4-11 pilgrimage took the group to shrines, churches and historic locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The theme of the pilgrimage was: “The Early Church in America.”
Among the places they visited were the shrines and/or tombs of: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland; St. John Neumann in Philadelphia; St. Katherine Drexel, also in Philadelphia; Blessed Father Michael McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut; and the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.
They also went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore — the country’s first cathedral.
In addition to the seminarians, Archbishop Naumann, Father Morris, co-director of vocations Father Scott Wallisch and vocations office administrative assistant Kelly Kmiecik also made the trip.
It seemed like the “fingerprints of God” were all over this pilgrimage, which was filled with providential moments and encounters with the American saints and all sorts of people, said Father Morris. Everywhere they went, they were met with hospitality and friendship — which he attributed to Kmiecik’s work fostering relationships while planning the pilgrimage.
Two encounters with laypeople stand out, said Father Morris.
One was with their own bus driver, a retired U.S. Marine, who spent a great deal of time with them.
“By the end of the trip, he shared meals with us . . . and heard us pray, growing in friendship day by day,” said Father Morris. “He took two or three opportunities to speak directly to the seminarians his love for them . . . and what a blessing it was to him to meet our young men studying for the priesthood, learn more about the faith and growth in hope for the future. He’s planning to come and celebrate the ordinations of those to the diaconate and priesthood next May.”
When they were at the shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia, a woman visiting at the same time thanked the seminarians for responding to God’s call to them. Then, she instructed the cashier at the gift shop to put the seminarians’ purchases on her tab.
Archbishop Naumann seeks to accomplish three things with these annual pilgrimages with his seminarians: first, he tries to get to know the seminarians better, and vice versa; second, he hopes it builds a sense of fraternity among the seminarians, who attend either St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, or Kenrick- Glennon Seminary in St. Louis; finally, he hopes it helps the seminarians further discern their vocations and bring back and share what they learned.
Aaron Waldeck, a fifth-year seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon, was enthusiastic about the fraternity he felt.
“It’s always great to spend time with the new guys,” said Waldeck, who was on his fifth seminarian pilgrimage. “They bring a lot of enthusiasm for entering [the] seminary and going through the process. We also get to know them. We’ll live in proximity every year, and they remind me of my first year [as a seminarian] as well.”
One of his most inspirational moments was serving Mass for Archbishop Naumann at the tomb of St. John Neumann. The saint’s body, now a relic, lies beneath the altar and can be seen through a window.
“It was very apparent, the connection between the communion of saints and the sacrifice of the Mass, having our archbishop celebrate Mass at the tomb of a canonized saint,” said Waldeck. “It was a very powerful witness.”
Will Sutherland, a fifth-year seminarian at Kenrick-Glennon, appreciated the quality time he was able to spend with Archbishop Naumann.
“I was able to have some small talk with [the archbishop] here and there, and shared some meals with him,” said Sutherland, who has also been on five pilgrimages. “We each had some one-on-one time with him and some intentional conversations while on the bus.”
One place Sutherland found particularly inspiring was the site of St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s baptism. It’s a simple place, marked by a stone structure at a spring, on the side of a hill in the woods.
This was the tenth pilgrimage for Deacon Andrew Gaffney, who is in his ninth and final year of formation at St. John Vianney Seminary. (Deacon Gaffney participated as a college seminarian as well.) He was particularly moved by one saint.
“I’d say the one that sticks out to me the most was St. John Neumann,” said Deacon Gaffney. “He died of exhaustion . . . because he saw the needs of his people and he did the best he could to meet them. He wasn’t one to sit around his rectory all day. . . . He knew there were people in need who could use his help.”
Similarly, he was also moved by the shrine to Blessed Father Michael McGivney. Like St. John Neumann, he also responded to the needs of the men of his parish by founding the Knights of Columbus.
Deacon Gaffney and Deacon Sudeep Kodigandla assisted Archbishop Naumann with daily Mass and leading Holy Hours and eucharistic adoration.
“I was able to lead [eucharistic] adoration on our first day in Baltimore, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” said Deacon Gaffney. “For me, it was an amazing, powerful experience. It’s the first cathedral in the United States, where the Baltimore Catechism was written, the councils of the church in the United States were held there, and so many bishops were ordained there.”
He was inspired by the fact that the monstrance he held was used for eucharistic adoration by generations of cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons — and possibly even saints.
The hope is that the pilgrimages will have a long-lasting effect on the seminarians as they journey toward possible ordination.
“The archbishop hoped this pilgrimage fostered a moment of encounter,” said Father Morris. “And being inspired, they [now] bring back what they learned and exercise that knowledge and share what they learned with the people of God throughout their priesthood.”