‘Pop-Up Pope Francis’ greets biking priests, seminarians on 1,400-mile pilgrimage to City Ave. seminary

In the home stretch of a bicycle pilgrimage that started three weeks ago in St. Augustine, Fla., two priests and three seminarians arrived Tuesday at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary to the sounds of loud applause and cowbells, and the sight of a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis.

On a mission from God to “raise awareness of priest vocations,” the Biking 4 Vocations quintet pedaled up to the Wynnefield seminary just after 2 p.m.

The backs of their shirts quoted Bible verse Matthew 28:19 — “Go and make disciples of all nations” — and their faces were all smiles as they were greeted by dozens of well-wishers at the seminary in which they’ll stay before resuming a journey that ends Sunday on Long Island, NY.

Their visit started with a group prayer before sipping the Gatorade and water that awaited them. Father Stephen DeLay, speaking on behalf of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then pointed out to the Papal novelty before thanking the five for their efforts in advance of the unrelated World Meeting of Families.

“We enthusiastically welcome you and we praise God for the blessing you bring on this pilgrimage,” said DeLay of a mission to connect with youths up the East Coast about their calling. “We are all keeping our fingers crossed that Pope Francis will possibly be a guest at this seminary.

“Experiencing this occasion, there is no doubt why the church in the United States had a 25 percent increase from the previous year’s ordination class. Also, this enthusiasm for the priesthood, helped by the anticipated Papal visit, explains why this year’s incoming seminarians for Philadelphia is more than double last year.”

Stephen Rooney, one of the group’s three seminarians, said that the idea for such a pilgrimage occurred to him while bicycling across country last year. Namely, he noticed a dearth of priests in the western United States.

“I really think the church is coming up with new ideas to attract young people into this vocation,” Rooney said of a trip that’s seen the riders stay in rectories and parishioners’ homes at each stop. “This isn’t a boring vocation. This isn’t a boring life, being a priest. It’s a life full of excitement, a life full of joy.”

Rooney, a seminarian in the Diocese of Rockville Centre (NY), agreed that the world’s reception of Pope Francis has helped spark that interest.

The Rev. Joe Fitzgerald of Brooklyn, NY, concurred in citing “the Francis effect” that includes Catholics he encountered in Florida and South Carolina who are psyched about the Pope’s upcoming visit.

He said that Pope Francis “remaining relevant” in the past two years has helped the priesthood regain some standing in the wake of the “horrible situation” that befell its standing.

“A life of joy,” said Fitzgerald, who was also a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Handball Team. “That’s what the priesthood is all about.”

After about a half hour outside the seminary, the five walked inside to rest up before hitting the road for Long Island in the coming days.

Riding with Rooney and Fitzgerald are The Rev. Marc Swartvagher (academic dean for Cathedral Seminary House of Formation, Douglaston) and and seminarians Dominik Wegiel from the Diocese of Brooklyn and Steven Diaz from the Archdiocese of New York.

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