by William Schmitt
ALBANY — Days before some 8,000 Catholics gathered for the New York State Eucharistic Congress, an intrepid team of about three dozen assembled to briefly transform the scenic Empire State Trail from an upstate hiking and cycling route into a local path of pilgrimage.
Previewing the Congress’ goal to deepen devotion to Jesus as really present in the Blessed Sacrament, these New Yorkers walked 57 miles to share their faith in tangible ways, visiting parishes for Eucharistic adoration, meals, and overnight accommodations. They helped communities focus on two destinations — ultimately heaven, and the weekend event at Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, New York.
Their journey began on Tuesday, Oct. 17, with morning Mass at the Diocese of Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They received a special blessing from Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who reminded everyone, “The Lord Jesus is walking with us.” He urged the travelers to “be open” to reflect on the gifts God constantly bestows and to “tell stories” that affirm we are never alone.
This “Way of Martyrs” pilgrimage, traversing towns named Watervliet, Cohoes, Schenectady, and Amsterdam, concluded Friday as many cars and buses were also arriving at the hillside site of the congress. During their days on a road less traveled, those walking viewed neighborhoods, nature’s panoramas, autumn leaves, and the waterways of the Mohawk Valley, evoking historic times of martyred missionaries and the “Lily of the Mohawks,” St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
“It’s wonderful to spend time in God’s creation and to see New York in this way,” said Andrea Reno, one of the pilgrims, an avid hiker and a teacher at St. Pius X School in Loudonville, New York. “We’re passing things I drive right by, but seeing it from a different perspective.
“I’m enjoying the sense of community and camaraderie,” Reno told The Tablet on Wednesday while the group paused to meet with other local Catholics at a park in Niskayuna, near Lock 7 of the Erie Canal.
She reached into her backpack for a booklet with pages written by students aged 5 and 6, as well as adult colleagues. “I’m bringing their prayers with me and praying for their intentions.”
James LaFave, one of the locals who had come to visit with the pilgrims at the park, said his career had made him an advocate for the spiritual value of escapes into natural surroundings.
Now retired, LaFave told The Tablet he frequently had led such walks for students as a campus minister at a Catholic agency for kids whose setbacks affected their mental wellness and academic prospects.
He recalled how “the reflection that’s part of just being out, not spending so much time with digital stuff,” had healing effects on students.
Father Stephen Yusko, one of the two priests who planned and led the pilgrimage, showed a rosary he was using. Each bead was a rolled-up piece of paper bearing the prayer of one his students.
Father Daniel Quinn, a downtown Albany pastor and the group’s other leader, said the parishes extending their hospitality were not limited to Roman Catholic churches. They included St. Ann Maronite Catholic Church, belonging to an Eastern Rite prominent in Lebanon.
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church gave the visitors “a whole stack of prayers to take with us, to leave at the altar in Auriesville,” Father Quinn said.
“It’s nice because the whole community is uniting,” Father Yusko added. “People who can’t do the walk are still participating in it.”
The idea for a pilgrimage arose a while ago when the two priests, ordained in the Diocese of Albany within the past several years, discussed their respective inspirations from the Camino de Santiago in Spain — an iconic, expansive journey leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
“We realized we could create something like that pilgrim experience in our own diocese,” Father Yusko told The Tablet. The Camino attracts many people who are “just searching,” he said, much like young adults in America who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
“We thought it would be a good example for people to at least search for Christ on the way that’s available nearer to them in their home diocese or in New York in general,” said Father Yusko.
“We’re hoping that this is the start of something. It happens to coincide, through God’s providence, with New York working on the Empire State Trail,” which spans a total of 750 miles.
The trail, a project launched in 2017, begins at the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park and heads toward the Canadian border via Albany, where the other segment extends to Buffalo.
“It’s helpful to bring out that there’s a lot of Catholic history and roots here that just need to be explored and taken advantage of to show forth the faith again,” said Father Yusko.
When the priests announced earlier this year that they planned a rigorous, four-day spiritual trek timed with the Eucharistic Congress, 35 laypeople of the diocese volunteered. Their average age was under 40.
The group conducted Friday’s six-mile leg of their journey, from Amsterdam to Auriesville, as a Eucharistic procession, with members of the Sisters of Life preceding Jesus in the monstrance. They concluded with Mass in the shrine’s Kateri Chapel.
The time is right for pilgrimages like the “Way of Martyrs,” Father Yusko added, because so many people are suffering from depression and anxiety. “I just think people are yearning for God, and God is always yearning for us to go to Him. This is an outward expression of that, which is a beautiful thing.”
Catholics need to reach out to society with Christ’s love, he said. “I mean, we’re all pilgrims, right? We’re all journeying home to heaven.”