Pilgrim teens pray for those with mental illness

Eight Catholic teens ages 15-18 discerning vocations to the priesthood and religious life took a 70-mile pilgrimage through the Diocese of Portland, Maine, to pray for and raise awareness about teens struggling with addiction, depression or contemplating suicide. Although it was a privately organized event, priests of the diocese offered daily Mass and counsel to the young people during the four-day pilgrimage held Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

The pilgrimage was the brainchild of the teens who are part of a Sabattus, Maine, discernment group that has been meeting Tuesday nights for the past year. It is led by Father Seamus Griesbach, vocations director for the diocese, who said, “Our group met one Tuesday night, and the guys told me they wanted to live out their faith more dynamically. I encouraged them to come up with some ideas as to how they might like to do that, and they came back to me and said they wanted to do a pilgrimage.”

Pilgrimage intention

Father Griesbach had walked part of the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain while he was a transitional deacon, and diocesan seminarians had previously walked on pilgrimage from Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to a Catholic center in Bangor, Maine, hence “pilgrimage was in the air.”

Father Griesbach advised the youth that their pilgrimage needed an intention for which to pray and sacrifice, and the group decided to offer their efforts on behalf of their peers experiencing addiction and depression, for those contemplating suicide and those who have lost a teen loved one to suicide.

“These are problems we experience in this part of the country,” Father Griesbach said. “Additionally, the opioid epidemic is very much on people’s minds, so I encouraged them to go ahead with that intention.”

Some of the teens in the group had been personally affected by suicide, including the pilgrimage’s 17-year-old leader, Patrick Carter of Vassalboro, whose 13-year-old cousin had committed suicide nearly a decade ago. Carter related, “It hurts when I think about it. I did not know him that well, but family members who knew both of us said we had a lot in common. I miss the relationship we could have had.”

Carter added that the group wanted to do something positive to address the problem, but thought their efforts at organizing a fundraiser would fail. Hence, he said, “We thought prayer was the best approach. It was our way of reaching out with God’s grace to those who are suffering.”

Matthew Sawicki, 18, another pilgrim, said, “It is a serious problem that is often overlooked. To be able to shed some light on it, and to offer up my prayers and sufferings alongside my friends, was an invitation I could not pass up.”

The way to the cross

The pilgrimage began at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Augusta and ended at St. John’s Church in Bangor, both beautiful churches with a rich Catholic history. The teens walked as many as 21 miles a day, and spent the night either in tents or parishioners’ homes. Twenty minutes of heavy rain greeted the teens as they left St. Mary’s, but the weather cleared and was ideal for the remainder of the trip.

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Walking 12 hours a day “proved to be a lot harder than we thought, particularly the last five or six miles,” said Carter, “but it gave us the chance to offer our sufferings up.”

As they walked they prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, the Angelus, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. They carried a flag identifying that they were on pilgrimage; it featured a pilgrim shell surrounded by a turquoise ring, a color signifying awareness of the problem of addiction. Friendly strangers greeted them along the way, inquiring about their cause and offering gifts of food, water and cash. People in cars honked and waved.

Carter noted, “The support we received made me realize that I can do a lot more than I think I can when other people support me.”

Sawicki added, “I was amazed by the random acts of kindness and encouragement we received from complete strangers.”

He related the story of how they stopped at a small convenience store and the manager inquired who they were and what they were doing. After they explained, he gave them bottled water, pizza and candy. Sawicki recalled, “He was very kind.”

The teens were overjoyed to reach their destination on the fourth day, not only because they could give their tired legs a rest, but because “we believed we did something important to help those in need,” said Carter.

Sawicki recalled the final six miles as the most difficult. “It was one of the hardest walks I’d ever taken. It was only a short distance left, but we had three days of hard walking behind us. We were all really hurting.”

Sawicki prayed for strength and perseverance, and in the middle of prayer, “it hit me. Jesus Christ on his walk to Calvary carrying the cross was walking for so many more people than we were. He was experiencing so much more pain than we were experiencing.” He added, “Imitating Christ in such a way, uniting my pain and suffering to him through prayer, brought me closer to him.”

If a loved one is contemplating suicide

Annual event

The group plans on making the pilgrimage an annual event. Sawicki looks forward to walking again in 2019, as he found the first pilgrimage experience “inspiring.”

He explained, “It was amazing that we could pull together and rely on each other as brothers to get through it. We knew what it was like to offer up our pain and prayers as one, and to enjoy spending so much time together. It was a special bonding experience that changed us.”

“It turned out to be a wonderful event,” Carter said. “We’re confident that many were helped spiritually by our efforts, and hope that those struggling will find their way into the Catholic Church, which has so many things to offer them.”

Jim Graves writes from California.