Priests complete ‘incredible’ ride across diocese to inspire prayers for vocations

After riding a little more than 340 miles over five days, Father Michael Pica, Father Adam Cesarek and Father Tom Otto stand just inside Indiana on April 28, bringing “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” to a close. Behind them is one of the support vehicles that accompanied them on the joureny to raise prayers for and awareness of vocations. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

After riding their bicycles a little more than 340 miles over five days, three young priests of the Diocese of Peoria sailed across the Indiana state line on April 28, bringing “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” to a close.

“It does seem a little surreal,” said Father Tom Otto of Monmouth at journey’s end. “Things like this seem insurmountable when you begin, but maybe like life, you focus on the short-term goals. . . . That makes it doable. Take one little bit at a time and before you know it, you’ve done something pretty incredible.”

Dozens of Catholic Post images from the ride appear in the video below.

The effort to raise prayers for vocations began April 24 when Father Otto, Father Michael Pica of Bloomington and Father Adam Cesarek of Pontiac dipped their rear tires in the Mississippi River, which marks the border between Iowa and Illinois. They were sent forth with the blessing of students at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline, who lined both sides of the street outside the school to cheer them on.

Along the way, they stopped to talk with students and parishioners at 15 schools and churches about the need for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, as well as good, holy marriages “from which all vocations come.”

They also celebrated Mass, took part in a Holy Hour for Vocations at Holy Trinity Church in Bloomington, stopped to pray at the Bishops’ Mausoleum in St. Mary’s Cemetery in West Peoria, and visited with people at potlucks, dinners and receptions arranged by the vocation apostolates or Knights of Columbus councils in each area.

At most stops they received pledge cards from the children and adults with promises of prayer, sacrifice and good deeds to support them on the ride and ask God for an increase in vocations. At St. Mark School in Peoria, for example, the students presented a basket with cards pledging everything from individual prayers to rosaries to spiritual bouquets.

BLESSINGS ABOUND

After the three priests’ visit to Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island, Father Michael Pica is wished well by the students, who made a tunnel for the “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” to ride through. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“What’s been really neat to see is the goodness of the people of our diocese. That’s been, for me, absolutely the most powerful part,” said Father Cesarek, who is parochial vicar at St. Mary in Pontiac, St. Paul in Odell, St. Joseph in Flanagan, and St. John in Cullom.

“The overwhelming support we had from each and every place we went, the joy that each place had and the excitement that they maintained . . . really invigorated me and gave me an incredible hope for our diocese,” he said, noting that they were also inspired by the good, holy people they encountered.

That included the priests of the Diocese of Peoria, many of whom were on hand for their visits and offered them hospitality for the night. Some also rode with them at various points in their journey.

“I can’t think of another time in my life, other than priest gatherings, that we’ve had a chance just to spend time with brother-priests. That was an unexpected blessing,” said Father Otto, parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception in Monmouth and St. Patrick in Raritan and a chaplain for students at Monmouth College.

“There were things that surprised us along the way,” he told The Catholic Post. “The fact that every school and every parish did something different for us was a nice surprise.”

The pedaling priests found a drumline waiting for them at Costa Catholic Academy in Galesburg, a parade with students from St. Mary School in Pontiac and St. Paul School in Odell walking or biking with them, and signs, streamers and tunnels of enthusiastic students at others. When they arrived at Schlarman Academy in Danville, which is near the Indiana border, students were holding a large “Finish Line” banner they had all signed.

Father Pica, parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church of Merna in Bloomington, St. Mary in Downs and St. Patrick in Wapella, credits the welcome and send-off at the schools with “pumping us up and getting us ready to go, giving us momentum to do the ride.”

That was especially important on April 26, when the priests did their “century” ride – 100 miles. In all, they were on the road for 20 hours and 45 minutes, averaging about 17 miles an hour.

NO MAJOR PROBLEMS

While the chain came off each bike at some point, there were no mechanical failures or major injuries. They each had a tough day during the week, but it wasn’t the same day so they were able to support and encourage whoever was struggling.

Father Tom Otto tells his vocation story during a stop at St. Mary School in Pontiac. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

They prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet and caught up with each other when the wind was at their backs and they were able to ride side by side.

“There’s moments of quiet, which is all right, too,” Father Cesarek said. “There are moments of suffering out there. I was kind of keeping in mind particular people, some of the kids in our school who are suffering with cancer, offering that suffering for them.”

Even the tough days provided life lessons, they said. On the first day, for example, they realized they weren’t stopping often enough or drinking as much water as they should.

“It’s like if you don’t put enough time toward your prayer it’s tough to keep going as a priest, too,” Father Cesarek said. “If your prayer isn’t essential and you don’t take care of yourself on that front, then it’s tough to do what you need to do on a daily basis as a priest.”

They emphasized that they aren’t the only priests willing to suffer and go the extra mile for their people.

“There are so many priests out there who will do anything and everything and they don’t get recognition for it,” Father Pica said. In fact, these men often prefer to remain behind the scenes.

DON’T STOP PRAYING

The ride may be over, but the prayers must continue, the priests said.

Father Adam Cesarek smiles as the “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” pass a “Finish Line” banner signed and held by the students at Schlarman Academy in Danville on April 28. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Father Otto explained that priesthood is the greatest thing that has ever happened to them and they love to serve their people. Such an abundant harvest requires more laborers, however.

“So many more souls could know God more deeply if we had more priests,” he said. At every school, Father Otto asked the students to listen for God’s voice and respond with courage and generosity if they hear the call.

Before starting “Priests Pedaling for Prayers,” the three priests said they hoped to make this an annual effort for vocations. Now that it’s over, would they attempt another trek across the diocese?

“Ask us in a couple months,” Father Otto said with a laugh.

“Without question,” Father Cesarek said, “we would all be open to it again, if the Lord wills it.”

BENEFITS OF RIDE ALREADY BEING SEEN

One of the first fruits of “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” is already being seen in the way it has brought people together in prayer, according to Father Timothy Hepner, diocesan vocation director for recruitment.

“There was an excitement but also a solidarity,” he told The Catholic Post in the days after the ride. “Maybe you can’t ride your bike 340 miles, but you can pray. They had a stack of prayer cards, so when people say ‘I’m praying two rosaries a day’ or ‘I’m giving my Holy Hour’ that’s powerful.”

Father Hepner added that seeing three young men who felt called by Christ to give their lives to the people of the diocese has people talking not just about vocations to the priesthood, but vocations in general.

“I think sometimes people look and say, ‘Is there anyone responding?’ Then you see something like this and it just galvanizes them,” he said.

Another benefit is the way people worked together to welcome the priests and provide meals, refreshments and encouragement. In Bloomington-Normal, for example, every parish in the area did something to help with the reception and Holy Hour hosted by Holy Trinity Parish. Now they are looking at other ways to work together.

For more information about “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” or how to support vocations in the Diocese of Peoria, visit comeandfollowme.org.

Related stories: Father Pica explains ‘Why we’re doing this’

Four other priests joined trio for parts of the ride

The 15 stops along the way

 

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