Priests’ ride across the diocese an adventure, like a life in God’s plan

The Priests Pedaling for Prayers and their companions prepare to start their 350-mile journey across the Diocese of Peoria on Sept. 30. Dipping their back tires into the Mississippi River are (from left) Axel Jimenez, Father Michael Pica, Deacon Matt Levy, Father Tom Otto, Father Adam Cesarek, Brother Benedict, CSJ, Chris Hebel, and Dr. Michael Cruz. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

As they dipped the rear tires of their bicycles into the Mississippi River at Schuler’s Shady Grove Boat Ramp in Rapids City on Sept. 30, Father Tom Otto, Father Adam Cesarek and Father Michael Pica had no idea what would happen in the 350 miles they would travel before getting to the Indiana state line on Oct. 4.

Albums of photos were posted each day of the Sept. 30-Oct. 4 bicycle ride on The Catholic Post’s Facebook page. Additional photos and videos can be found at the Priests Pedaling for Prayers site on Facebook.

They had no doubt about their mission, however.

“The reason that we do this bike ride, Priests Pedaling for Prayers, is not to raise money. Rather, we’re trying to raise awareness. We’re trying to raise prayers for vocations,” Father Otto said in his homily at the opening Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Rapids City.

“So we’re trying to raise awareness in all the young people we meet, challenging them to think and to ask God about his plan for their life,” he explained.

It’s true that God gives us freedom to do what we want with our life, Father Otto said, “but when we seek to discover and discern his plan, our life becomes an adventure, our life becomes great in ways that we never could have planned ourselves.”


This is third year the three young priests have taken the journey across the Diocese of Peoria to ask for prayers for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Father Otto is the parochial vicar for St. Hyacinth and St. Patrick parishes, both in LaSalle, while Father Cesarek is the administrator of St. Mary Parish in Pontiac.

Arriving at the Indiana state line on Oct. 4, the Priests Pedaling for Prayers and their companions celebrate the successful completion of their 350-mile ride to raise awareness of and prayers for vocations. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Father Pica is the chaplain at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign and parochial vicar for St. Matthew Parish in Champaign and St. Boniface Parish in Seymour. He was the point person for this year’s ride.

Making the trip for the second year was Deacon Matthew Levy, who served at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Silvis and St. Patrick Parish in Colona for many years before moving to Le Claire, Iowa, recently.

Joining the pedaling priests for the first time were Dr. Michael Cruz and Axel Jimenez. Cruz is COO of OSF HealthCare and CEO for OSF HealthCare’s central region, and a member of Holy Family Parish in Peoria. Jimenez is a State Farm agent in Normal and a member of Epiphany Parish there.

A bicycling enthusiast, Cruz said the ride afforded him the opportunity to bike and pray. You can’t beat that,” he told The Catholic Post.

But there was something more behind his desire to join the Priests Pedaling for Prayers.

“There’s such a huge demand for vocations,” he said, noting the need for women religious, as well as priests. “When I think of vocations, I think both/and.”

His work at OSF HealthCare has enabled the emergency room physician to see The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis — and now the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George — involved in all facets of the health care ministry.

“We have to carry on their mission,” Cruz said.

Other companions who biked for various legs of the vocations ride included Brother Benedict, CSJ, of the Congregation of St. John in Princeville; Chris Hebel of St. John the Baptist in Rapids City; Father Timothy Hepner, diocesan vocation director of recruitment; Steve Driscoll of St. Monica in East Peoria; and Father David Sabel, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chatsworth, St. Joseph in Chenoa, St. Joseph in Flanagan, and St. Mary in Lexington.


The Priests Pedaling for Prayers visited 13 schools as they made their way across central Illinois, stopping for assemblies or school Masses in Geneseo, Kewanee, Chillicothe, Peoria Heights, Peoria, Pekin, Lincoln, Bloomington, Normal, Rantoul, Champaign and Philo. In each place one of the priests would share his vocation story.

Fourth-graders at St. Matthew School in Champaign offer words of encouragement and promises of prayer to Father Tom Otto (left), Father Adam Cesarek (right), and Father Michael Pica (kneeling). (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Father Otto talked about wanting to be an architect and Father Pica considered following his father into medicine as a physical therapist. Father Cesarek said he probably had 25 different answers when he was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” — including a park ranger, fireman, sportscaster and baseball player.

They all had a profound encounter with God as they grew in faith, however, that made them ask God, “What do you want me to do?”

“We love being priests,” Father Cesarek told the students at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Peoria Heights. “We’re incredibly joyful.”

After their brief witness talks, the clergy trio would ask questions about the saint of the day, the sacraments, the most important prayer a priest says every day (Mass) and Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

The official Priests Pedaling for Prayers t-shirts awarded for correct (and “close enough”) answers had the initials “JMJ” printed on the back. It was a nod to Archbishop Sheen, who wrote the initials for Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the blackboard he used for his television program, “Life is Worth Living.”

The priests didn’t leave until they got the students chanting back and forth — as loud as they could — “Lord, help me to want to be/what you want me to be.”

Father Pica, Father Cesarek and Father Otto got more than enthusiasm from the students, though.

Father Michael Pica approaches the paper chain finish line made by the students at St. Thomas School in Philo, the last school visited by the Priests Pedaling for Prayers. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

The students prepared posters, banners and cards pledging their prayers for vocations, and presented shirts at Visitation Catholic School in Kewanee and Epiphany Catholic School in Normal. The priests and their companions received Tervis cups with the school logo at Carroll Catholic School in Lincoln, and healthy snacks and sports drinks at Holy Family School in Peoria.

While at St. Mary School in Bloomington they were serenaded with “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Andy Grammer, a song the students sing and sign every morning to remind themselves to be strong in their faith and kind to others.

Music teacher Elizabeth Hulsbrink of St. Malachy School in Geneseo wrote special lyrics to “God Has Chosen Me” for the Priests Pedaling for Prayers, which the students sang during the clergy’s visit. (Click here.)

Admitting that it isn’t always an easy life, Father Pica said priesthood is nevertheless a great life.

“Priesthood is a great gift and the priesthood is the love of the heart of Christ,” he said during a Holy Hour for Vocations at St. Dominic Church in Wyoming. “Now we ask (God), we beg him together tonight, through this whole week, to send out laborers. . . . Our prayer is that more people will have the courage, who hear his voice, to follow him.”

The sponsors for this year’s ride were OSF HealthCare, Re/Max Sauk Valley, the Knights of Columbus, and the Axel Jimenez State Farm Agency.

Driving support vehicles were Don and Char Otto, parents of Father Otto; Jim and Sandy Cesarek, parents of Father Cesarek; and Brian Claricoates, a friend of Father Pica’s from St. Patrick Church of Merna in Bloomington.

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