3,510 miles: That is approximately how far Father John Hilton will ride his bicycle over the next seven weeks. Father Hilton set out on Tuesday from Anacortes, Wash., after dipping his rear tire in the Pacific Ocean. He plans to dip his front tire in the Atlantic Ocean by the end of July.
Father Hilton, who will turn 60 later this summer, is known as the “pedaling priest” in Aspen, Colo., where he is the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He rides 70-80 miles on his days off and completes other shorter rides throughout the week, totaling between 150 and 200 miles per week.
“There are cyclists who say that’s next to nothing, cyclists who ride 500 miles a week,” he said. “But in the life of parish priest, that’s a lot of time in the bike saddle.”
Father Hilton started cycling in his 30s, quickly developing a love for long rides and the challenge of climbing mountain passes. Like many who enjoy road biking, Father Hilton set his sights on a cross-country cycling trip, but he wanted to take it a step further.
“After I was granted the opportunity by Archbishop [Samuel] Aquila, I began to ask how I could use the bike ride to give back,” said Father Hilton. “Can it be used in a way that would generate enthusiasm and excitement for what God is doing in Aspen?”
Aspen is a highly educated and affluent town, nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Its citizens and visitors frequently participate in physical activities and outdoor sports, such as skiing, mountain biking and hiking. As well as its reputation for being a popular celebrity retreat, Aspen is known for its esteemed level of intellectual discourse, conferences, speakers and think-tank events, such as the Aspen Ideas Festival, as well as music. With emphasis on secular topics, it is also, according to Father Hilton, a place that can be skeptical of organized religion.
“There is a spirituality here,” he said. “People are attracted to beauty; it’s a beautiful place. But the challenge is religion, churches — getting people involved in the community life of the parish.”
This challenge excites Father Hilton. He wants to bring strong Catholic education and spiritual formation to Aspen in a way that complements the existing intellectual aspiration of the town but provides a concentrated spiritual component that reinvigorates interest in the Catholic faith. He is in good company: Father James Sullivan embarked on a cycling adventure from Connecticut to Maryland for Catholic education last summer.
Over several months, Father Hilton and Dan Burke, founder and president of the Avila Institute, came up with a plan. The project is twofold: first, to provide high-caliber Catholic education to the parishioners of St. Mary’s and, second, to provide a physical campus for the Avila Institute. The institute currently provides graduate-level Catholic education and foundational spiritual formation for any level of interest through online courses. Both components will be housed in a new building on St. Mary’s grounds in Aspen.
“We would love to see the Aspen Catholic community re-energized, to see St. Mary’s play a bigger part in the intellectual and spiritual conversations as a whole,” said Burke, who is also the executive director of the Register.
Father Hilton’s cross-country trek will be used to raise awareness and support for the project.
“Many people see the Catholic Church as something of yesterday,” said Burke. “To see a man [Father Hilton] who is so in love with Christ and the Church that he would be able to pull off a feat like this — to ride his bike across the U.S. — can inspire others to renew their commitment to the faith or to reconsider the Catholic Church as a place where they might find answers to the ultimate questions of life.”
Father Hilton’s cycling has already opened the door for conversations with Aspen residents, city officials and other religious leaders.
“What Father Hilton is doing is a really valuable and important aspect of the overall Aspen equation,” said Steve Skadron, mayor of Aspen. “Aspen is built on the concepts of mind, body, spirit. What Father Hilton is doing speaks to all of those pieces. I wish I was riding with him. I’m so excited for the whole mission.”
He hopes that his cross-country ride can become a catalyst, inviting others to think about and consider doing extraordinary things because of their faith.
“People in Aspen are not particularly interested in a priest being in town, but a cycling priest? That’s something interesting to them,” said Father Hilton. “The Catholic Church is going to flourish if people like me, people in the world, are active in the world.”
Father Hilton is looking forward to the sunny days of cycling, riding past all five of the Great Lakes and spending time in the Adirondack Mountains. He knows he will encounter challenging moments and rainy days, but that does not deter his excitement for the ride. He does not plan to listen to music, as he would like to use the time to pray instead.
“There is a wonderful, prayerful component of cycling that I love,” he said. “If someone were to pass me or see me on the road, they’d ask, ‘Who is this priest singing hymns, praying the Hail Mary while cycling?”
Autumn Jones writes from Denver.
FOLLOW THE RIDE ONLINE
Father Hilton will ride solo, stopping along the way to say Mass and visit with local parish communities. Each evening, he plans to post a video blog with an update from the road and a spiritual insight. You can follow his journey online at SpiritualDirection.com.
Follow Father Hilton’s journey in real time with his GPS tracker at PedalingPriest.com/journey.
Fast Facts About the Pedaling Priest
Hometown: Boulder, Colo.
Parish: St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Aspen, Colo.
Number of years as a priest: 33 years; four years in Aspen
Number of siblings: 8
Favorite aspect of cycling: Climbing mountain passes
Average daily distance: 80-90 miles each day
Total distance of ride: 3,510 miles
Expected duration: 7 weeks