Earlier this summer, two Franciscans from the United States were in Puno, Peru, trying to beg the equivalent of $270 from the people there in order to purchase visas to enter Bolivia. 

Folks were giving, but in small increments — roughly about a quarter or 50 cents at a time.  It reminded one of the friars about the apostles’ experience fishing all night and not catching anything.

“In the back of my mind, I was thinking: ‘The Lord’s going to come through big at the end of this, in some way,’” said Brother James Wartman. 

That afternoon, Brother James and Father Michael Sheehan boarded a bus to Bolivia about $70 short, trusting that God would show them the way through, because they had an important destination in mind: World Youth Day in Brazil. 

Toward the end of the line, they started asking fellow passengers for money, and one man from France provided the rest of the visa fee. After the currency exchange and fee payment, the friars came out a dollar ahead.

This was just one incident of God’s providence recounted by Brother James, 46, about his journey from Cincinnati to Rio de Janeiro with Father Sheehan, 32.

Both men are members of the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance (FPO), a branch of the Franciscan family, who live in the Roxbury section of Boston. They operate under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Boston.

While many pilgrims to World Youth Day might have travel trials to share, few if any would have the ability or inclination to match the road trip taken by the Franciscans: a journey of roughly 9,815 miles by bus, foot and boat — with significant amount of ground covered by hitching rides.    

“I wanted to make a real pilgrimage, for my own faith, to keep it alive and fervent,” said Brother James. “You know, I saw this as a great opportunity.”

 

Sans Smartphone and Debit Card

On May 26, the friars began their journey by bus from Cincinnati to Villahermosa, in southern Mexico. Included in their packing list: a Mass kit and a Missal. They also brought two disposable cameras with 27 exposures each, which were given to them by sixth-grade students at St. Patrick’s School in Roxbury. They brought their passports, of course, but did not bring cellphones, debit cards or cash.

Through the support of parish priests, other Franciscans and religious, as well as friends, families, truck drivers, police officers, bus drivers and other benefactors, the two made their way south by southeast, passing through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay — and eventually arriving in Brazil.

They slept in church rectories, seminaries, hotels, homes, a hostel, overnight buses and the cab of a semitruck. They never had to sleep outside, though they were prepared to do so.

If they did not know anyone in town, they looked for a nearby Catholic church or religious house to seek shelter. They aimed to arrive at a new destination by 6-8pm, though there were many times when their arrival was later.

They accepted money for transportation tickets with prudence and asked for it as necessary. They turned down offers from people for extended stays past overnight, as well as plane tickets. Once, they backed out of a bus tour in Cuzco, Peru. The situation felt too touristy to them, reminding them that they were pilgrims.

 

Time for Prayer

About once a week, they stayed put to take a “prayer day” for quiet and contemplation, as the friars’ way of life includes making two hours of mental prayer daily.

They also made an effort to check in with their superior in Boston on a weekly basis, as well as to connect with family back home periodically.

Along their way, they visited the tombs of Sts. Rose and Martin de Porres in Lima, Peru, and Nuestra Senora de Las Lajas (Our Lady of Las Lajas) in Colombia.

 

Some Obstacles, Continuous Providence

Hitchhiking is a common form of transportation for the FPOs, although they employ prudence in doing so and do not necessarily encourage it for others. A number of FPO members had gone to Nicaragua before, as the friars once had a residence there, so it was not entirely unchartered territory for the order. 

But when Brother James and Father Sheehan passed into Panama, they forged new territory. At this border, they found a bit of resistance from immigration officials.

“They wanted to see money, an address where we’re going, a ticket for leaving — none of which we had. They were more resistant to letting us in,” said Brother James.

Navigating through Panama into Colombia is tricky, as the Pan-American Highway ends in the Darien Gap, a dense wilderness. Without high-level jungle training or flying, passage to Colombia involves boats. 

“It was just so crazy to be on a little fiberglass boat with five other people for eight hours,” said Father Sheehan about this leg of the journey, which involved three boat rides.

Once, after arriving in Medellin, Colombia, at 10pm, Brother James talked with a bus driver, who called his wife at home to look up nearby religious houses online. The bus driver called a handful of these places, with no answer. Eventually, a Vincentian seminary answered.

“They had a lot of questions, but, eventually, they said, ‘Come, and we’ll give you a place to stay,” recounted Brother James. The friars stayed at the seminary an extra evening, making their prayer day there.

Bolivia turned out to be especially difficult, as the friars received conflicting information on how best to enter Brazil. On one narrow dirt road, Father Sheehan counted 13 buses that had crashed down below the edge, left for scrap.

 

Moments of Evangelization

During the journey, the Spanish-speaking Franciscans conversed with locals about their pilgrimage, and Father Sheehan offered Mass frequently and heard confessions. 

In Honduras, an evangelical preacher hopped on a bus and preached for about 15 minutes, concluding that people were on the wrong path because of their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Father Sheehan tried to politely engage the man, he replied that he did not want to argue, and he left the bus shortly afterward.

However, for the next hour, the Franciscans were able to dialogue with fellow passengers — who were mostly men — about the Catholic faith. 

“Their ears were wide open; they were hungry to hear what we were saying. I was just thinking, ‘This would never happen in the United States,’” recalled Brother James.

In Bolivia, a man driving a bus asked the friars if they wanted to see something “cultural.” They agreed, and he drove them to a dirt parking lot, where locals “sacrifice animals, gather around a fire and get drunk and throw alcohol on the fire,” according to Father Sheehan. They did not see any animal sacrifices, but Father Sheehan did see drunken people tossing alcohol onto fires.     

“I felt like St. Paul at Athens, when he went into the Pantheon, and he sees all these idols — and so he wanted to speak to the people about idolatry and about the true God,” said Father Sheehan.   

The priest took the opportunity to advise the driver, who was a non-Christian but who did not practice the indigenous ritual, to “turn away from these practices and to be baptized.”

“It was one of the times on the trip where it definitely felt more like we were missionaries than pilgrims, but it was really necessary,” he added. 

He considered speaking to the people themselves, but as they were drunk, he felt the Lord was calling him to focus his attention on the driver instead.

 

Arrival in Rio for WYD

At 6pm on July 18, the Franciscans arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and they made their way to the Cathedral of St. Sebastian. They met a young couple there, who brought them to a priest. He offered them residence for the week at his parish outside of downtown Rio. 

The friars stayed there for two days, before deciding to get closer to the WYD action. The rector of the cathedral offered them floor space to sleep on, but when a woman overheard the conversation, she offered them use of an apartment she owns on Copacabana beach, handing over the keys to the Franciscans.

Brother James said the apartment was only two blocks from the altar where the WYD Masses and events were held.

“In those two hours of prayer [daily mental prayer], I’m now spending a lot of my time remembering the people who helped us on our way, praying for them,” said Brother James in Rio. “I made a lot of promises to do that on the way.” 

Brother James attended the Mass for priests and religious with Pope Francis on July 27, an event he considers the highlight of WYD week.  

 

Advice for the ‘Providence Traveler’

“What we’re doing — we’re not in any way trying to encourage or imply that this is the way we think God calls people to live in general,” said Brother James, who is a former Marine.

“It’s a unique call that God gives to people,” he explained.

However, for someone who might want to imitate this kind of journey, Brother James suggested a shorter trip, maybe a week or two, “wandering around with no goal except to experience God’s providence in practical ways on a regular basis.”

“That’s the Franciscan charism,” said Brother James. “God instills that desire in the hearts of young men and women. That’s what St. Francis was given — that’s his gift to the Church.”

Father Sheehan advised would-be “Providence travelers” to pray and ask the Lord what he is asking them to do. He suggested taking a day pilgrimage, such as to a Marian shrine, and agreeing with a friend to a make a small sacrifice.

 

Heading Home

As far as the friars’ return to the United States, they departed Rio on July 31, traveling back in the same manner in which they came. 

Under obedience to their superior, they are due back in Boston on Oct. 3, the vigil of the feast of St. Francis.

Although it was a blessing to have the Copacabana apartment for WYD week, when interviewed on July 29, Father Sheehan was ready to return to the road of Providence.

The friars are taking a different route north, this time through the Amazon, as they received word in Rio that many travel this way. They hoped to board a ferry on the Amazon River for multiple days.

“We’re here in South America, we have to go back, and it’s a great opportunity — so we’re going to be able to do that,” said Brother James of the Amazon route.

They also plan to stop at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, praying for those they met and who helped them get to WYD Rio.

As Brother James said, “I told people, ‘We’re going to pray with the Holy Father. That’s the goal of our journey, and we’re going to remember you in our prayer.’”

Register correspondent Justin Bell was in

 Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day,

where he interviewed Brother James Wartman

and Father Michael Sheehan and blogged for the Register. 

He writes from the Boston area.