To say that the first Father Kolbe Vocation Club pilgrimage from Aiken, S.C., to Rome and Poland this June was a success would be an understatement.
“It was truly life-changing,” says Mark Tisler, who turned 14 this month. He was one of eight young men who had a first-rate faith-filled trip: attending an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Mass with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, touring St. Peter’s Basilica, examining John Paul II’s connection to Krakow, and visiting St. Maximilian Kolbe’s cell in Auschwitz.
“It was a chance not to pass up, hearing it would be centered around God and Father Kolbe,” explains 17-year-old Will Frei, another pilgrim. “To go to Rome is one of the best things you can do as a Catholic.”
The pilgrimage roots were planted by a simple request from a member of the Father Kolbe Vocation Club for seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Mary Help of Christians School. He told Father Jeffrey Kirby, the club’s founder, that the members should go to Poland to see where their patron died.
When Father Kirby was assigned to Rome to finish his licentiate in moral theology, that request became a reality this year. He and the school principal, Marguerite Wertz, co-authors of the vocation book Becoming Father Bob, arranged a by-invitation, 11-day pilgrimage in June for club members and teens who graduated from the parish school before the two-year-old club was formed.
“The visits to the holy places focused on following Jesus and having an open heart to follow him,” explains Father Kirby, who is the newly appointed vicar for vocations for the Charleston, S.C., Diocese and chaplain of Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia. “Through that, a few of the young men began themselves to bring out the question of the priesthood.”
Inside Look at the Priesthood
Priest and deacon friends of Father Kirby’s in Rome would join the group for meals and activities. Pilgrims were also able to join Pontifical North American College seminarians for vespers and soccer.
“Every single step of the way,” Wertz says, “they were interacting with dynamic, mostly young or young-in-spirit priests. Those experiences made them see the priesthood isn’t necessarily sacrificing social and family life, but getting them from different people. Probably the most powerful part was seeing those boys’ images of the priesthood change.”
Tisler thinks it’s cool the priests joined them. “It opened my eyes,” he says, “to see the priesthood is really people who God has called to do something extraordinary.”
He joined the pilgrimage because “this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to the center of my faith, my religion; a chance to go as deep in my faith as I thought I could go, to see how the Church, which is as much a part of me as my left hand, grew out of 12 fisherman and tax collectors all inspired by one carpenter.”
St. Peter’s Basilica was an eye-opener. The statues, architecture and symbolism amazed Frei. “The fact all this was made for St. Peter who was a fisherman and became Jesus’ right-hand man was astounding,” he says.
One of the most memorable moments began with Mass at the San Clementine altar, then continued with seeing St. Peter’s bones. “Growing up reading and being taught all these stories from the Bible about all these figures, and then going to see the actual bones of the apostle of Jesus was really amazing,” says Frei. “It really connected the dots.”
"This man gave up his life so others would believe in the saving power of Jesus,” added Tisler. “He was there at the feeding of the 5,000; there at the Last Supper and when Jesus was taken by the soldiers. To be that close to Jesus was truly amazing.”
The group’s reaction impressed Father Kirby: “The young men got it. They were so intensive and devout and really understood how important this was. To see their devotion and faith was a real moment of grace in the pilgrimage.”
Adds Wertz, “It was humbling to witness the pilgrims as they grew closer to Jesus Christ and opened their minds and hearts to his plan for them.”
The depth of what happened at Auschwitz, while praying at Father Kolbe’s cell, also impacted the young men.
Tisler found it difficult to convey in words Father Kolbe’s example of giving his life so another might live. “That truly cemented the story,” he says. “That really strengthened the sacrifice that Jesus made, in my mind.”
Were any future priests on the pilgrimage?
“During this trip I tried to stay open to what God was saying to me,” Tisler said, “to discover whether he wanted me to be a priest, to keep my mind and heart open to what God wanted me to do.”
“We met so many priests and deacons and seminarians, and they were the happiest people you could have met,” Frei says. “Everything they’re doing is centered for and around God. I found out they weren’t lonely. Everyone they’re preaching to is their family. If that’s where God wants me, I’m open to it.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Planning Your Trip
Read the group’s pilgrimage blog at Jeffrey-Kirby.com.
Another Vocations Pilgrimage
A different kind of vocation pilgrimage takes place annually in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeaux in Louisiana: canoeing on the bayou.
“Twelve years ago we started going in the footsteps of Father Charles Menard to help the high-school students interested in the priesthood,” says past associate vocation director Father Mark Toups.
The three-day canoe trip starts with a prayer service at the grave of 19th-century French priest Father Menard, the diocese’s local hero who founded most parishes along Bayou Lafourche. Pilgrims paddle the bayou as he did, stopping at every church en route to meet parishioners for prayer.
The fruits of the pilgrimage: Six current seminarians for this small diocese were once part of this canoe pilgrimage. — Joseph Pronechen