Meet the Modern Catholic Pilgrim

Building a Culture of Pilgrimage in the US — One Step at a Time

Hundreds walk in a pilgrimage organized by Modern Catholic Pilgrim.
Hundreds walk in a pilgrimage organized by Modern Catholic Pilgrim. (photo: Dylan Eddinger / Modern Catholic Pilgrim)

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, with its four-cross-country routes, 6,500 miles, hundreds of stops, and 100,000-plus participants, is shaping up to be one of the defining elements of the National Eucharistic Revival.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Tim Glemkowski, the CEO of the National Eucharistic Congress, shared with the Register that when he joined the project in April 2022, the idea for multiple national pilgrimage routes “was dead in the water.”

“It had been presented to a few groups to help plan the logistics, who came back with same answer: ‘This isn’t possible.’”

Still, Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, chairman of the bishops’ group advising the National Eucharistic Revival, and the initiative’s leaders weren’t ready to give up on the idea. And as Providence would have it, Glemkowski stumbled upon the webpage of an apostolate that specialized in leading and coordinating walking pilgrimages: Modern Catholic Pilgrim.

The two parties connected in June 2022, and the Modern Catholic Pilgrim team, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, spent the next month putting together the initial outline of what would come to be known as the Marian, (St. Junípero) Serra, (St. Elizabeth Ann) Seton, and (St. Juan) Diego routes — the very same pathways that pilgrims will be walking along from May 17 to July 16, originating in Minnesota, California, Connecticut and Texas, respectively, before culminating in Indianapolis.

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage is easily the biggest project Modern Catholic Pilgrim has undertaken. But it’s also an instance of the apostolate doing what it does best: helping Catholics encounter Christ on the road and promoting a broader culture of pilgrimage in the United States, one step at a time.

Since incorporating in 2019, the apostolate has directed nearly 60 pilgrimages in 12 states, serving more than 5,000 pilgrims (not to mention over a thousand more who took part in self-led pilgrimages supported by the apostolate during COVID-19 lockdowns). In doing so, they’ve helped American Catholics discover an ancient — though somewhat unfamiliar — part of their spiritual heritage.

“Pilgrimage is one of the oldest forms of prayer in our Church tradition,” Will Peterson, Modern Catholic Pilgrim’s co-founder and president and the spokesperson for the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, told the Register. “It speaks to who we are as Catholics.”


Power of Pilgrimage

Peterson is a big believer in the power of pilgrimage — primarily because he’s experienced it himself.

The 32-year-old credits a three-day pilgrimage to Rome during the Easter Triduum in 2013, made while studying abroad in Dublin and facilitated by the University of Notre Dame’s campus ministry, for being a major catalyst in his faith life.

Will Peterson (far right) poses with a group of pilgrims.
Will Peterson (far right) poses with a group of pilgrims.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Exhausted after the vigil Mass, and with only a handful of hours to sleep before Easter Sunday at St. Peter’s Basilica, Peterson recalls praying in the chapel at the North American College and saying, “Lord, I know I’m going to crash.”

Instead, he woke up on Easter Sunday and left his hostel with “lightning coming out of my fingertips” — a powerful spiritual consolation the likes of which the cradle Catholic had not yet experienced and now attributes to the Holy Spirit — and the spiritual fruits of going on pilgrimage.

Prior to his time in Rome, Peterson had no familiarity with the practice.

“When I heard ‘pilgrims,’ I thought of the Mayflower,” he said.

But following his Triduum experience, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Then, in May 2017, he went on a five-day, 70-plus-mile walking pilgrimage from Lexington, Kentucky, to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown with his friend David Cable. After the experience, which included staying at parishes along the way, the two knew they had something to share with others — and Modern Catholic Pilgrim was born.

The ministry went full time in 2020, with Peterson serving as its day-to-day leader and Cable as its board president.


‘Pilgrimage Is for Everyone’

Peterson describes going on pilgrimage as “praying how Christ prayed,” pointing out that Jesus made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph for Passover. He also speaks passionately about the gifts associated with pilgrimage, such as the ability to praise God with both body and soul, and to also symbolically and physically act out the spiritual journey through life.

Peterson also underscores how “accessible” pilgrimage can be. As Modern Catholic Pilgrim’s website declares, “Pilgrimage is for everyone, everywhere.”

“You don’t need to have an advanced degree or a deep spiritual life,” Peterson told the Register. “You just need to know where you’re going and what intentions you’re bringing to that space.”

You also don’t need to go to Rome or the Holy Land to be a pilgrim. 

While Peterson certainly upholds the value of cherished pilgrimage sites, including American ones like the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Wisconsin or the Sanctuary of Chimayó in New Mexico, his apostolate aims to help Catholics see that “you can be a pilgrim right in your own community.”

Pilgrims walk along the shore during a pilgrimage organized by Modern Catholic Pilgrim.
Pilgrims walk along the shore during a pilgrimage organized by Modern Catholic Pilgrim.

In fact, the most common pilgrimages hosted by the apostolate are one-day journeys, with a local parish on the patron’s feast day or a diocesan cathedral the typical ending point.

For instance, on April 27, the Saturday before the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Modern Catholic Pilgrimage led the fourth-annual Way of St. Joseph in northeastern Indiana. The five-mile pilgrimage journeyed from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mishawaka to St. Joseph Catholic Church in South Bend, including multiple join-up points for pilgrims looking to make shorter treks.

Peterson says that many Catholics never think of making these kinds of simple, backyard pilgrimages — until they go on one.

“The light bulb comes on — and then they tend to want to do another one.”

Pilgrimage of the Way of St. Joseph.
Pilgrims of all ages take part in the pilgrimage of the Way of St. Joseph.

Modern Catholic Pilgrim also organizes longer, multiday pilgrimages, primarily for young adults. The apostolate provides everything from a pilgrim leader throughout the journey to hospitality coordination along the way. The website even includes an application to become a pilgrim host, with several parishes and lay Catholics throughout the country already registered.

Peterson says that the apostolate infuses their pilgrimages with a “spirituality on the way.” Like the disciples with Christ on the road to Emmaus, Modern Catholic Pilgrim pilgrimages often begin by reading passages from Scripture. They tend to pray with those that speak of journeying to Jerusalem, such as the Psalms or Luke’s account of the Holy Family’s pilgrimage for Passover.

On the route, there is time for both conversation and prayer, and pilgrimages often end with the “breaking of the bread” — Holy Mass, if available, and also a meal of fellowship among the pilgrims.

Peterson says that like the Emmaus disciples, the goal is to walk with the Lord and have pilgrims’ hearts set on fire for mission. 

Brooks Jensen, who recently participated in the Modern Catholic Pilgrim-led “Walking with Augustinians” pilgrimage, experienced this firsthand. 

The 30-year-old began the pilgrimage from the Bronx to the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia in Philadelphia unsure of what vocational path God wanted him to pursue. But the seven days on the road allowed him to “step away from everything in my life and finally listen to the voice of God without distraction.” At the end of his pilgrimage, he had confidence that God was calling him to pursue a vocation as a teacher, which he will do by entering Ave Maria University’s doctoral program in theology this August.

“It gave me a lot of clarity, which is what I was asking God and St. Rita for on the way,” Jensen told the Register.



‘Logistical Partner’

Modern Catholic Pilgrim hopes to foster others’ experience of these kinds of spiritual fruits throughout the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. The four-person operation has devoted two staff members to planning the logistics of the four-route pilgrimage. Glemkowki calls the apostolate the effort’s “logistical partner” and Peterson and his team have worked closely with the 69 host dioceses’ “point persons” to set up a host-family network, plan the itinerary for each day, outfit the four vans that will accompany the pilgrims, and train the pilgrims for each route.

“It’s been a remarkably complex undertaking, and they were absolutely the right partner, perhaps the only one who could have pulled this off that I can think of,” said Glemkowski about Modern Catholic Pilgrim.

Glemkowski told the Register that he hopes the National Eucharist Pilgrimage can serve as a “catalyst” for continuing to promote walking pilgrimages in the United States, noting that the experience of living in a “technocratic culture” can lead people to seek the “rootedness” and space for “prayer, reflection and conversion” that pilgrimages can provide.

Pilgrims take part in the 2024 pilgrimage calld Walking with Augustine.
Pilgrims take part in the 2024 pilgrimage calld Walking with St. Augustine.(Photo: Father DanMcLaughlin)

Peterson agrees, noting that many young people today are struggling to find their purpose — something the simplicity and directness of a pilgrimage can help to overcome.

And he hopes that the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage will allow others to experience a devotion that he has found so enriching in his own life. 

“It’s all about getting people on pilgrimage.”