Pittsburgh seminarian walks across the country on 1,200-mile eucharistic pilgrimage

Kinnia Cheuk / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As a child growing up in Carnegie, Christoph Bernas “definitely” did not want to be a priest, though he went to Catholic school and begrudgingly attended Mass twice a week with his family in the St. Michael the Archangel Parish.

He never imagined that he would eventually become a seminarian, let alone take part in a 1,200-mile pilgrimage across the country at 21 years old.

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In May, Bernas embarked on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage with five other pilgrims at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. They passed through Pittsburgh June 12-19, visiting parishes in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

At the end of their journey through eight eastern states, the group will arrive in Indianapolis, Ind., for the opening of the National Eucharistic Congress on July 17. Twenty-four other pilgrims are also heading to the congress from the northern, southern and western parts of the country.

On a typical pilgrimage day, Bernas wakes up between 6 and 7 a.m. After he attends Mass, he has breakfast, joins parish activities and participates in Eucharistic Adoration, a devotional practice in which Catholics pray before the Eucharist.

Also known as the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist consists of bread and wine that is consecrated to become the body and blood of Jesus. At Mass, the priest distributes the Eucharist to the faithful. During Eucharistic processions, Bernas and other participating Catholics walk with the consecrated bread and pray together.

Eucharistic pilgrimages have been around since the Middle Ages, though they have become more formalized and ritualized over time, said Margaret McGuinness, professor emerita specializing in Catholicism at La Salle College.

According to Bernas, the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, which totals around 6,500 miles over all four routes, is the longest Eucharistic pilgrimage in history.

“What’s exciting about this pilgrimage is that this is the longest that anybody has ever walked with Jesus on Earth since the time of the apostles, which is when he was actually here 2,000 years ago,” Bernas said.

A core tenet of Catholicism is the belief that Jesus is present physically in the Eucharist. However, a national survey in 2023 found that less than half of adult Catholics were aware of the church’s teachings regarding the Eucharist and believed that “Jesus Christ is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.”

The pilgrimage and congress are both part of the wider National Eucharistic Revival movement, a three-year initiative sponsored by the Bishops of the United States that aims to rekindle faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Not only has Eucharistic piety waned since the 20th century, but the Catholic Church in the Rust Belt is also losing population, said Bernas. He noticed that not as many people were attending Mass in Pittsburgh compared to a few years ago.

In 2018, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik announced a downsizing plan that would consolidate the original 188 parishes of the diocese into 57 new parishes. Currently, there are 61 parishes in the diocese, with around 160 active priests.

“What we want to do with the pilgrimage is say, ‘OK, people aren’t coming to church, people aren’t coming to adoration. Let’s bring the Lord to them instead,’” said Bernas.

As a seminary student training to become a priest, Bernas was especially moved during the Pittsburgh section of the pilgrimage. Even with their packed schedule, the group of pilgrims spent half a day preparing and distributing meals at the St. Mary of Mercy Church in Downtown Pittsburgh.

“It was especially powerful for me to walk through the neighborhoods that I felt called to serve,” he said. “Not only because I could see the faith of the people we were walking with, but also because I could connect with those who may not have known what we were doing.”

While there are only six “perpetual pilgrims” walking the entire route from New Haven to Indianapolis, they are joined on the way by local Catholics who also experience, in no lesser intensity, the communal power of the Eucharistic pilgrimage.

Mary Ann Schweitzer belongs to the St. Augustine Parish and is a religion teacher at North Catholic High School. With her two sons and her daughter, she walked the first and last legs of the Pittsburgh pilgrimage, a distance totaling five miles.

Schweitzer says her faith was strengthened by meeting a community of Catholics on the way and sharing the energy of the procession with others — at one point, more than 250 people were walking together, she said.

“As we were walking, some other people stopped and knelt in their yards just to show their love and respect for Jesus in the Eucharist, which was really powerful,” she said.

Connecting with people all over the country and facilitating their relationship with Christ brings joy to Bernas. But this was not the only factor in his decision to join the pilgrimage.

Bernas describes himself as an outdoorsman who loves to travel. He’d always wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

The pull of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage was simple: The route was twice as long as the Camino, and because it was a Eucharistic pilgrimage, he could walk with Jesus the whole way.

Before he joined the seminary, Bernas studied architecture at Penn State University. As he got deeper into his faith in college, he loved visiting different churches, where he could find differing images and icons to assist in his prayer.

“As a man on pilgrimage, that gets cranked up to the max because we could visit five or six different churches in a day, all beautiful in their own way, where people have poured their heart and soul into whatever they built,” he explained. “That experience helps me in the way I praise the Lord.”

Between traveling, volunteering, and participating in Mass and processions, Bernas doesn’t get much time to rest on the road. But it will prepare him well for a future of priesthood.

“The kind of ministry I do on the pilgrimage is a microcosm of what daily life will be like as a priest,” he said. “In the midst of the business, I’ve learned to keep my head on my shoulders and find inner peace.”

Kinnia Cheuk: [email protected]