March 20, 2020

Seminarians make local pilgrimage in response to coronavirus

Led by Benedictine Father Christian Raab, seminarians in formation for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad walk on March 13 along State Road 62 outside of the southern Indiana town while on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady Monte Cassino. They sought Mary’s intercession in response to the growing outbreak in the U.S. of the coronavirus. (Submitted photo by Corey Bruns)

Led by Benedictine Father Christian Raab, seminarians in formation for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad walk on March 13 along State Road 62 outside of the southern Indiana town while on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady Monte Cassino. They sought Mary’s intercession in response to the growing outbreak in the U.S. of the coronavirus. (Submitted photo by Corey Bruns)

By Sean Gallagher

An outbreak of smallpox threatened the people of southern Indiana in 1871.

In response, the seminarians at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad made a pilgrimage on foot to the nearby Shrine of Our Lady of Monte Cassino to invoke Mary’s prayers to keep them and the broader community safe from the disease.

The community was protected from the outbreak, and seminarians at Saint Meinrad have for many years commemorated that pilgrimage from nearly 150 years ago by making their own pilgrimages to the shrine in January.

But with the growing outbreak in the U.S. of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, some 50 members of the seminary community made another pilgrimage to the shrine on March 13.

It was quickly organized the day before when schools and large public events across the country began to be cancelled in response to the outbreak.

The effort at Saint Meinrad was led in part by Benedictine Father Christian Raab, a formation dean and assistant professor of theology in the seminary.

“It really was an act of faith in a scary time,” he said. “In this moment, we feel under threat, similar to the way people felt almost 150 years ago.”

The pilgrimage began with the singing of a Marian hymn on the hill on which Saint Meinrad is situated. As the pilgrims made their way down the hill, across an adjacent valley and then up a steep hill to the shrine, they prayed the sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the rosary.

The second rosary was completed as they reached the top of the hill and the shrine came in sight. The “Salve Regina” (“Hail, Holy Queen”) was chanted outside the shrine, which could not hold all of the pilgrims because of its small size. A Marian litany was prayed, a hymn was sung and a final blessing was given before the pilgrims made their way back to the seminary.

“It was very moving,” said Father Christian. “We prayed for all of our political leaders, that they be given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to make good decisions, because it’s hard to make decisions in a time like this. We prayed for all those who are sick and who had died, all around the world. And we prayed in a special way for the protection of our students, staff, co-workers and neighbors [from this virus].

“In addition to praying and petitioning, it was about demonstrating faith. We entrusted the situation to God so we could have courage and hope in a time where a lot of people might be despairing.”

Archdiocesan seminarians James “JJ” Huber and Tyler Huber—who are not related—took part in the pilgrimage.

“In addition to the prayers we were offering up for the sake of our community and the world at large, it was an incredible opportunity to offer ourselves as a sign of Christ,” said Tyler. “As Christians, we are not afraid of this pandemic for we have hope in Jesus Christ. Hopefully our pilgrimage directed people’s eyes toward heaven and the divine life to which we are called.”

The fact that the pilgrimage was much like the one that took place in 1871 was on JJ’s mind as he made his way with the other pilgrims to the shrine and prayed with them.

“This is roughly the same scene that those seminarians 150 years ago saw as they made that first pilgrimage,” he said. “They walked down this hill. They walked up that hill. They walked by this creek, all praying the same prayers we are now. And 100 years from now, seminarians may be commemorating this pilgrimage, too.

“It was a surreal moment of connection to the past, present, and future.”

As a future parish priest, JJ knows that it will be his duty one day, God willing, to place the trials and challenges of the people he will serve at the heart of his prayer.

He’s seen his pastor at St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, Father Dustin Boehm, do this in a public way through leading outdoor rosary processions in response to a drug abuse crisis in that southeastern Indiana town.

“The solidarity that comes from being in a public place praying for that place and those in it makes prayer more connected to those whom you’re praying for,” said JJ.

That connection, though, in a time marked by contagious diseases like COVID-19 can be more spiritual than physical when social distancing is emphasized.

Seminarians at Saint Meinrad are experiencing this by having the off-campus ministry they usually take part in on Wednesdays be suspended for the rest of the semester, along with their classes, which were suspended on March 17.

For Tyler, that means taking an unwelcome break from campus ministry at the University of Southern Indiana (USI) in Evansville, Ind.

“I have absolutely loved experiencing campus ministry, and I love the students I get to minister to every week,” said Tyler. “The possibility of not returning to USI’s campus this year is saddening, but to offer up the names of my supervisor and the students as I made that pilgrimage was something special.”

JJ knows that many of the Catholics of central and southern Indiana he hopes to one day serve as a priest are wondering how to approach this challenging time with their faith. His advice: go back to the basics, including what is at the heart of Jesus’ message to everyone, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).

“If we do this,” JJ said, “if we engage the sacraments of the Church as we should, if we pray as we should, if we live as we should, we can know that we have a home with the Father. There is nothing more important than that.” †

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