August 20, 2021

A ride to remember

Woman endures a life-changing journey to lift the lives of moms and unborn children

Emily Mastronicola joined young adults from across the country for the national ride of Biking for Babies, a pro-life organization with the mission of “renewing the culture of life, one pedal and one pregnancy resource center at a time.” (Submitted photo)

Emily Mastronicola joined young adults from across the country for the national ride of Biking for Babies, a pro-life organization with the mission of “renewing the culture of life, one pedal and one pregnancy resource center at a time.” (Submitted photo)

Ninth in an occasional series
 

(Editor’s note: In this series, The Criterion is featuring young adults who have found a home in the Church and strive to live their faith in their everyday life.)
 

By John Shaughnessy

This is the way Emily Mastronicola dreamed it would be.

On the last day of a grueling, weeklong journey that tested people’s hearts and spirits, the 26-year-old Catholic woman from Indianapolis took the lead of a team of cyclists from the eastern part of the United States—preparing to meet with the groups from the southern, northern and western sections of the country for a triumphant, last-mile ride together toward the “Celebration of Life” finish line in St. Louis.

Even the challenge of riding her bike up a 15-mile stretch of daunting hills couldn’t sap the joy that Emily was feeling on July 17—the last day of the national ride of Biking for Babies, a pro-life organization with the mission of “renewing the culture of life, one pedal and one pregnancy resource center at a time.”

With those 15 miles behind her—on a day when she rode 120 miles—Emily couldn’t stop smiling as she lined up with the other 49 riders who had biked from either Ohio, Alabama, Colorado or Wisconsin for that final-mile trek together.

“Everyone was so tired but full of joy to be there and meet the other people,” she recalls. “Riding in together was beautiful, really beautiful.”

All her training since February, and all the setbacks along the way, faded in that moment of knowing that everyone had poured everything they had into raising money and awareness to help pregnancy resource centers provide free services to help young women and families in crisis—all with the goal of standing up for the dignity of human life.

At the same time, the pursuit of that goal has led Emily to a personal revelation that continues to guide her.

“Your goal is to transform the culture of life, but I feel like the ride really transforms you,” she says. “I definitely came home a different person.”

And that’s where the full story—the highs, the setbacks, the bonds, the self-discovery—of Emily’s life-changing journey begins.

‘The ride itself is not easy, but neither is defending life’

During a stop amid the national ride for Biking for Babies, Emily Mastronicola kneels in prayer at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on July 13. (Submitted photo)

During a stop amid the national ride for Biking for Babies, Emily Mastronicola kneels in prayer at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on July 13. (Submitted photo)

Emily was the only cyclist from Indiana when the 600-mile journey to St. Louis began on July 11 in Columbus, Ohio. There, she joined the 15 other members of the eastern route contingent, all between the ages of 18 and 35.

The group included a priest from Virginia and other young adults from California, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—all strangers to her and all committed to the pro-life movement.

Emily’s passion for that movement has increased since she started working for the archdiocese’s Office of Youth Ministry in 2018. Yet while she enjoys endurance sports, she initially resisted the idea of signing up for the national ride of Biking for Babies.

“The more I resisted it, the more the Lord placed people in my life and affirmed that this was something I needed to do—to help me grow as a person,” she says. “I felt called to be a witness for my community.

“Post-ride, as I look back on that, I know preparing for the ride was not easy, and I know the ride itself was not easy, but neither is defending life.”

Her use of the words “not easy”—and the reality of what she endured and overcame before the ride and during it—shows just how deep her commitment is.

A few weeks before the journey began, she hyperextended an ankle, and the injury was bad enough to sideline her training and make her worry that she wouldn’t be able to ride.

And when she recovered to start the journey, a combination of dehydration, physical sickness and a touch of vertigo limited the miles she was able to ride the first two days. Still, even as she continued to struggle, she got back on the bike for the ride from Dayton to Indianapolis, gutting out about 60 miles on that part of the trip.

“It was very important to me to be on the bike coming to Indianapolis,” she says. “This was something I wanted to share with my friends and family. I pulled myself together to finish in Indianapolis.”

Yet that stretch of the ride also took its physical and mental toll on her, making her do the last thing she wanted to do.

‘There’s a lot of humility and redemptive suffering’

Emily Mastronicola shares a moment of joy with her parents, Deb and Norm Mastronicola, during a stop in Indianapolis on July 13 amid the national ride of Biking for Babies. (Submitted photo)

Emily Mastronicola shares a moment of joy with her parents, Deb and Norm Mastronicola, during a stop in Indianapolis on July 13 amid the national ride of Biking for Babies. (Submitted photo)

As the other riders continued on to Terre Haute the next morning, Emily stayed behind in Indianapolis, focusing on regaining her strength and energy. She spent two days at home, catching up on sleep, pounding the fluids and fighting the doubts.

“I was expecting to be tired that week. I wasn’t expecting to have as many issues as I had,” she says. “So there were definitely times of just feeling really desolate.”

In the midst of having those feelings, she received a message from one of her teammates on the eastern route. The teammate told her, “Emily, I know this was really hard for you to do, but I think this was so mature of you to step away.”

She viewed it as a great compliment and another sign of the tremendous bond that the riders and the support group had formed in just a few days. She thought again about how her teammates had been there for her when she became ill.

“In those moments when you can’t control anything, you go back to prayer and just seeing the face of Christ in others as they take care of you,” she says. “To say, ‘I need water, I need a break,’ there’s a lot of trust that goes into that. I think the Lord really protected our route during those moments.

“For me, going into the ride, I was very focused on the miles and accomplishing those. But that didn’t happen. When you’re not 100 percent yourself and you have to rely on people—especially people you’ve never met before—and they take care of you, that was something that was really, really beautiful.”

She did her best to return the favor. As she recuperated at home, she prayed constantly for everyone on the ride and affirmed them with her messages. And when she had regained her strength, there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted and needed to return to the ride.

“There’s a lot of humility and redemptive suffering with that,” she says. “Even Jesus fell three times and he was able to get back up. The important thing when you do fall is to get back up, not to stay down.

“What gets you back up on the bike after you fall is remembering who you are riding for. You’re doing this crazy, massive thing to raise awareness. You’re doing it for a place for families to go for counseling, for somebody to go for a pregnancy test. The ride is beautiful, but you’re doing it for these pregnancy resource centers—to advocate for them and the services they offer.”

‘I just felt so loved’

When Emily rejoined her group near Springfield, Ill., all of them rushed to meet her, wrapping her in hugs. And their joy soared when she told them that she was there to ride with them on the final leg of the journey to St. Louis the next day.

The smiles continued the following morning when she gave each of them a pair of socks featuring the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—the patroness of unborn children. Everyone put them on before they began the ride together.

“Being in Springfield with them, that was just beautiful,” she says. “I got up that Saturday morning, didn’t have any problems, and I couldn’t stop smiling on the bike. I knew for a lot of that day I wanted to try to lead more in the front—to give them a break because they had been riding all that week, and they were very tired.”

She rode 120 miles that day, including 15 up those daunting hills, all the miles leading to another defining moment when her eastern group met up with the teams from the south, west and north.

Emily gets emotional as she shares that moment.

“When we were with the team from the northern route, I had several people that I had never met before come up and say, ‘Emily, we have been praying for you. We know it has been so hard for you.’

“I’m the type of person who prays for other people, and just to have complete strangers come up to you and say they’ve been praying for you, I just felt so loved.”

Wiping her eyes, she continues, “I talked about how I wanted to do this ride to be a witness to my community in Indianapolis. But honestly, I just became part of a whole new community as well, Biking for Babies. I’m truly blessed to be a part of the people I’ve met through it.”

Now, she hopes her efforts—and the efforts of everyone who was a part of the national ride of Biking for Babies—will benefit many people she will likely never meet: the young women and families in crisis who benefit from pregnancy resource centers, the children whose parents choose life.

“Going forth, the ride is only the beginning,” she says. “The mission continues as we restore a culture of life—within ourselves, our communities and the world.”
 

(To support Emily’s fundraising efforts for Biking for Babies, donations can be made online at cutt.ly/Bike4Babies. Checks may also be made payable to Biking for Babies, PO Box 644, St. Charles, MO, 63302. Please write “Emily Mastronicola” in the memo line.)

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