As the four priests of the Archdiocese of Washington set out on April 29, making their first steps on a three-day, 54-mile Walk for the Poor, one of their key goals was to help those suffering from the impact of the coronavirus know they are not alone, that Jesus is with them.

Setting out from the parking lot of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, on a pilgrimage to the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, they had as the theme for their walk, “Hearts that are Burning,” inspired by that previous Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, where the disciples came to recognize that Jesus had been walking with them on the road to Emmaus.

Father Dan Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle, had brainstormed on Easter Sunday with Father Mario Majano, the parochial vicar there, and with Father Shaun Foggo, the administrator of Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park, about something they could do as priests to raise funds for the poor impacted by the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic, and also to unite in prayer with those who had experienced sickness, death or anxiety from COVID-19.

“We wanted to lift up their spirits by bringing their trials and worries to Our Lady, and helping them realize Christ is walking with them in this time,” he said, noting how people’s feelings in some ways mirrored those of the disciples who were downcast as they walked to Emmaus, mourning Jesus’s death on the cross and not realizing at first that the risen Christ was accompanying them.

By their journey’s end, those priests were joined by Father Ebuka Mbanude, a parochial vicar at Holy Redeemer in Kensington, Maryland, and they too had come to know they were not alone. 

The four priests were joined on that pilgrimage of prayer by more than 400 people across the country, who walked, ran, rode bikes and even did horseback riding for more than 4,000 pledged miles in their neighborhoods and communities in the District of Columbia and 12 states, teaming with family members and friends. The walk raised more than $153,000 in pledges from more than 1,000 donors for local and international charitable programs.

“It was a huge boost. We weren’t alone. Other people were doing this, and that helped us push through the pain,” said Father Foggo, who said the walk was a way to express solidarity with those who have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also reflected “our vocation as priests, to sacrifice, to be active, to go out and proclaim the Word.”

Their adventure was chronicled in daily YouTube videos posted by Holy Ruckus Productions and was promoted in the parishes’ social media.

Father Leary noted, “We never imagined this would get the attention it did. We only wanted to provide an opportunity to let people know they are not alone, and to let them know the Church loves them and cares for them.” The priest added, “Only the Holy Spirit and Our Lady could pull this together.”

Father Shaun Foggo at right prepares to offer a reflection for the video being filmed of the priests' three day walk. Behind him is Father Ebuka Mbanude. Following safety precautions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the priests wore face masks during their walking pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (Screen capture courtesy @ The Holy Ruckus www.theholyruckus.com @ El Santo Lio) 

For that priest, the timing of the April 28-May 1 walk matched its purpose, as they would conclude their pilgrimage at the beginning of May, Mary’s month, by arriving at a grotto honoring Our Lady of Lourdes, a patron saint of healing the sick whose intercession they would seek for all those suffering in the wake of the pandemic. And he noted that May 1 is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and they would be praying for people who had lost their jobs during the crisis.

Parishioners had specially designed T-shirts labeled with the words Los Tres Padres, Spanish for “The Three Fathers,” for the three priests planning to make the walk. Meanwhile, Father Mbanude had come to St. Andrew’s to have Father Leary hear his Confession, and when he heard about the walk, he wanted to join them.

The priest, who was ordained last year for the archdiocese, explained, “That’s how I was reeled in. He didn’t give it to me as a penance.”

They gave him a Los Tres Padres shirt, too, and he joked that his should have included the phrase y otro mas, “and one more.” Some day, Father Mbanude hopes to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain, and he said the Walk for the Poor could be “my pre-Camino walk.”

The priests set out from St. Andrew’s early in the morning on April 28, and Father Foggo later said he remembered feeling, “Okay, here we go! This was an adventure we were embarking on.” 

They had mapped out a route on safe roadways from Silver Spring to Emmitsburg, avoiding interstates and trying to walk on sidewalks when they could.

On the first day of the Walk for the Poor, Father Majano at left checks the route, joined by Father Leary, Father Foggo and Father Mbanude. ((Photo courtesy @ The Holy Ruckus www.theholyruckus.com @ El Santo Lio)

They prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet as they walked along, and the priests carried with them more than 1,200 prayer petitions from people that they would bring to Our Lady at the grotto, including from a man praying for healing for a friend’s mother suffering from COVID-19 who was hooked up to a breathing tube.

With the help of parishioners, Father Foggo wrote 25 petitions that the priests prayed aloud every few hours in English and Spanish. They offered prayers for those suffering from the virus and for their families, for those who had died of COVID-19, for those alone or frightened, for medical workers serving the sick and for researchers seeking a cure, for first responders, for government and church leaders, for families quarantined together, for teachers and students, for priests, for those suffering financial hardships, and for those helping people in need.

On that first day, they walked along Georgia Avenue, stopping at the archdiocese’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, and they prayed for parishioners buried there. Father Foggo had presided at a burial there recently for a father who had died of COVID-19, and he prayed for that man and his family.

Later that day, they celebrated Mass together at St. Patrick Church in Rockville, joined by Father Patrick Mullan, who like Father Mbanude was ordained to the priesthood last year.

The priests said that for them, just like the disciples, the walk was an Emmaus journey.

“For me, from the beginning, I was praying for us to encounter Jesus,” said Father Mbanude, who added, “That first day set the table for that, for us to walk and pray and encounter the Lord.”

Late that afternoon on that first day, after they completed walking 22 miles, perhaps fittingly on the road to Damascus, Maryland, the priests drove home to get a good night’s sleep. The next morning, they would catch a ride back to their stopping point, to begin their walk on the second day.

“We all survived,” said Father Leary.

The weather forecast for the second day, April 30, had predicted rain for throughout the day, and unfortunately for the four priests, that forecast was accurate, as they were pelted with rain all day as they trudged along for another 20 miles.

Father Leary was thankful that people had dropped off rain ponchos for them to wear. “It was pouring,” he said.

On day two of the Walk for the Poor, the priests continue on during a driving rainstorm. From left to right are Father Majano, Father Leary and Father Mbanude. (Photo courtesy @ The Holy Ruckus www.theholyruckus.com @ El Santo Lio)

In addition to praying, the priests found time for good-natured camaraderie, as they razzed Father Leary about his good idea for them to walk all those miles. And Father Leary remembered how as they were being drenched by the downpour, Father Mbanude was jokingly singing the Christian song, “Let it rain,” which includes the line, “Open the floodgates of heaven.”

But the priests said the day’s suffering also provided them time for reflecting on people exposed to the elements every day, like the homeless on city streets, and like refugees and immigrants around the world fleeing for their lives from war and poverty.

Father Mbanude, who grew up in Nigeria, noted in that country, “we have internally displaced people fleeing violence. These people walk for days and weeks, walking in rain and sun.” He reflected on mothers and children making that journey, without food. He said the priests’ suffering that day “was a way to unite with them and pray for them.”

Father Majano, who said he was “kind of the GPS” for the walking pilgrims, helping guide their way on the route, had the misadventure of losing his phone in the rainstorm, but a parish staff member driving behind them was able to trace the spot where he had dropped it.

“On day two, our focus was definitely perseverance in the faith, very much uniting with everyone’s struggle, we have to push on forward,” Father Majano said.

Father Majano takes a selfie with his phone during the Walk for the Poor. Behind him are Father Leary, Father Foggo and Father Mbanude. (Photo by Father Mario Majano)

On the third day, May 1, the four priests had another 12 miles to walk, and for all of them, the most moving moment came when the came to a bend in the road, and suddenly in the distance a few miles away, they could see the grotto’s gleaming gold-leaf plated bronze statue of Our Lady of Lourdes atop a 95-foot tower on the mountainside.

“It was wonderful to see Mary looking out, her arms extended to us,” said Father Majano.

Father Leary, Father Foggo and Father Mbanude had all attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary adjoining the grotto, so for them, arriving there marked a special homecoming.

“I remember going up to the grotto and entrusting my seminary formation to Our Lady” said Father Mbanude, who added that now as a priest, he had returned there to entrust his priesthood to Mary.

Father Foggo, who had been ordained to the priesthood in 2013 after studying at the Mount, had earlier been a coach and teacher at his alma mater, DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. He said catching sight of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes filled him with excitement, and also relief that their long walk was almost completed.

“There she is! She’s watching over us,” the priest remembered thinking, adding that for him, her statue offered physical and spiritual proof of “the reality that Mary is there for us.”

The four priests approach the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg on May 1, the third day of their Walk for the Poor. (Photo courtesy @ The Holy Ruckus www.theholyruckus.com @ El Santo Lio)

The priests said knowing that so many others were united with them in prayer, and that so many others were walking or running or riding bikes to raise money for the poor and those impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, inspired them as they completed their journey.

Father Majano noted, “The last day we all felt this was not about us. It was about the grace that God was pouring out united to this cause. What started out as a crazy idea, the Holy Spirit was moving in the hearts of people to do something.”

He added, “It gave me great joy to know that people felt connected to what we were doing, joy to know that what happened that first Easter, when the disciples met the risen Lord, is still happening today. He meets them. They have a new power. They go out, (and) the Church grows. In their darkest hour after the crucifixion, they all of a sudden have this new hope.”

For that priest, the walk’s theme came to life. “That love that burns within the hearts of those who’ve been touched by Jesus is catching. That’s what I’ve seen through all of this,” he said.

The money raised through the walk will go toward several programs, including Catholic Charities’ Center in Wheaton, which has been providing more help to the increasing number of people who’ve come there for food assistance during the COVID-19 crisis. Proceeds will also help the immigrant community whom Father Majano serves at the Mision San Andres located at the center, providing rent and utility assistance to people who’ve lost their jobs during the economic downturn.

Father Majano said in addition to those at Mision San Andres who’ve lost their incomes during the crisis, other people who attend Spanish Masses there are considered as “essential workers” and are risking their health to continue serving others through their jobs. Others have had family members get sick or die of the virus. Even with those challenges, he said those immigrants have remained steadfast in their faith, “that the Lord will provide for them.”

Money raised through the walk will also go toward the outreach of Mustard Seed Communities for young people with disabilities in Jamaica, a Catholic outreach that St. Andrew’s priests and parishioners have supported over the years, and some funds will help Father Foggo establish a food pantry at Our Lady of Sorrows to help feed the hungry in his community.

From left, Father Mbanude, Father Foggo, Father Leary and Father Majano pause to pray after completing their three-day Walk for the Poor near the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg. (Screen capture from YouTube video/ @ The Holy Ruckus www.theholyruckus.com @ El Santo Lio)

Since they’ve returned home, the priests have continued to experience other blessings in their lives. After completing the walk, Father Leary and Father Majano returned to St. Andrew’s, and that evening they had another Eucharistic Adoration in the parish parking lot, which they’ve been holding since government restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus led to the suspension of public Masses for the time being, and the parish priests heard drive-through Confessions.

“The parking lot was packed. It was beautiful to see how many people came because their hearts were on fire for Jesus. They went home like the disciples, having encountered the risen Lord,” said Father Leary.

For Father Mbanude, seeing how the pilgrimage brought so many people together in prayer and action showed that “it is the Lord that unites us.” And he said for him, the experience underscored the importance of “being open to what the Lord wants in each moment of my priesthood.”

Days after he had completed the three-day walk, Father Leary confessed, “I’m not in the greatest shape. I recovered. I’m not used to marching along for 20 miles.”

He hopes the effort inspires other people to do what they can to pray for and help others during the COVID-19 crisis. “Everybody can do something to help people at this time, to help the poor and those who are suffering,” he said.

On the evening after he had completed the walk, Father Foggo also offered Eucharistic Adoration and Confession at his parish. He said since the walk, people have been texting him, describing “little miracles” they’ve experienced in their lives during this challenging time. 

Shortly after returning from the walk, he spoke on the telephone with a woman in the hospital who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was having difficulty breathing. He offered prayers for her, and later heard from her daughter that she had returned home from the hospital.

The priest said he hopes the Walk for the Poor inspires people to continue to grow in their faith, and “to know the Lord is with them,” something the disciples came to understand on the road to Emmaus, and that those four priests hope people draw strength from during the coronavirus pandemic.

(For more information on the Walk for the Poor, go to animachristiretreats.org.)

The four priests of the Archdiocese of Washington celebrate completing the 54-mile Walk for the Poor on May 1. From left they are Father Dan Leary, Father Ebuka Mbanude, Father Shaun Foggo and Father Mario Majano. (Photo by Cindy Diaz/St. Andrew Apostle Parish)