According to a Chinese proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. But for nearly 50 Catholics – including priests, seminarians and lay people – a Labor Day bicycle ride spanning 100 miles through the Southern Maryland countryside began with a Mass before dawn at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Indian Head.

Concelebrating the 6 a.m. Mass were four of the priests who were about to set out on the annual Ride for Vocations in the Archdiocese of Washington, assisted by a deacon and a seminarian who would also join the ride. In the congregation, men and women wore jerseys labeled “St. Michael’s Riders,” which included an image of the archangel, the text of his prayer, an image of the cross and wings, and the words “Fear No Evil.”

In his homily, Father Kevin Regan, the vice-rector of the archdiocese’s Saint John Paul II Seminary, compared the bike ride they were about to undertake with the lifelong spiritual journey that Christians take to heaven, relying on God’s grace and on the example and support of others.

Just as bicyclists in a team benefit from “drafting” behind other riders as they’re climbing a hill and facing wind resistance, so too Christians can persevere in their faith, strengthened by “drafting” behind the saints, following holy men and women who have gone before them or who are accompanying them on their life’s journey, the priest said.

“What it means is, we are not alone. Today we know there are others with us,” he said. Noting the time and training in preparation for the 100-mile ride, and the physical strain of completing it, Father Regan added, “We know the Lord has called us to the task and given us the mental, physical and spiritual preparation to fulfill it.”

Father Regan also highlighted the importance of the effort to support vocations, the priesthood and healing in the Church. “We recognize our mission goes beyond today,” he said, noting that their effort and prayers were geared toward helping “young men discerning (how) to give their lives for Christ, as we (priests) try to do each and every day.”

As the Mass ended, Father Larry Swink, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata, Maryland, led participants in praying the “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel,” asking the saint to defend them in the battle against evil.

Before the bicyclists set out on their ride, they prayed at a Mass before dawn on Sept. 2 celebrated by Father Swink (center) at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Indian Head, Maryland. At left are seminarian Nicholas Morrison, Deacon Bill Scott from Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Waldorf, and Father Kevin Regan, the vice-rector at the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington. At right are Father Gary Studniewski, the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish on Capitol Hill, and Father Daniel Gallaugher, a parochial vicar at St. Raphael Parish in Rockville. (CS photo/Michael Hoyt)

Moments later, he had changed from his priestly vestments and was wearing a bicycle helmet and shorts, along with the “St. Michael’s Riders” jersey. The 46 Ride for Vocations participants – including six priests, seven seminarians, a deacon and lay Catholics from 13 area parishes – then joined hundreds of other cyclists who gathered at nearby Village Green Park for the Southern Maryland Fall Century, the Indian Head 100 ride held that holiday morning and sponsored by the Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club.

On Labor Day, a day when most Americans do the opposite and rest, the bicyclists were about to set out on a ride, cycling varied distances of at least 17 miles, with many completing the “century” ride of 100 miles.

Father Swink, who was among about 20 cyclists from his parish taking part in the ride, said he agreed with what Father Regan said in comparing the grueling ride to the challenges that people experience in their spiritual lives. “You ride as a team and help each other get to heaven,” Father Swink said.

The Ride for Vocations, he said, “is really about offering prayers and sacrifices for our future priests,” letting seminarians know “that we have their backs and want them to be holy and bring us closer to God.”

Participants had been training for the ride for about eight weeks, gradually increasing the miles they rode in preparation for taking on the “century” ride, which depending on their speed could take from five and one-half to nine hours to complete, he said.

“The last hill is brutal. We call it Purgatory Hill,” the priest joked.

Those taking part in the Ride for Vocations included Dr. Eric Morrison, a dentist whose family attends St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

“This is a special ride for our family, because we have three boys in the seminary” for the Archdiocese of Washington, said Dr. Morrison, who was riding with his son Nicholas, who is studying for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, and Danny, who is at Saint John Paul II Seminary. Another Morrison son, Deacon James Morrison, is serving as a transitional deacon at St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland.

On the Labor Day ride, Dr. Morrison and Nicholas wore matching jerseys depicting the coat of arms of St. John Paul II, while Danny wore the “St. Michael’s Riders” jersey.

Danny Morrison said he was going to offer up any suffering and pain during the six-hour ride “for the archdiocese and for brother seminarians and (our) priests.”

The Ride for Vocations participants posed for a group photo and prayed the St. Michael prayer together, and then they set out about 7 a.m., with Father Swink leading the pack, followed by fellow priests and by the team’s seminarians and lay people. Their group included Jamie Reidy, a nurse practitioner in La Plata and member of Sacred Heart Parish who rode on a tandem bicycle with her six-year-old son Mark Bohrer for 26 miles.

Afterward, James Fangmeyer Jr. -- a seminarian studying at the Saint John Paul II Seminary who is the nephew of Father Lee Fangmeyer, the pastor of Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, Maryland – said he appreciated “the fraternal time with brother seminarians and priests” as the ride wound through the Southern Maryland countryside, and also the time he spent riding alongside parishioners supporting vocations and the priesthood.

Noting that on the evening before the ride, participants gathered to pray a Holy Hour together at Sacred Heart Church in La Plata, Fangmeyer said the ride definitely had a spiritual focus. Everybody on the team, pedaling on and on in the 100-mile ride for up to nine hours, relies on their faith, he said, adding that he reflected on knowing “that God gives you enough grace that you need.”

He noted how when Father Regan’s bicycle had a flat tire, the “pit crew” repairing it tried to change the tire before they finished praying the Divine Mercy chaplet aloud together, and they almost did so.

Fangmeyer, a member of St. Patrick’s Parish in Rockville who graduated from St. Andrew Apostle School in Silver Spring and Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney before entering the seminary, said of the Ride for Vocations, “It’s a good way to start the (school) year with that group goal, challenge and accomplishment.”

For Father Swink, completing the 100-mile ride was especially meaningful. A little more than three months earlier, the 43-year-old priest had hip replacement surgery.

Riding with teammates and completing the ride, he said,  “was glorious after surgery. I had my best ride ever.”

The priest, who played baseball at the University of Dallas and has played as a pitcher, outfielder and catcher on the D.C. Padres priests’ baseball team and who in addition to bicycling also does paddle boarding and lifts weights, had his hip replacement surgery on May 22, 2019, the feast of St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes. On the evening before the surgery, Father Ray Schmidt, the pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood, Maryland, prayed over Father Swink with a relic of St. Rita.

“I’m giving her the credit,” said Father Swink, who noted that six weeks after his surgery, he was back on his bicycle. After completing the century ride, the priest said, “I feel great. I feel better now than I did last year.” He compared the healing from his surgery to what Confession does. “It’s a new beginning,” he said.

About 17 miles from the finish line, Father Swink rode past his parish church, Sacred Heart, and made the sign of the cross. Riding through the Southern Maryland countryside offered time for quiet contemplation, and praying prayers like the Hail Mary and the prayer to St. Michael, he said. And as he completed the race, he was accompanied by three fellow riders, including a teacher from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, a student from Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda and a member of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Mary’s City.

“Riding 100 miles by yourself is brutal. Riding in a group is different,” he said, again comparing the ride to one’s spiritual journey through life. “…As Catholics, we don’t travel to heaven alone. There are always people to help us on that journey to heaven.”