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Pilgrimage offers healing, spiritual renewal

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A nearly three-hour, 5.4-mile hike to the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna Oct. 19 honored the Year of Faith and offered healing and spiritual renewal to the more than 50 people who participated.

And about 40 people met the pilgrims at the shrine to attend Mass, with many also going to confession beforehand, said Matt Sakowski, the shrine's caretaker.

Pope Benedict XVI's Year of Faith, which ends Nov. 24, calls for a renewed conversion to Christ and evangelization with conviction. Time spent together with others in prayer during the pilgrimage touched on both elements, said Deacon David Christensen, the shrine's office manager.

And with Holy Family Shrine designated a pilgrimage site by Archbishop George J. Lucas for the Year of Faith, participants also could receive a plenary indulgence by attending the Mass after the pilgrimage, praying for the pope's intentions and going to confession.

"We were blessed to be part of that," Deacon Christensen said.

Sunny skies, little wind and cool temperatures proved to be ideal for the pilgrimage, Sakowski said, and members of the Knights of Columbus at St. Joseph Parish led and followed the groups in vehicles to provide water or a ride.

Sakowski and Deacon Christensen said they hope to make the pilgrimage an annual event at the shrine with a different theme each year.

"It was a really special day," Sakowski said.

Led by Father James Buckley, pastor of St. Patrick Parish and parochial administrator of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, both in Omaha, the walk focused on penance through prayer and physical exertion. The group sang and said more than 500 prayers during the journey from a 4-H camp south of Gretna to the shrine, including the rosary and Stations of the Cross, Sakowski said.

Through the grace of God, participants during the pilgrimage are encouraged to overcome doubts about being able to pray and walk for almost three hours, Father Buckley said. The exercise inspires confidence and can help people overcome other obstacles and live holier lives, he said.

"It's a way to renew the faith inside yourself," Father Buckley said.

Stephanie Sheridan, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Omaha, said that lesson helped her carry her 8-month-old son, David, on the walk.

Sheridan said at times it was difficult, but she gained strength thinking about how Mary and the disciples completed much more difficult journeys.

Sheridan said she found healing in the repetition of the prayers and felt solidarity with the other pilgrims despite having little conversation beyond initial greetings.

"We may have our own lives, but we are all on the same journey together," Sheridan said.

Celebrating Mass and going to confession in the beautiful and spiritual space of the shrine was special, said Mary Kay Wlaschin, a member of St. Bonaventure Parish in Columbus, who made the pilgrimage with her sister, Cheryl Prothman, a member of St. Mary Parish in David City.

Four priests heard confessions and concelebrated Mass, including Father Buckley; Father Matthew Gutowski, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield; Jesuit Father John Montag, associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Omaha and St. Frances Cabrini; and Father Richard Gabuzda, executive director of the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha.

Wlaschin, who said she has back pain from scoliosis, struggled at times during the walk. But she said recalling Jesus' and others' suffering as much greater than hers helped her offer up her suffering as prayer.

She said she has read essays about the Year of Faith and hoped to take part in a related event. The pilgrimage served as public witness to motorists who saw the walk while driving past on Interstate 80, allowed her to spend time with her sister and provided quiet time away from her busy daily life to connect with the Lord.

"I needed that renewal," Wlaschin said.

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