Reflections from the road: Feet for Francis Day 7


Recounting thoughts from Sept. 26, I am writing mid-day Oct. 10. The morning started with a 10-mile run with the Baltimore Pacemakers through the beauty of the Loch Raven watershed. Taking my customary position at the back of the pack, I heard an auto behind me and reflexively yelled the warning that began this post.

Thank you, Father Jack Lombardi (be patient, I will connect the dots).

My first decade in journalism was spent at evening papers, before there were laptop computers. No sweat. The morning after a game, I would rise early, be in the office on West Street in Annapolis or Calvert Street in Baltimore, and have 500 words filed by 7 a.m. I often stir before 5 a.m. My Scot, Irish and German DNA is geared to the Irish and North Seas. Eat dinner early, retire early, wake early.

From left, Joe Landry, Martin Webbert and Edmund Tiller join Father Jack Lombardi at the head of the pilgrimage pack. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff

Father Jack, meanwhile, is equally proud of his Italian heritage, and maintains a Mediterranean rhythm. He sends emails at 12:45 a.m. I reply at 5:45 a.m. After walking 16 miles with teens and seniors in tow, he’ll take the former to a basketball or tennis court, and let them blow off more energy tossing a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball. Only then, do they sit down for evening prayer and witness. Lights out is often not until 11 p.m. It took a week to comprehend the method of Father Jack’s brand of madness. He wants youths to test their limits, share their impressions and develop leadership skills.

So it was that on an overcast Saturday morning, while I was ready to hit the road and pilgrims lingered over continental breakfast outside the Mirenda Center at Neumann University, that 14-year-old Martin Webbert of St. Ursula Parish in Parkville, sharing how he had matured under Father Jack’s tutelage, uttered the following: “Like Mr. Paul said yesterday: Everybody needs to be yelled at sometime.”

I had tossed that line off while pontificating the previous morning in a support vehicle that included Martin. My son, Don, will recall my histrionics and words from 20 years ago, with specific detail, and it was another reminder that, like the John Prine song goes, little pitchers do indeed have big ears.

We had a challenging morning, walking on two-lane winding roads from Neumann U. to the town of Media. I worked the back of the line to Father Jack’s front, one of my responsibilities being to listen for, and warn those ahead, about cars coming from behind. Throughout, I fumed that the teens Father Jack had running interference for him up front were not being assertive enough with oncoming traffic. Duh. How else will they learn to lead?

Lunch at Pinocchio’s in Media, Pa., was memorable for multiple reasons. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

Lunch was marvelous, on multiple counts. Miguel Almaguer and a crew from the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt began a six-hour stretch with us. The meal was going to come out of money donated by strangers in previous days. We ate and drank more than $140 worth of cheese steak subs, pizzas and sodas. When I got the bill, it was $40 and change. Patrons inside the restaurant had chipped in that much.


Father Jack’s hat trick works better with a clerical collar. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

The spirit kept soaring after Maureen Cromer was involved in a minor fender-bender.  It soared even higher along Baltimore Pike, after we crossed under Interstate 476 and neared Philadelphia. The surroundings transitioned from affluent to well-worn, from boutiques to barrooms. Twenty-four hours from the prospect of seeing Pope Francis, Father Jack and his pilgrims kicked into another gear. Matt Pieper, father of Shanon and Logan, sprinted across the street to share prayer cards with auto mechanics. Women in the 2005 college classroom uniform (T-shirt and pajama bottoms) stepped out of rowhomes to visit and get selfies with Kevin Brown and Bob Williams.

In Lansdowne, we glimpsed the steeple at St. Philomena, the end of an approximate 12-mile day. Sitting for photos on the front steps, I shushed others, that 5:15 p.m. Mass was under way. We walked into a gorgeous 19th century worship space during the consecration, and stood or kneeled in the back. Father Jack had previously talked over the phone with Father Paul Castellani, the pastor, but the two had never exchanged a glance until the former went up to help with the distribution of communion. We went up to receive Father Paul’s blessing, and he joined us in the gym of the former school, our home for our last night on the road, where dinner was on him, pizza and another Philadelphia tradition, soft pretzels. I ate with a black woman, a parishioner, who told me that she knew many Oblate Sisters of Providence, back in Baltimore.

Having covered approximately 104 miles in a week, pilgrims rest on the steps of St. Philomena Church in Lansdowne, Pa. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)

Maureen and I set up our laptops in the rectory kitchen, where Father Ukachukwu Onyeabor rinsed and cut vegetables while talking to others on his Bluetooth. Between conversations, I asked him his homeland. “Biafra,” he said. “I remember,” I answered, and he raised an eyebrow in appreciation.

Kids, look it up.


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