About 100 Catholics walked a 12-mile-long pilgrimage from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 21, to honor his feast day (Oct. 22) and to mark the 45th anniversary of the start of his papacy (Oct. 16).

“[This pilgrimage] is so important because every generation is given a saint it desperately needs, and St. John Paul II is the saint we need in this generation,” Michael Grasinki, the director of mission and ministry at the shrine, told CNA before the start of the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims pray as they walk from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 21, to honor John Paul II's feast day Oct. 22, as well as the 45th anniversary of the start of his papacy. Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine
Pilgrims pray as they walk from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 21, to honor John Paul II's feast day Oct. 22, as well as the 45th anniversary of the start of his papacy. Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine

Most of the pilgrims gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall across the street from Our Lady, Queen of Poland Church and St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Silver Spring around 8:30 a.m. Others joined the group at later points to partake in the six-mile journey from Rock Creek Park or the 1.5-mile journey from St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. 

“I love Pope St. John Paul II,” Michelle Falcinelli, a Catholic school teacher from Silver Spring, Maryland, who took part in the pilgrimage, told CNA.

Falcinelli, who spent time in Rome teaching at an international school during John Paul II’s papacy, recalled attending his Angelus prayers at St. Peter’s Square and noted the “void” and “emptiness” felt in the city when he died. She said she attended the pilgrimage primarily “out of a love for him as a person and gratitude for him as a person.”

About 100 Catholics walked the 12-mile-long pilgrimage from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, to honor the feast day and the 45th anniversary of the start of his papacy. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine
About 100 Catholics walked the 12-mile-long pilgrimage from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, to honor the feast day and the 45th anniversary of the start of his papacy. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine

The group prayed the rosary, sang hymns, and made stops to engage in group prayer that included readings from John Paul II’s writings and speeches. The group also prayed for the saint’s intercession and ended with Mass at the shrine. 

Priests heard confessions off to the side throughout the walk. The pilgrims could also receive a plenary indulgence, which eliminates all temporal punishment for one’s sins, if they receive the sacrament of reconciliation, receive Communion, say a prayer for the intentions of the pope, and have an interior disposition of complete detachment from all sin within 20 days before or after the pilgrimage. 

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The shrine contains a first-class blood relic of St. John Paul II and relics of 10 other saints, including St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Faustina Kowalska.

Father Pawel Sass, VF, who led many of the prayers during the pilgrimage, told CNA that he hopes pilgrims leave with the knowledge of St. John Paul II’s legacy and teachings, particularly that “everybody’s called to be a saint.”

“I would invite all the Catholic population — for believers — to go back and [familiarize themselves] with Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings,” Sass said. 

Father Pawel Sass, VF, pastor of Nativity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., led the group for much of the pilgrimage on Oct. 21, 2023. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine
Father Pawel Sass, VF, pastor of Nativity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., led the group for much of the pilgrimage on Oct. 21, 2023. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine

Remarking on the young people and families with children at the pilgrimage, Sass said they “were the fruit of the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II,” such as his emphasis on the sanctity of life and his teachings on sexuality related to the theology of the body.

Some of the pilgrims also took solace in being surrounded by a community of Catholics.

Darlene Murphy, who attended the pilgrimage, said she had just returned from a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, and enjoys the camaraderie, the people, the prayers, and the songs that come along with a pilgrimage.

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“St. John Paul II has always been my favorite,” she added.

Stephanie Athanas from Washington, D.C., said as a young Catholic, she doesn’t have “a strong sense of community in the area” but that the pilgrimage offered an opportunity to “pray together” with a Catholic community. 

The shrine organizes a pilgrimage every year around the feast day of St. John Paul II, which is on Oct. 22, shortly after the Oct. 16 anniversary of the start of his papacy. This is the third straight year the shrine organized a pilgrimage. 

“For thousands of years, people have made pilgrimages to shrines to deepen their faith and witness to others,” Thomas Burnford, the manager of events and visitor services at the shrine, told CNA. “And that’s what we’re doing today to draw closer to Christ … in the spirit of St. John Paul II.”