More than 1,200 filled the streets of the neighborhood known as “Little Rome” in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to pay witness to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage.

After Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjívar-Ayala, the crowd of faithful filed out of the church and spilled into the streets to follow the procession.

Armed with tote bags provided by the Archdiocese of Washington that were filled with everything needed for the day’s sojourn — water, a snack, a map of the procession route, and rosary beads — the pilgrims set out for a morning of fellowship, prayer, and time spent in proximity to Jesus in the Eucharist.

The two-mile-long procession route bordered the basilica and the Catholic University of America and traveled through Brookland, a densely populated neighborhood with a lively business district that is home to residences of several religious orders.

The June 8 procession through this corner of the nation’s capital was part of the broader National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, an initiative of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Eucharistic Revival intended to foster a greater understanding and devotion to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. 

While those who live and work in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington are not strangers to the rhythms of Catholic life there (the basilica’s church bells mark the hours to the tune of “Ave Maria”), the sheer numbers of faithful in the streets drew the attention of dozens of curious onlookers. They stood on their front lawns, apartment balconies, or roofs to get a closer look as the procession passed by their homes.

“Come join us!” one procession-goer beckoned onlookers who watched the proceedings. 

Two laborers working on the roof of a house under construction smiled and waved back as they paused to watch the Eucharist and the crowd pass.

A group of people sitting outside a coffee shop stopped their conversation to take pictures of the procession as the faithful sang hymns and prayed the rosary, alternating between English and Spanish.

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Sister Margaret Regina of the Little Sisters of the Poor told CNA: “It’s the first time I’ve seen [something like this] in the area.” The sister said she was happy to see so many people of different backgrounds at the procession.

There is a “need to profess our faith” and tell people: “This is what I believe,” she said. “We need this peace that only [Christ] can bring because our hearts have to change and be like him.” 

The procession brought a diverse group of Catholics together to celebrate the Eucharist: a few communities of religious sisters, dozens of priests, and hundreds of laypeople from various backgrounds speaking, praying, and singing in different languages.

It took more than three hours for the procession to slowly wend its way from the basilica to the John Paul II Shrine, making stops at the “Angels Unaware” statue at Catholic University, at the home of the Nashville Dominicans, the Dominican House of Studies, and the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At each stop, the priests carrying the monstrance and its canopy and young people following with candles held high stopped as speakers read reflections on the Gospel (alternating between English and Spanish). The crowd, young and old alike, knelt on the hot asphalt for a moment to adore the Eucharist.

Young people lead the way as the procession travels through "Little Rome" in Washington, DC. Credit: Mihoko Owada/The Catholic Standard
Young people lead the way as the procession travels through "Little Rome" in Washington, DC. Credit: Mihoko Owada/The Catholic Standard

“[The Eucharist] strengthens us, unites us with the body of Christ, and equips us to carry on his mission in the world,” Father Robert Hitchens, administrator of the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family, told pilgrims as they gathered near the Basilica Rosary Walk and Garden.

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In emphasizing the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, Hitchens said the Blessed Sacrament “is not merely a symbol” but rather “a banquet.”

When the procession reached its final destination of the day for Benediction — the St. John Paul II National Shrine — children threw rose petals on the ground ahead of the procession. Some of the older attendees, including religious sisters, who were not able to walk for the whole procession were given chairs to watch the procession’s closing stop at the shrine. Some, with the help of aides, rose from their seats to stand in reverence as the procession neared.

Young boys throw rose petals on the ground as the procession approaches. Credit: Zelda Caldwell/CNA
Young boys throw rose petals on the ground as the procession approaches. Credit: Zelda Caldwell/CNA

Sister Mary Vincent of the Little Sisters of the Poor told CNA the procession “was a gift to this area” and said the reverence, with so many Catholics kneeling in the streets to adore Christ in the Eucharist, was “absolutely beautiful.” She said it can help strengthen faith “when you see everyone around you adoring him.”

The pilgrimage, which began on Pentecost, has four routes: from the north, south, east, and west, all heading to Indianapolis for the July 17–21 National Eucharistic Congress.

The Washington, D.C., procession was part of the Seton Route, which began on the East Coast in New Haven, Connecticut. The route has brought Christ through the streets of New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore along with other communities in the northeast. The route will continue into southwest Pennsylvania before heading into Ohio and then Indiana. 

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, celebrated a solemn Mass for the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage in the upper church of the basilica at noon on Sunday, June 9, the day after the procession. Bishop Michael Burbidge of the next-door Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, was a concelebrant.