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 | Kate Quiñones

‘Breathtaking’: Through the Cornfields with Jesus in Nebraska

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Believers share their experience of participating in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage.

The procession began quietly, with just the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel. The air was thick with incense, heavy with east Nebraska’s summer humidity and dust from the road.

The silence was soon broken with the sound of bells and the voices of pilgrims and processors as they sang, “O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine,” and followed Christ in the Eucharist.

The procession — part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage taking place across the United States — traveled from Cloisters on the Platte, an Ignatian silent retreat center near Omaha, to the Shrine of the Holy Family, a wayside chapel beloved by locals and travelers alike.

The route followed a gravel road, visible from interstate 80, which crossed through cornfields amid the distant hum of semitrucks and cars. Travelers on the Midwestern highway would find the spectacle an unusual sight — well over 500 Catholics quietly following a priest holding the Eucharist aloft under its canopy.

The pace was quick considering the summer heat and despite stops at the occasional water bottle stations set up along the road, and the nearly five-mile procession was arduous. A voice would frequently call out loudly for the crowd to move to one side to allow a car or truck to pass.

At the end of the procession, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, known by his faithful flock as “our Star Wars archbishop,” joked that while he began thinking of the pilgrimage as payment for his sins, he didn’t realize “just how many there were.”

The procession was part of the Junipero Serra Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, which began on the California coast more than a month ago. It is one of four national pilgrimages moving across the nation with the Eucharist, set to meet in Indianapolis in July for the National Eucharistic Congress.

It was also the meeting of two brother dioceses — parishioners from both Lincoln and Omaha gathered together for the pilgrimage. Bishop James Conley of Lincoln carried the monstrance, passing it on to Lucas at the foot of the steep hill leading to the shrine in a ceremonial exchange marking the edge of his diocese.

“We expect heat this time of year,” Lucas told CNA after the procession. “I was just thrilled that so many people were willing to bear the heat and walk — it was over four miles.”

“It reminds us of the heroic efforts of the pilgrims that are helping us have these processions. They’re all across the country, starting from the West Coast,” he said. “I’m really grateful to them.”

One attendee, lifelong Catholic Timothy Swan, came to the pilgrimage after attending all-night adoration the night before at Risen Christ Cathedral in Lincoln. As it grew late and the initial crowd thinned, Swan recalled the cathedral becoming uncomfortably cold.

“Jesus is good,” he said. “It was great. The only thing is, I bet Jesus was cold … There were a couple of times I did go out to my car and turn on the heat. But it was a lot of fun.”

Swan has been joining parts of the Junipero Serra Route from his hometown in the northeast corner of Colorado to where he grew up in Omaha, attending events in Sterling and Fort Morgan, Colorado, as well as Lincoln and Omaha.

“People have said that this must have been similar to the time when Jesus [lived] when the people followed him in large crowds, and then the woman with the hemorrhage just wanted to touch him,” he said of the processions.

With heavy limbs and tired feet, the pilgrims made their way to the top of the hill to reach the end of the procession at the Shrine of the Holy Family, an unusual-looking building of cedar and glass that overlooks the surrounding fields and freeway, its latticed roof reaching into the clouds.

The chapel is a repose for travelers, who may find solace in prayer by stopping in the wayside chapel, as well as travelers in spirit.

Lucas carried the monstrance along a narrow dirt path lined with wildflowers and tall grass, making a final loop around the hilltop shrine. He entered the pleasantly cool shrine followed by a small number of processors who were able to fit inside.

Built in 1993, the intricately designed hilltop chapel was the inspiration of four Catholics who each (independently) shared a dream to build a roadside chapel for travelers..

An eye-catching archway of interwoven trusses forms its structure, while within its glass walls, a unique water element meant to reference baptism is built into the flooring.

The entrance to the shrine is marked by a cracked path with a pebbled waterway just under the surface. Small pools of water mark each pew, while a larger pool sits beneath the altar.

The Holy Family’s image is etched in the largest window above the altar so subtly the image almost merges with the sky on a partly cloudy day like this one. As they reflect or pray, the glass walls offer visitors broad vistas of green fields stretching out in every direction.

All was quiet except for the sound of trickling water flowing underneath the holy place, along with the murmur of song heard as the bishop brought the monstrance forward, blessing the processors with a final Benediction.

To those outside the chapel, Christ was still visible, seen through the glass walls. With the sunlight reflecting on the golden monstrance, the pilgrims inside and outside the shrine knelt before Jesus for an hour of adoration.

One young woman inside the chapel bowed low before the altar, touching her face to the cool stone floor in reverence. Just beyond the altar, the line of pilgrims and processors could be seen outside, waiting to enter into the small shrine.

One or two at a time, the processors left, taking a dirt path that led to a shuttle driven by a jovial driver, which took them back to their parking spots to make the ride home for the evening.

Jonah Tran, 22, is a young adult leader in his local chapter of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Lincoln, Nebraska. He said the end of the procession was “breathtaking.”

“Being from Lincoln my whole life, I’ve been to this church many times before, but the only times I’ve gone have been just on my own personal trips, so just seeing it by myself,” he said.

“But now actually being here, seeing hundreds of people come here together and going into the church … It’s breathtaking, going in, seeing the church actually filled this time,” he said.

“It’s amazing to see, especially being in Nebraska,” Tran said of the procession. “Being able to see individuals like myself who are Vietnamese, having this all in common — but [that it’s] not only within the Vietnamese community, [we’re seeing] how diverse things can be, but yet we’re all here for the same belief.”

“The thing that I noticed is that the average age of the group today was young,” Lucas said after the procession. “And so, as a person who’s not so young anymore, that makes me feel really good and very hopeful for the future.”

“It just reminds me how many friends the Lord has here and how close he wants to be to all of us,” he said.

The front of the western route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession as it passes southwest of Omaha, Nebraska, on June 21, 2024. Credit: Kate Quiñones/CNA