First there was the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to pay their taxes.
Then there was the flight into Egypt, to escape King Herod’s threats to kill the infant Jesus.
St. Joseph surely knew the challenges that lay before his family, both physically and spiritually, as they made those voyages by foot.
Inspired by Joseph as a model of holiness and leader of his family, more than a dozen Catholic men came together Oct. 3 and 4 for a two-day walking pilgrimage in honor of the saint.
The Joseph Challenge started five years ago as a pilgrimage, more than a typical retreat, not only incorporating time for prayer, reflection, fraternity and silence, but also as a way to embrace challenges — namely walking for two dozen miles over a period of two days, and sleeping on the hard floor of a church — as Catholic men.
The pilgrimage has drawn more than 40 men in a single year, and from several states. The route this year started from St. Joseph Parish in Manchester, ending at the Shrine of St. Joseph Downtown. Stops along the route included the Carmelite Monastery (Carmel of St. Joseph); St. Joseph Parish in Clayton, where the men stayed overnight; the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; and the Apotheosis of St. Louis in Forest Park.
“If we can help people grow in holiness and grow closer to God, that’s what it’s all about,” said Gabe Jones of the Oratory of Sts. Gregory and Augustine, one of the group’s founders.
Typically the pilgrimage is held in May, on a weekend close to the feast of St. Joseph the Worker (May 1), but this year was postponed until October because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an opportunity for them to grow as Catholic men, and in turn to bring that back into their own vocations, including as husbands and fathers, seminarians and single laymen.
“All the guys are from various states of life and vocations,” said Chris Horan, a member of Sts. Gregory and Augustine, who now organizes the pilgrimage with Jones. “They appreciate the sacrifices. And they made other sacrifices to come here,” including leaving their families for a weekend. “It challenges them physically, it challenges them spiritually, and they hope to take away what they’ve embraced and learned from other men about Catholic masculinity.”
Pilgrimage organizers note that “Part of being a man requires accepting monumental challenges and following through until the end, whether at work, in raising our children, being a loving husband, or in our particular hobbies or interests. Being a man means to keep trying, to not give up, and to constantly implore God’s assistance in the face of whatever obstacle we face.”
Herb Borek heard about the pilgrimage from a friend and first participated in 2019. The member of Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County said that fraternity with other Catholic men is what drew him to the challenge. Borek, 24, said making time to participate was perhaps the biggest sacrifice of the weekend. “I have other obligations … but it’s been the whole experience that’s been the most important,” he said.
Michael Cheaney of Immaculate Conception Parish in Arnold heard about the pilgrimage via a Saturday morning men’s group to which he belongs. This was his first time participating; the father of 11 said he struggled with breaking away from his wife, not seeing the children, and giving up things that needed to be done at home. But he saw the challenge as an opportunity to grow and become a better Catholic husband and father.
“I always enjoy meeting people and seeing where they are in faith,” he said. “I get to walk and think about where I am in our journey — our family has been through some difficult times — and in ways that St. Joseph can help lead my family. I can reflect on things like that, and how my wife and I can continue to show the faith to our family.”
Also joining the pilgrims were a priest and several seminarians from Miles Christi, a religious order located just outside of Detroit, whose charism includes sanctification of the laity, especially young men and women, through education, spiritual direction and Ignatian retreats. Beyond Ignatian Spirituality, the order also has a special devotion to St. Joseph.
Father John of God Bertin led the men in several reflections throughout the weekend on the life of St. Joseph. While the saint did not say anything in the Bible, “he fulfilled his obligations in the silence of everyday life,” Father Bertin said. “It is inspiring for these men, as they fulfill their own obligations” through action.
Matthew Zahn and Ross Gillespie, both second-year postulants with Miles Christi, helped carry a large wooden cross on the pilgrimage. Gillespie, who is from Minneapolis-St. Paul, learned about Miles Christi when he was a missionary in NET Ministries (teams that travel across the U.S. for nine months to share the Gospel with young people and their families). He said St. Joseph made plenty of leaps of faith in his life and showed an incredible humility before God. “He was doing what he knew was his duty,” Gillespie said. “This weekend is meant to be in his honor, and it seems fitting to think about his life and his virtues and what ways I can imitate those in my own life.”