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Sternwheeler carries Christ down Ohio River during National Eucharistic Pilgrimage

From the sternwheeler in the Eucharistic procession on the Ohio River for Seton Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage June 24, 2024, Bishop Mark E. Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., bestows a Eucharistic blessing to the faithful gathered at the Wellsburg Wharf in Wellsburg, W.Va. (OSV News photo/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

(OSV News) — While many Catholics today do not believe, as Pew Research reported a few years ago, that the Eucharist is Jesus — body, blood, soul and divinity — it’s not at all hard for 4-year-old Joseph Paul of Steubenville, Ohio, to believe. He knows.

“Bye-bye, Jesus!” little Joseph yelled to our Lord from the banks of the Ohio River at the marina in Steubenville as the sternwheeler carrying the Most Blessed Sacrament set off on its journey down the Ohio River June 23. The procession was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Route.

The Paul family, of Holy Family Parish in Steubenville, was among hundreds of Catholics from the city who came to the marina that morning. Little Joseph joyfully waved to our Lord as he watched the sternwheeler make its way down the river. “Bye, Jesus,” he said once again. Catholics who don’t believe in Christ’s real presence can learn a lot from little Joseph.

Leading the Eucharistic procession down the river were Bishop Mark E. Brennan of Wheeling- Charleston and the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Steubenville, Bishop Edward M. Lohse of Kalamazoo, Michigan, as well as priests, seminarians and laity from the two dioceses.

Also aboard the “Boater-cade” were perpetual pilgrims on the Seton Route and the route’s chaplain, Father Roger Landry, who is a Catholic chaplain at Columbia University and the Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life in New York. A priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, he is also one of the official preachers for the National Eucharistic Revival.

The perpetual pilgrims on the Seton Route left New Haven, Connecticut, May 17 and have traveled through 13 dioceses since then. The pilgrimage arrived in West Virginia June 20 in Weirton and, after a Eucharistic procession in the city that day and other events there and across the river, the perpetual pilgrims took to the waters of the Ohio River with our Lord for the June 23 Eucharistic procession.

At designated blessing spots on both sides of the river, West Virginia and Ohio Catholic faithful gathered to receive a Eucharistic blessing from their bishop. More than 80 Catholic faithful waited at the Wellsburg Wharf, the voyage’s second blessing spot in the Mountain State.

As the sternwheeler passed by, Bishop Brennan raised the monstrance holding the Most Blessed Sacrament and blessed the parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellsburg gathered with their pastor, Father Justin Golna, and parishioners of St. Anthony Parish in Follansbee with their pastor, Father Gerald Muoka.

“We feel very blessed to have the bishop stopping to bless us in our community today,” said Susie Mullenbach, president of St. John’s Altar and Rosary Society. “It’s a great honor, and I’m just happy to be here,” she told The Catholic Spirit, Wheeling-Charleston’s diocesan newspaper.

Her parish saw this as an opportunity to publicly witness to the Catholic faith and to show their belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. As they waited for the sternwheeler, the people sang Eucharistic hymns that could be heard throughout the neighborhood.

“It’s wonderful to be here with our congregation, our parish … waiting for the precious body of Christ to appear with the bishop,” said Monica Biery, director of religious education at St. John the Evangelist. She brought her four grandchildren from Preston County, West Virginia, to the wharf to see the procession.

Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love, Sisters were at almost every blessing site. And as the sternwheeler passed the Wellsburg Wharf, the sisters ran out onto the dock and kneeled. They are following the Seton Route on their own the entire way to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Revival in July.

St. Anthony parishioners Chris and Sarah Bayardi were also at the Wellsburg Wharf with their sons to experience the Eucharist in a new way.

“This is the great thing about being Catholic,” Chris said. “Where else are you going to see Jesus go down the river on a sternwheeler in procession?”

After receiving the Eucharistic blessing from Bishop Brennan, the family then drove ahead to join those at the next blessing spot — the Wellsburg Bridge. At the center of the bridge’s walkway priests and seminarians of the Steubenville Diocese knelt and prayed the rosary as Bishop Lohse bestowed the Eucharistic blessing to Ohio’s Catholic faithful.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” said Stephanie West of St. Raphael Parish in Cleveland, who stood on the bridge watching the Most Blessed Sacrament move on in the water below. “And especially important because the focus is on the Eucharist, which is the heart of our Catholic faith.” Stephanie was with her husband, William, also a member of St. Raphael’s. He is originally from Wheeling, growing up as a member of the Cathedral St. Joseph.

The voyage continued on with the bishops giving Eucharistic blessings at Mazeroski Park in Rayland, Ohio, and the Pike Island Locks and Dam for Ohio and West Virginia Catholics.

The roughly 100 Catholic faithful at Heritage Port in Wheeling were undeterred by the rain and wind that came in as they waited. Priests and religious joined parishioners from Wheeling’s cathedral, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Michael’s, St. Alphonsus, and Corpus Christi parishes. When they saw the sternwheeler approaching, many kneeled. A woman wiped tears from her eyes as Bishop Brennan bestowed the Eucharistic blessing from the passing sternwheeler.

The Eucharistic procession docked at the Bellaire Marina in Bellaire, Ohio, and was met by Catholics of the area who continued the procession with Bishop Brennan and Bishop Lohse to nearby St. John Church.

Later that evening, the Most Blessed Sacrament crossed the river back into West Virginia for an all-night Eucharistic prayer vigil at the cathedral.

Colleen Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

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