On the morning of Aug. 9, more than 7,000 Catholics from the Chicago area and Indiana turned up at St. Michael Church, 8235 South Shore Drive, with backpacks, comfortable shoes and ready spirits for the annual Polish pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Merrillville, Ind. This year I joined the pilgrims on the two-day, 32 mile walk. It was a very moving experience that I recommend every able-bodied Catholic put on their spiritual bucket list. Salvatorian Father Joe Zuziak started the pilgrimage 27 years ago as a local version of the Our Lady of Czestochowa pilgrimage held for the last several hundred years in Poland. There, pilgrims walk from towns all around the country to the shrine in Czestochowa, some travelling on foot for two weeks. Two days in Chicago seem much easier, at least to this pilgrim. Every year the number of people participating in the Chicago pilgrimage grows. “We first started with 150 and then next was almost 600. And then 1,500,” said Zuziak, who was ordained by Pope John Paul II when he was Archbishop of Krakow. The priest said at first he thought maybe the pilgrimage would grow over the years, “but I couldn’t imagine such a way” with 7,000 walking this year. “I think we are the biggest group after Czestochowa, of course, in Poland, in the world.” The pilgrims walk for various reasons. Many are praying for family members or loved ones who have died, who are ill or in need of conversions. “That’s the tradition. We’re walking for penance. We’re praying for peace in the world,” Zuziak said. It’s like a retreat on a walk, he said, with priests hearing confessions, prayers recited such as the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet and talks given by priests. During the first day, pilgrims walk 20 miles through south Chicago and end up at the Carmelite Fathers Shrine in Munster, Ind., where most pilgrims sleep over in tents or inside the church. The next morning, pilgrims walk the final 12 miles to the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Merrillville. Some people join the walk on the second day, which culminates in an outdoor Mass. Starting off When I arrived at St. Michael on Saturday morning I paid $40 and was given a scarf (this year’s color was yellow) and a button designed for this year’s pilgrimage. I saw buttons from previous pilgrimages on many walkers’ backpacks or purses. The $40 gets you dinner that night and breakfast the following morning. Pilgrims staying overnight at the shrine drop their luggage off at St. Michael’s and it is all packed in large tractor-trailer trucks that follow the procession. Polish is the designated language of the pilgrimage, but non-Polish speakers are welcome and you can easily find someone who speaks English to help you get around. I walked with two Polish friends who translated for me. Our adventure began with a packed Saturday morning Mass at St. Michael Church, celebrated by Bishop Oleg Butkiewicz from Belarus. Bishop Butkiewicz, who was ordained in January, also walked the pilgrimage. People weren’t just packed in along the sides of the aisles and in the back of St. Michael, they were packed like sardines up on the steps to the Communion altar and in almost any other available space. After Mass, when we were all lined up and ready togo, our procession was about a mile long and members of the Chicago Police Department blocked off intersections so we could pass through. The weather was sunny with temperatures in the high 70s and a slight breeze. It’s a well-organized event. Vans with speakers on the roofs are stationed at various spots within the procession so that participants can hear the prayers, songs and talks. Organizers have thought of nearly everything — even attaching extra pipes to the van exhaust systems so that the fumes blow up and out instead of into the crowds. People donate the 40 trucks and vans used for the pilgrimage and a team of 400 volunteers helps everything go smoothly. There are even nurses and doctors who volunteer to walk as medics. I didn’t need to worry about water because volunteers pass out bottled water along the way. It’s not always cold but it is refreshing. I must have drunk about a dozen bottles of water, my share of the more than 60,000 bottles of water distributed over the two days. Public evangelization Not only is the pilgrimage a powerful experience for the walker but it’s a public form of evangelization. In south Chicago, many of the spectators pulled out their phones or tablets to capture us walking by. The closer we got to the shrine in Munster the more people came out to greet us. Some people brought out their lawn chairs to sit and watch and wave. Others displayed Polish flags with pride. There were two scheduled hour long breaks both days. On Saturday afternoon, the break in Hammond, Ind., included donated Polish sausages and bread. It made me think of Jesus feeding everyone with the loaves and the fishes. Volunteers passed out sausages from large barrels and everyone grabbed a few pieces of still-warm baked bread. We ate with our hands. It was simple sustenance befitting the pilgrimage experience. Then we were off again to the Carmelite shrine. By Saturday afternoon I could see various degrees of sunburn on my fellow walkers along with the effects of poorly chosen shoes. At that time I was sporting three blisters of my own along with some sunburned shoulders. Throughout the walk, priests hear confessions. They walk along the edges of the procession, purple stoles around their necks, and people come up to them for the sacrament. I asked one priest how many confessions he usually hears during the pilgrimage and he said he gave up counting a long time ago. Greetings in Munster When we finally arrived at the Carmelite shrine early Saturday evening, we were singing and waving our yellow scarves in the air. It’s an emotional time because you’re tired and there are people greeting you at the gate to the shrine waving and singing too. At the shrine, you see countless tents set up on almost every available grassy space. Family or friends of those walking usually come to the shrine earlier in the week to set up the tents. I didn’t sleep at the shrine because a friend lives only a few miles away so I opted for a comfortable bed, air-conditioning and a shower. Those who stay at the shrine make do with cleaning up with bottled water or sinks. There’s Mass that night at 9 p.m. and it’s often not over until late. Not much rest for the weary. Moments of grace There were little moments of grace I saw along the way on both days: An older nun in full habit pushing a person with a disability in a wheelchair on Saturday. A father pushing his young daughter with a broken leg in a wheelchair on Sunday. The bishop from Belarus leaving the walk to go over and shake the hand of a young African-American boy who was standing on the side of the road with his bike. On Sunday morning I saw a young girl, probably about 11 or 12, going to confession. After the priest gave her absolution, she turned around in our direction with bright eyes and a smile on her face. She thanked the priest and ran back to her family, who were walking in front of us. Her sister, who looked to be about 15, high-fived her. On way to the shrine A few miles from the end of the pilgrimage I had to bow out. By this time two of my blisters ruptured and I was limping in pain. It took me a little while to swallow my pride and stop walking, but it’s all a part of the pilgrimage experience to offer these things up, right? I caught a ride with our photo editor Karen Callaway and we headed to the shrine to await the walkers and Mass. When I got home Sunday night I counted 10 blisters in all. Ouch. At the shrine there were about 3,000 people to greet the walkers who came through the gate, again singing and waving their scarves. Seeing the 11,000 people at Mass was an amazing and hopeful sight. It was very moving when during the eucharistic prayer everyone knelt down — young, old, on pavement or grass. Even with the blisters I would do this pilgrimage again. It’s an opportunity to show your love for Our Lady and to beg for her prayers for special intentions. Seeing thousands of fellow Catholics walking, praying and singing also bolsters your faith. In my opinion, this pilgrimage ranks right up there with the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration Dec. 11-12 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines. The Catholic Church talks a lot now of the new evangelization, but as one friend said, sometimes there’s nothing better than the old-fashioned evangelization of enduring a little discomfort and taking your faith to the streets walking for Jesus and Mary. Alicja Pozywio contributed to this story.