Two priests and three seminarians rode their bicycles to the church in Rockville Centre Sunday, pedaling to the end of a 1,400-mile pilgrimage, buoyed by prayer, grit and scripture.
The group -- dubbed "Biking 4 Vocations" -- arrived at St. Agnes Cathedral as parishioners applauded and cheered after a 29-day trek from Florida designed to inspire men to enter the priesthood.
The journey, said one priest, has helped to present a fuller picture of how they live and to recruit parishioners to join the church in attracting new priests at a time when the church is struggling to do so.
"Vocations don't fall out of the skies; they come from families," said one of riders, the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald, the trip's leader. "All of us have a responsibility to pray for, encourage, challenge people."
Fitzgerald, director of vocations for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, added: "We're all in this together. The church is a 'we,' not a 'me,' -- or just the bishop or just the priest."
He and the group traveled through 11 states, and slept in churches, hotels and parishioners' homes. They spoke at churches and in residences, but some of the more powerful experiences happened on breaks, and when they offered to pray for strangers.
At a Waffle House in Maryland, Fitzgerald said they asked a waitress -- a single mother of a 5-year-old boy -- if they could pray for her.
"I want a better life for me and my son, Michael," Fitzgerald recalled her telling him before they prayed together.
On grueling stretches, they sometimes powered through 80 miles a day, in the rain and heat, chomping on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Sometimes frustration and fatigue set in, said Stephen Rooney, 20, a seminarian from West Hempstead, who proposed the idea for the journey.
"We stopped right then and there . . . and just prayed, and stayed centered on what we were doing," Rooney said.
Rooney said the trip was "a very physically challenging pilgrimage. . . . Pilgrimages usually are," he said.
He and the other riders wore white shirts, with a piece of a scripture from Matthew 28:19 on the back. It read: "Go and make disciples of all nations."
In Rockville Centre, the group followed a police escort to St. Agnes Cathedral. Bishop William Murphy opened his arms wide to receive them.
Murphy, who heads the diocese, said: "These men have shown us that enthusiasm, commitment, steadfastness, courage -- and a whole lot of muscle power -- is able to do great things."