A group of local priests and seminarians is promoting vocations to the priesthood in a novel way: They are biking 1,400 miles from Florida to Rockville Centre.
The 29-day trip starts tomorrow morning in St. Augustine. The five men will travel through 11 states, 10 dioceses and five archdioceses, sleeping in churches, hotels and parishioners' homes.
A send-off ceremony took place Friday night in Deer Park at the Parish of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the group drove to Florida on Saturday.
Coming north, they plan to average 60 miles a day, with 86 miles as the longest one-day trek. The shortest leg is 12 miles, when they bike from Newark to St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, said the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald, director of vocations for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, who is leading the trip.
The journey is scheduled to culminate with the men arriving at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre on Sunday, June 14, in time for the 11 a.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop William Murphy, he said.
The group -- dubbed "Biking 4 Vocations" -- is making the trip partly because the church needs to find new ways to encourage men to enter the priesthood, Fitzgerald said.
"We have to think outside the box," he said. "How can we have people in this conversation?"
Along the way, the bikers will talk with young people at church events and meet with bishops. They will pray several times a day and celebrate Mass daily.
The bikers will provide daily updates and GPS tracking on their webpage, biking4
Fitzgerald, 43, is no stranger to physical challenges. The Babylon native participated in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a member of the U.S. national team handball squad.
He thinks members of the biking group, who range in age from 20 to 47, are ready. They've been training since mid-February, at first inside and then outside.
"I know those 80-mile days are going to be tough," Fitzgerald said.
The team includes two Diocese of Rockville Centre seminarians, Stephen Rooney, 20, of Garden City, and Dominik Wegiel, 23, of Maspeth, Queens, as well as Steven Diaz, 25, of Manhattan, a seminarian in the Archdiocese of New York, and the Rev. Marc Swartvagher, 47, a priest in the Brooklyn diocese who teaches at Cathedral Seminary in Douglaston, Queens, where the seminarians live and study.
"I'm going on this Biking 4 Vocations pilgrimage because Christ calls us to be fishers of men, and I am inspired to follow that call by biking up the East Coast to set the hearts of young men and women on fire to find their vocations, some to the priesthood and religious life," Wegiel said.
Rooney came up with the idea after taking part last summer in a cross-country, 4,600-mile bike trip from Providence, Rhode Island, to San Francisco. He went with a secular nonprofit organization that helped build affordable housing along the way.
While that was a tremendous experience, he said he missed having a spiritual element. Halfway through, "I really was struggling with my spiritual life. Physically, it was very demanding, but it wasn't the most challenging part."
After he got back, he proposed the vocations bike trip to Fitzgerald, who embraced it. Fitzgerald has contacted vocation directors at dioceses along the route to seek assistance and set up events.
The group will have a two-person support team driving near them in a van to help with water, food, first aid and other needs.
Their training was overseen by Jose Lopez, a triathlon coach from Mineola who has competed internationally.
Fitzgerald said the trip shows that athleticism and religion can meld.
"You can be athletic. You can love the Lord. You can serve the Lord," he said. "We're not monks. We're people who have a very similar life experience [to lay people] except we're called to serve in a radical way."