Prayer rally ushers in Holy Week

About 800 teen-agers attend annual event in downtown Baltimore

`We are celebrating faith'

March 24, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Prayer replaced sports and commerce at Rash Field, Charles Center and other city landmarks yesterday as about 800 Catholic youths joined a pilgrimage through downtown.

With Christian rock music blaring in the background, Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, helped rally the throng gathered around the pavilion at Rash Field. The 71-year-old cardinal moved easily among the crowd, greeting the teen-agers and often clasping their hands.

When asked what could entice so many teens to a prayer rally on a sunny spring Saturday, he answered, "They love this -- you can just see the enthusiasm. They are committing a whole day to prayer, and they have come from all over the state."

The walk, a nine-year tradition, marks the beginning of Holy Week, the days leading to Easter Sunday and the most solemn season of the church year. Surrounded by youths, Keeler helped lift an 8- foot-tall wooden cross at the outset of the 4 1/2 -mile procession. The cross, carried by several teens, made its way to the altar at the Basilica of the Assumption, where the cardinal celebrated Mass.

"We are taking God's love to the streets and saying, `God is alive and well in Baltimore,'" said Will O'Connor, 17, of Ellicott City.

From the Inner Harbor, the marchers made their way north on Charles Street. Keeler knelt with them for a few minutes of quiet prayer on the cold pavement at Charles Center. From there, the crowd walked to Paca Street, where the cardinal blessed baskets of palms in front of the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. The pilgrimage ended at the basilica, the country's oldest cathedral.

"We are preaching by what we do," said Clark Miller, 15, of Fulton. "This is more finite and less conventional than just going to church."

An air of spirituality blended with typical teen-age banter about sports, school and proms. An occasional cell phone or pager sounded, and a few walkers could not resist hot dogs sold by a street vendor. But for most, the focus remained on prayer.

Louis Young, 16, of Baltimore, said he felt driven "to participate in my religion. This is like a party, but we are celebrating faith."

Several teens dressed in the costume of a favorite saint. Justin Kenner, 18, donned a cassock to emulate St. John Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia, who had strong ties to Baltimore.

"Church is not just Mass every Sunday; it is alive and vibrant," said Kenner, who drove three hours from Cumberland to attend the event.

Most in the crowd sported bright yellow bandannas featuring an image of the basilica and the words, "God is calling you ... will you answer?" The call is for more men to join the priesthood, said Sean Hamilton, 13, of Hickory.

"Any Catholic boy should be thinking that God might be calling him to be a priest," said Sean. "This rally is a way to show my faith, hopefully to the rest of the world."

Although scandals involving sexual abuse by priests have dominated the news recently, rally participants dwelt on the power of prayer.

"All the bad publicity lately is about a small minority," said Michael Downes, a youth minister from Bethany Beach, Del. "The vast majority in the church are really amazing people. Even the difficulties point to the need for good people to continue doing good things for youth. Faith provides hope, and this kind of faith is a great example to these kids."

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