Peddling to the Pope

  • October 3, 2008
{mosimage}Months before thousands of youth landed in Sydney, Australia, for World Youth Day in July, two Canadians were already peddling their way to the Pope.

Frank Callaghan, 20, and Brendan Quigley, 19, from Peterborough, Ont., boarded their bicycles May 17 to begin a 50-day pilgrimage of about 4,300 km from Perth to Sydney.
“I hardly feel like I’ve done it,” Callaghan, told The Catholic Register from his home. “I see cyclists passing by and think ‛I should do that’ and then remember that I crossed Australia.”

Neither Callaghan nor Quigley were trained cyclists, although both enjoy outdoor sports and actively seek out challenging activities. Callaghan, who did a lot of “helmet” sports through his Outdoor Adventure program at Algonquin College, had some expertise in planning shorter expedition trips — like the six-day hike through the Andes to Machu Picchu he did shortly before his Australian adventure.

He had originally hoped to make his cycling trip count towards a class assignment — until teachers told him it didn’t meet the criteria because it was too long and because Quigley, who is currently studying in Spain, was not part of the Outdoor Adventure program.

“It was a completely different trip and I realized more and more that it should be a pilgrimage,” Callaghan said.

So that’s when Callaghan and Quigley, both actively involved with a youth ministry in Peterborough called “Catholics on the road for Christ,” decided to plan out their route with God as a focus. They brought along their rosaries and a breviary to say morning and evening prayers together.

They stayed with priests, religious communities or parishioners in towns where they stopped. They also shared their pilgrimage experience at several elementary schools and took in Sunday Mass every week except for the two-week period when they crossed the desert, where there was nothing but road stops about every 200 km.

When they couldn’t stay with a parish, and while crossing the desert, the pair slept in tents which were strapped onto their bikes with the rest of their supplies in “paniers.” And the Australian winter couldn’t have been better — better than the Canadian spring they left behind, with “practically no rain.”

“A cold day would be like six degrees but it got up to about 20 so we were laughing — it was great for us,” he said.

When a tire blew out within the first two days of travel, they were able to get a replacement within a few hours with the help of staff at a local grocery store who got their kids to pick up the tire and bring it on the school bus from the next town. Several other bike-related mishaps presented further challenges, but Callaghan said they were able to stay joyful even if they were having a miserable day.

For Quigley, the challenges were a lot less spiritual than expected. He said the biggest challenge for him was dealing with the pain from having hurt the tendons in his ankles during a fall.

“There were many challenges on this trip and when asked which is the biggest, it seems ironic that it isn’t some huge spiritual battle,” he said. “That’s isn’t to say that we didn’t face spiritual challenges — everything that affects the physical affects the spiritual a well. So every time I felt pain because of my feet, I had to deny the desire to quit.”

Quigley said he focused on the Lord’s prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“This part of the Our Father, I said for the first time and really meant it,” Quigley said. “When I said thank you, when I prayed to Mary — as I would if I was hungry, or feeling pain, or needed to rest or found the road long — I was able to see my prayers answered.”

It helped him to appreciate the trip as a simple and breath-taking experience, where they would bike 100 km per day continuously seeing new landscape.

“This 100-km section could either be perfectly flat to the horizon or filled with beautiful trees, or we were playing ‛what’s over the hill’ all day. No matter what it was, each day was remarkably beautiful and different,” he said.

Both Quigley and Callaghan said they would “do it again in a heartbeat” although the pilgrimage wouldn’t necessarily have to be on bike.

A few days after they arrived in Sydney, Quigley and Callaghan were at the airport to greet their peers who were just arriving for the World Youth Day events. 

Fr. Norbert Glasmacher, the director of the youth office in Peterborough, said the cyclists were an inspiration for his parishioners and his group of WYD pilgrims, who followed an online blog Callaghan posted whenever he could.

“They are hometown heroes,” Glasmacher said. “We admire them a great deal.”

For more on the journey, and Callaghan’s blogs, visit

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