St. John Society photos
As Fr. Ignacio Llorente watches, Fr. Federico Pinto tries to thumb a ride to Arizona.
St. John Society photos
As Fr. Ignacio Llorente watches, Fr. Federico Pinto tries to thumb a ride to Arizona.

Four young priests serving in Oregon set out this summer for an adventure. It turned out to be an exploit, for sure, but not the one they expected.  

Father Lucas Laborde, former campus minister and former pastor at St. Patrick in Portland, is now pursuing higher studies. Father Ignacio Llorente is current pastor of St. Patrick’s. Father Federico Pinto serves as current campus minister in Corvallis. Father Maximo Stöck is campus minister at Portland State University. All are members of the St. John Society, a Catholic Religious community founded in Argentina in the mid-1990s and dedicated to the New Evangelization, especially through campus ministry.

The men set out from Portland by car, their backpacks and themselves jammed into the vehicle, pretty much like any group of 20- and 30-somethings on a road trip. But this crew also had Roman collars neatly stowed with their gear. Their destination: the Grand Canyon, 1,500 miles away.  

In the desert of northern Nevada, with temperatures soaring, their car broke down. The prognosis was bad. The auto could not be fixed very fast.

The indefatigable priests, instead of scuttling their trip, decided to hitchhike. They say it was for the sake of adventure.

“Wearing our collars helped a bit, and most surely kept us out of trouble,” says Father Laborde, the senior priest of the group at age 38.

Over the next five days, they made a round trip of almost 1,600 miles and did get to the canyon, which they found magnificent and powerful. But when all was done, the stories they’ve told have been about the 17 people who picked them up: miners from Nevada, a Catholic priest, fallen away Catholics, Mormons, families on vacation and people going to work.

“Since you travel many miles together, you get to listen to a lot of real life stories, and we got to share profound conversations,” Father Laborde explains. “Our goal was the Grand Canyon, but our adventure led us to discover also the landscape of many people’s hearts in a variety of circumstances: unexpected acts of kindness and trust, stories of suffering, experiences of faith, profound conversations, moments of prayer, possibly the beginning of more than one friendship.”

In Salt Lake City, the driver of an 18-wheeler pulled over to pick them up. His name was John and he was an Irish-American whose faith life had sputtered. But he was a thinker and he was hungry for spirituality. At one point, John asked the priests about Pope John Paul’s 1998 encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio.  

“How can you make sense of that?” John asked.

The surprised priests looked at each other, shrugged and then started talking from their hearts. They told John that if he understands reason only from the scientific model, he will be missing a lot of truths. They suggested instead that he embrace a broader concept of reason, a philosophical idea. That way, he could build a bridge with faith. John was elated. “That is so awesome!” he said as the miles ticked by.

“You guys made my day!”

To the priests, it seemed surreal to be talking about papal encyclicals with a long haul truck driver, but they are men open to the Spirit. Before he let them off, John shared some of his life’s difficulties and prayed with the quartet of young clergymen.  

The trip confirmed the priests’ contention that the Catholic Church is “amazing.”

Many local pastors extended hospitality. Father Jose Sobarzo in Winnemucca, Nev. allowed the four strangers with big backpacks who claimed to be priests to come in and stay in the parish hall at 10 p.m. one night. The vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City welcomed the Oregon priests and the diocese’s director of Hispanic ministry, María Cruz, linked them up to a parish near the Grand Canyon. There, they met Msgr. Bob Bussen, a marathon runner who carried the torch for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Msgr. Bussen suggested hikes around the canyon.

“Whenever we went to Catholic churches, we were warmly welcomed and assisted,” Father Laborde recalls. “It was an experience of God’s providential care over us.”

At a gas station in Salt Lake City, the men met a young couple. They were not headed the same way as the priests, but a conversation sprung up. The woman had fallen away from her Catholic faith and lost a 3-month-old baby. She seemed to be suffering. Suddenly, she asked Father Pinto: “Do you have a Bible?” He gave her his own as a gift. The priests then asked if she would like them to pray for her. She assented. So there — amid gas pumps, a Slurpee machine and candy bars for sale — the priests with backpacks circled the woman and her husband, asking God to shower blessings down upon her. From a van parked nearby, three girls looked on curiously.  

When the men got back to northern Nevada, their car was fixed and they headed back to Portland. The importance of the trip then became clear.

“God put along our way people who needed something from him,” Father Laborde says. “Had we continued on a traditional road trip, we wouldn’t have met all these people, we wouldn’t have shared faith stories and moments of prayer as we did. The fact of being dependent on God’s providence and on other people’s compassion allowed us to reach the hearts of many.”