Pilgrims walk the 2012 Pellegrinaggio Macerata-Loreto in Italy. Father Jonah Lynch is bringing the tradition to Salem. (Photo by Flickr user Leonora Giovanazzi)

Staying up all night on a Friday is usually a task reserved for rowdy college students, not Catholic priests. 

But Father Jonah Lynch is bucking the trend. 

The priest is part of a group planning an all-night, 20.6 mile walking pilgrimage from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to Mount Angel Abbey, mixing prayer, song and physical exhaustion to ask God for grace and forgiveness. 

“It’s praying with your body. Praying with your legs,” Lynch said. 

The idea came when parishoner Larysa Pavelek approached Lynch about a month ago saying she wanted to go on a pilgrimage. 

Pavelek said she’s been feeling distant from God and thought traveling to a place of significance for Catholics would help deepen her connection and faith. But Lynch had a different idea. 

The priest was assigned to St. Joseph’s in downtown Salem after a decade of living in Italy, where he taught at seminary and completed a doctorate in fundamental theology. 

While there, he attended the Pellegrinaggio Macerata-Loreto, an annual all-night pilgrimage started about 40 years ago by a group of friends seeking change in their own lives. 

The event has grown into a walk of 80,000 people who undertake the pilgrimage as a “dramatic gesture” asking God for help, Lynch said. He went three times and heard confession for others attending. 

“Whether or not they were practicing, they’d hit various kinds of walls in their lives,” he said. Many were young people praying for jobs, or parents praying for their children’s success. 

 He suggested doing a similar event in Salem, and Pavelek was enthusiastic. The "All Saints, All Souls, All Sinners" walk was born.

Both said the church has been under siege, with many Catholics feeling disconnected or withdrawing after a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August found church leadership had covered up repeated sexual abuses by 300 priests over 70 years. 

Pavelek said the pilgrimage can be a way to offer penance for the church’s role in that abuse, or simply to reconnect with God. 

“This way we feel very concretely that we are doing something to help our church, help our community,” she said. 

Father Jonah Lynch, left, poses with students from Willamette University's Newman Center. (Courtesy/Jonah Lynch)

Oregon is about 61 percent Christian and 12 percent Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. About 31 percent of Oregonians reported no religion. 

But regular participation in organized religion is less common. Only 29 percent of Oregonians reported attending services at least weekly, and 61 percent said they seldom or never attend a prayer, religious education or scripture study group. 

Lynch said most Italians consider themselves Catholic, but few regularly attend church. But the pilgrimage attracted a broad group of people, many of whom were not practicing but still wanted a connection to God. 

The Catholic tradition of pilgrimage dates to the Middle Ages, when confessors would prescribe a journey to the Holy Land as penance for serious sins. Generally, Lynch said, it was understood that the pilgrim wouldn’t make it home alive. 

Since then, popular pilgrimage routes, like Spain’s Camino del Santiago, have developed. The purpose of those long journeys, Lynch said, is to provide space for living with a purpose in mind. 

“You can live that time in a way that is intentional and beautiful,” Lynch said. 

Willamette University students Moira Eaton and Estefenia Ramos Torres, who work with the Newman Center, a Catholic student group on campus, have been spreading the word to students. 

“My mother’s sick and I’d like to pray for her,” Eaton said when asked why she plans to walk. 

 About 100 people have registered for Friday night’s pilgrimage. Lynch said the event is open to anybody who wants to attend. Scripture readings along the way will be Christian, but not explicitly Catholic. 

Participants will gather at St. Joseph’s at 7:30 p.m. and depart at 9:30 p.m., arriving for morning mass at Mount Angel. Vans will drive them back to Salem.

A group of parishioners who aren’t physically able to walk will stay up all night at St. Joseph’s singing their way through the Book of Psalms in solidarity.  

From his experience in Italy, Lynch knows keeping spirits high for an all-night walk can be difficult, so he has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep people going. 

“You really hit the wall around 4 a.m.,” he said. 

Organizers will encourage a sing-along of Disney classics and hymns, and Lynch has a reading of the Gospel of Luke planned for the wee hours. He’s hoping to time the crucifixion scene for a particularly arduous uphill section of the walk, he said. 

Pavalek said she’s praying for the safe arrival of everyone participating. 

 “I felt like this was the right time to do this. I’m really excited to grow closer to God and other people,” she said. 

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.