By Fr. Reginald, O.P.
It hurt so bad. But it also felt great. Nine and a half miles to the bottom of the Canyon, with 35 pounds of gear on my back. I had been there a couple of times over the years and, like many tourists, had hiked a little ways down. But hiking all the way down to camp is a whole different thing. Gradually the day hikers thin out, and you have long stretches of trail where it’s just you and your companions and the Canyon and your aching limbs. I got a little worried because I rolled my ankle a couple times. It wasn’t hurt, but I was afraid I wouldn’t stay so lucky. You don’t want to be way down in the Grand Canyon with a sprained ankle.
“How much must that Mass kit weigh?” I began to wonder. Then I thought: “Ok, Jesus, I’m carrying it down for you, to celebrate your Holy Sacrifice in the heart of the earth for my sins and for the world. Please bless my steps and accept each one as a prayer.”
The Lord had shown His care for us at the top of the Canyon the night before. I would have celebrated Mass at our campsite, but it was pouring rain. I felt shy about it, but I explained at the visitor’s center that I was a Catholic priest and was looking for a place to say Mass, hoping the lady would direct me to an empty conference room or something. She said, “Why don’t you go to the Catholic church? It will be open.” And that’s how I learned that there is a little town on the edge of the Grand Canyon with a little Catholic church.
So I walked and prayed. I prayed for myself and for my friends and for my family and for all of you, students and parishioners of Newman. Most of all, however, I prayed for healing in the Church in these painful times — for good shepherds and for an increase in faith and holiness. It was a relief to be offline for a couple days, but I noticed an occasional sense of dread: What horrifying news might be waiting when I came back up? It was Wednesday, August 22, 2018.
Finally, we got to Bright Angel Campground. After sitting and hurting for a while, we set up camp. About to prepare for Mass, I thought, “I wonder how often Mass is celebrated at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” At that moment, I noticed something at the next campsite: a few guys sitting around a picnic table passing a little book to each other. One of them was wearing a stole. Soon he elevated the Eucharist. I made the sign of the cross and smiled. After I suited up and began Mass, I heard a voice from the next campsite: “What are the chances?!”
These three priests, on a four-day trek from rim to rim, sort of adopted my friend and me into their group for the last two days. They had two professional guides with them who cooked them hot food, which they very kindly shared. On Thursday night we all had Mass together at Plateau Point, halfway up the Canyon. (If you go hiking in the Grand Canyon, do not miss Plateau Point.)
On Friday morning we put on our packs and headed for the top. As the hours went by, we greeted more and more people from all over the world out for a pleasant hour’s hike. Then we were finished. With hugs and a few tears we said goodbye to our new friends, cleaned up, and got in the car to make for the Las Vegas airport. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to offer Mass that day because we would be getting in to St. Louis at 1 a.m., but St. Bartholomew (it was his feast day) interceded to delay our flight long enough for me to find a quiet corner of the airport and celebrate Mass on my suitcase.
What can I say in summary? What is physically exhausting can be spiritually refreshing. There was something valuable about spending a few days where my greatest desires were for a sip of water, some hot food, and a place to sit down. Some people say that even when you see the Grand Canyon with your own eyes, it doesn’t seem real. Well, when you go all the way down and come all the way back up, then you know it’s real.