MENDOTA - Holy Cross students and staff offered a warm welcome to Father Tom Otto, Father Michael Pica and Father Adam Cesarek, the “Pedaling Priests,” as they rode into Mendota on April 20. The cyclists were first greeted by members of the Holy Cross Track Team who escorted them for the final two blocks of their 275-mile bike ride across the Peoria Diocese. As they entered the Holy Cross parking lot, the priests were cheered by the entire student body as well as members of the community.
The Pedaling Priests began their journey on April 16 in Nauvoo and along the way made stops in Macomb, Peoria, Washington, Streator, Ottawa, Oglesby, Peru and LaSalle before crossing the finish line in Mendota on Friday afternoon. Despite the challenges of snow, strong wind and rain that they encountered earlier in the week, by Friday the skies had cleared and some actual springtime temperatures returned to create ideal conditions for their visit to Mendota.
Their long-distance ride, termed a “prayer raiser” for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, was the idea of Father Michael. After becoming a priest in 2016, he was concerned about the small number of seminarians [a person recognizing a call to the priesthood] in the Peoria Diocese and decided to use his love of cycling as a way to build up vocations. “If we are joyful and living our life, the world needs to see that and see what is possible!” Father Michael commented.
After enlisting the help of fellow cycling enthusiasts, Father Otto and Father Adam, the first “Priests Pedaling for Prayers” ride took place in 2017. This year, the trio planned several more rides using different routes each time so they could make stops in other communities. In the coming years, Father Michael said he hopes to continue the rides until every parish in the diocese has been visited.
The reception in Mendota was especially welcoming due to the return of Father Otto, who previously served at three area parishes, Holy Cross in Mendota, St. Theresa in Earlville and Sts. Peter and Paul in Peterstown. After leaving Mendota, Father Otto became the Chaplain at OSF Holy Family Medical Center in Monmouth and Parochial Vicar at Immaculate Conception Church.
After greeting the priests in the parking lot with welcome signs and a balloon release, everyone moved to the school gym for an assembly. Holy Cross Principal Anita Kobilsek opened the program with a welcome and the students performed a special song for their guests.
Father Otto spoke first, thanking everyone and saying how excited he was to see everyone in Mendota again. “We left from the Mississippi River, a little town called Nauvoo, and over the last five days rode across the diocese to get here to raise prayers for religious vocations, especially for more priests for our diocese,” he explained. “We visited so many different schools and parishes and it was wonderful to see so many people praying with us.”
Becoming a priest
Father Otto then posed a question to the students, “How does someone find out that they’re called to be a priest?”
To answer that question, he introduced Father Michael who shared his personal story of becoming a priest. As a young boy, Father Michael said he and his brothers often visited their grandma and sat around the table enjoying treats. During those visits, his grandma would always ask them, “OK, who is going to be a priest?” She figured that one of the five would surely be called to the priesthood. None of them ever volunteered but Father Michael never completely forgot his grandma’s question.
As he got a little older, Father Michael decided he wanted to become a doctor. That lasted until he was in high school when he realized how many years of schooling were required to become a physician. At that point, his focus shifted to becoming a physical therapist, the same career as his father. “I wanted to help people and I really liked science,” he recalled. “My dad would talk to us about his patients - he really spent time and got to know each person and that was something I wanted to do.”
With that inspiration, he went off to Bradley University in Peoria to pursue a career in physical therapy. But by the end of his first year there, he was changing again and found himself really beginning to experience God’s love. Soon after, a priest asked him about his future plans. “I told him I wanted to be a physical therapist, get married, have kids, that’s the plan,” he said. “I had it all figured out.”
But the next question posed by the priest was one that changed the rest of Father Michael’s life. As the priest began asking, “Have you ever thought about,” Father Michael knew exactly how the question was going to end. He recalled bursting out with laugher because he immediately thought of his grandma and all those days sitting around the table.
He explained to the priest how his grandma had always asked the same question and that he was never receptive to the idea of being a priest. Even though he had served Mass and been around priests growing up, he had no idea of what it even took to become a priest. “I never asked but here I was years later and a priest was asking me the same question my grandma asked,” Father Michael chuckled.
But this time, the answer to the question was “maybe.” The next year Father Michael went to seminary where he received guidance that helped him understand God’s will for him. He then continued his seminary training in Minnesota and became a priest in 2016. Since then he has served at St. Patrick Church of Merna in Bloomington and St. Mary in Downs, calling the past two years as a priest “a great joy and pleasure.”
All three priests agreed that being called to a religious vocation has been joyful and exciting. Father Otto explained that it may be hard for young men to answer the call to priesthood but through these cycling trips, they hope to show that it is actually “life-giving and vibrant.” They also hope to change the perception that priests are all older or that their life is lonely. Mostly, they ask everyone to pray for guidance because each of us has a calling to serve God in some way.