Father Ed Rama, diocesan vocations director, celebrated Mass at Pinwheel Vista in Wawayanda State Park in Vernon on April 15. He led a group of local faithful, from teens to middle-aged, on a hike up Stairway to Heaven, a series of steep rock slab steps on the Appalachian Trail, to Pinwheel Vista. The hike was organized by the Vocations Office.

Faithful from all ages experience God’s peace during hike, outdoor Mass in Vernon

Their feet hurt, and their legs ached.

But the brief pain was worth it for a group of local faithful who braved a steep hike up the famed Stairway to Heaven on April 15 in Wawayanda State Park in Vernon Township. At the top, these 48 Catholics — priests, religious, and laity — got a rare experience of worshiping God while taking in panoramic views of his creation. At the top, at Pinwheel Vista, the hikers joined with participating priests for an outdoor celebration of the Eucharist.

The 2.6-mile hike, sponsored by the Vocations Office of the Diocese of Pater­son, gave the hikers lots of spiritual symbolism to ponder. They took on the tough climb up the aptly named Stairway to Heaven, a series of steep rock slab steps on the Appalachian Trail — representing life’s difficulties. When they reached the top, they were united with Jesus in the Mass — symbolizing heaven, where believers will be joined with Christ at the end of their lives. The hikers also found God in the sights of the rocks, trees, and small wild animals.

“The hike was a little difficult, but it was pretty,” said Cindy Matute, 16. She came to the Stairway to Heaven hike with 12 other young people and adult chaperones of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Paterson. “It strengthened my faith. I experienced Jesus in a natural setting and the Eucharist in an uncommon way.”

Joining the St. Anthony’s contingent was a broad array of Catholics, from young people discerning their vocation, to mothers with daughters, and to adults in their 50s. On the way up, the group stopped for Scripture and reflections about biblical events that happened on the tops of mountains, including the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor.

“The Stairway to Heaven, at times, was rocky and rough. It gave hikers a sense of the struggle of life and the journey seeking God,” said Father Ed Rama, diocesan vocations director, who helped organize the event. With help from a few volunteers, he brought a portable altar and everything needed for Mass up on the mountain, scaling its 900-foot elevation. “Up there, I felt close to God. We are also reminded that Christ is still with us in the Eucharist. It was peaceful.”

At Pinwheel Vista, hikers took in the view of the Vernon Valley, the Kittatinny Ridge, the Shawangunk and the Catskills. The wind blew through the trees during Mass, which took place under cloudy skies. The faithful sat on rocks or in patches of grass for the Mass. The rain held off until it started drizzling as hikers went back down the Stairway to Heaven.

“It was amazing to see a row of teens in front for Mass. They could have been doing anything else but chose to be there and experience it,” said Diane Morales, St. Anthony’s youth group coordinator. “It gave me an opportunity to spend more time with the Lord and complete the mission [the hike] — trusting in him and not in my own abilities.”

During the Mass, John Peter Zappe, a diocesan seminarian, made sure the wind didn’t blow anything off the altar during the Mass.

“This was an experience that was out of the ordinary,” said Zappe, a third-year student at St. Andrew’s College of the Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange. He talked with many of the hikers on the trail. “Being in the outdoors and being with everyone reminded us that God is among us.”

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