Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 12, 2004
Hearts mend during pilgrimage
Trekking ancient spiritual Spanish paths leads to friendship with man and God
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
In early September, I set out for Europe for a two-month trip. I had been invited to a week-long workshop in Rome regarding parish mission ministry with Oblate participants from all continents. Why not throw in a visit to Lourdes as well as a unique pilgrimage in Spain which was just a few kilometres out of the way?
Thus came the opportunity to follow through on a dream planted in my mind some two years ago by one of our missionaries who had done the pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostella in Spain.
For the pilgrimage aficionados out there, in the early Church there were three holy sites worthy of the greatest veneration: Jerusalem where Jesus died, Rome where Peter and Paul died, and Santiago di Compostella in Spain where James, Jesus' cousin died. Santiago is the Spanish name for St. James and Compostella means "field of stars" where he's venerated.
Santiago pilgrimageFor the last 10 centuries Christians have gone on pilgrimage to Santiago and they still do. A young 22-year-old Spaniard told me that he had completed the Camino once before and that he was doing it for the second time. A woman from France had covered a total of 1,500 km over a period of four years as she started from Le Puy-en-Velay in France.
I walked from Roncesvalles near the French border all the way to Santiago in western Spain, a distance of 750 km. I had given myself six weeks to accomplish that. I made it in 30 days.
I had an initial shock when after attending a very moving Mass in an amazing Gothic church in Roncesvalles, we headed for the dorms where we were to spend the night. To my surprise there was a single dorm with about 60 bunk beds where men and women were preparing to rest for the night.
My initial shock was soon overcome as I proceeded to prepare for bed and for the following 30 nights I never encountered any problem as people spontaneously adapted to the situation and respected the privacy needs of others. Someone in our group had mercifully thought of bringing along earplugs, which successfully warded against the rumble of snorers in the dorm.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast we loaded our 10-kilo packsack on our shoulders and headed out for the hills along narrow paths maintained with excellent signs that indicated clearly the way to go and what turns to take. On occasions we walked for several kilometres on regular highways, but most of the time paths had been prepared alongside the roadway thus minimizing the possibility of accidents.
Welcome refugeIn the afternoon we stopped at a refugio - a sort of hostel run by the Church or the community. These were godsends because they offered a place to go when one called it a day. A nice shower and washing of clothing was followed by a little snooze before suppertime.
Then one could use the kitchen to prepare the evening meal if one chose to. These refugios would charge about three Euros (about $4.50) for the night. The ones run by parishes would not charge anything and sometimes would offer a free meal to the pilgrims who in turn were free to make an offering if they wanted to. The Spanish people go all out to provide the best services possible for the pilgrims as these refugios are to be found almost every six or eight kilometres on the Camino - the pilgrimage road.
What did I gain from doing this? First, I got to meet fine people from all walks of life and from all over the world, spending quality time with them as we walked and shared. I connected with a 25-year-old Austrian man who is a devout Lutheran engaged to a Catholic woman. When he found out I was a priest he had a long list of issues he wanted to raise with me. We had a good honest exchange that enriched both of us, I believe.
Later, a fine man of 35 from Sweden joined us. The three of us got along just great. We came to a small community which listed a refugio. We thought of calling it a day but the place turned out to be lacking in most things, including water, so in spite of the fact that we had already walked 30 km that day, we decided to push on to the next community another eight km away.
It turned out that we found ourselves walking higher and higher into the clouds that surrounded the lofty mountainous area we found ourselves in. There was no traffic on the road and we felt a deep joy at being together sort of lost in a deserted area with the sun breaking through occasionally as if wanting to check out how we were doing.
God's joyWe were doing great, feeling almost euphoric, with joy and laughter welling out of us. A stranger meeting us might have suspected that we had been smoking or drinking something. A better answer for our state of mind might be found in Jesus' promise: "When two or three gather in my name I'll be there with them."
We eventually arrived at a small village called El Acebo, very tired and hungry, hoping to find a place to rest. There was a hostel. The host told us: "I have a room left that has three beds for you. For 10 Euros each, you may have this room plus dinner now and breakfast in the morning." "God is so good and so are people!" I thought to myself on my way to the shower.
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