El Camino Speaks

For over 1,000 years, Europeans living north of the Alps who desired some divine blessing in their lives have made their way to the closest place on their continent where they could access the spiritual authority of an Apostle: Santiago de Compostela. The way to the traditional burial place of St. James began wherever home was, and the routes that were followed traversed most of the European continent, merging into one camino as they approached their final destination in Galicia. Some of those who walked to Santiago de Compostela as pilgrims kept journals, and those that survive provide not only a guide to the territory through which the pilgrims passed but also insights into the culture and religious life of their times.



Despite the secularization of much of Europe and the diminishment of specifically Catholic identity among peoples once firmly Catholic, the Camino de Santiago has surged in popularity in recent years, especially among Europe’s young adults. The number of pilgrims on the road increases with each passing year. Earlier this summer a local newspaper in León referred to the pilgrims passing through its city as an inundación (flood). The diocesan office for pilgrims in Santiago itself reported in August that over 1,000 pilgrims were arriving in the city daily, requesting their formal certificate of completion.

I had the privilege of being one of those thousands of pilgrims who arrived in Santiago de Compostela this summer after more than a month on the road, having walked from the French town of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. As I traversed 500 miles of the Iberian Peninsula, I found the solitude I needed to be renewed spiritually and restored to a healthier relationship with God, self and even the earth upon which I walked. That is what I had hoped for and expected from my journey.

What came as a surprise was the social life that also is part of the Camino de Santiago. After walking, pilgrims have to bathe, do laundry and, most important, take nourishment after intensive physical exertion. None of these daily tasks is done in splendid isolation. On the contrary, almost from the first day, fluid and transient communities develop among the pilgrims as they pass from town to town, from one refugio (pilgrim’s hostel) to the next. As pilgrims perform their afternoon duties, they cannot avoid doing them alongside others. Before long an easy familiarity develops among those who night after night take shelter under the same roof. Put simply, they become friends; fear or distrust among the pilgrims disappears quickly. An ethic among the pilgrims also develops: Allow those who need to be alone to be alone. Allow those who need rest to rest. Be generous. Everyone shares everything—medicine, food, know-how, wine. Tourists demand; pilgrims thank.

The result is that the interactions among these pilgrims come to look very much like scenes from the Gospel. Groups of young people sitting together in a field were a common scene, one person offering bread to the others, another wine, yet another slices of chorizo or cheese, all the while chatting, laughing or singing folk songs together. On other occasions, one person tended to the aching feet of another: offering a simple massage to an inflamed tendon or passing a needle and thread through an otherwise inaccessible blister (the preferred treatment for that particularly painful malady of the road).

In all of these moments, many languages were in use: Spanish, French, Italian, English and others. Those who knew two would cheerfully translate for those who knew only one; somehow, almost miraculously, the ongoing cross-translations made possible precise communication, no matter the linguistic differences of those gathered together. The daily experience of such kindness, concern and mutual trust invigorated me, restoring my faith in the fundamental goodness of our human race. As the pilgrims found themselves freed from mutual fear, wonderful experiences of compassion, mutual care and self-sacrifice for the common good naturally flourished. In such moments the reign of God did not seem very far away.

As the journals of past pilgrims reveal much about the culture and religion of earlier times, so what is happening on the camino among the pilgrims heading to Santiago today offers a window into what is going on just beneath the surface of our own times. It allows us a look into the spiritual life of contemporary Europe’s youth. (There are as yet surprisingly few North Americans following the camino.) To ask today’s pilgrims about their motivations for following this way to Santiago is to take the spiritual pulse of at least part of a generation. Each response was unique, but some common themes ran through them.

First, a very few were on the road solely for athletic or cultural reasons. For the sportsmen the camino was simply a test of physical prowess as they pushed forward toward their goal. Similarly, a few responded that their camino was primarily a cultural one. They wished to see up close the abundant treasures of the Middle Ages and other eras.

Perhaps less rare, but still rather uncommon, were those who saw their pilgrimage as a specifically religious exercise. Like me, they were explicit in their use of Christian vocabulary to express their motivations for walking to Santiago de Compostela. Among them were a young Lutheran seminarian from Norway, a Catholic professional lay catechist from Germany and a young Spanish couple who read the Gospels together as they walked ahead of me. References to prayer, seeking of spiritual favors, even penitence, were often part of their explanations.

Much more common was a third group, those who found it difficult to put their motivations into words but nevertheless seemed “pulled forward” by something deeply personal. One young Italian, after some quiet thought, told me in rudimentary English: “I need to wash my brain before I begin the next thing in my life.” Though these young people deeply enjoyed the experience of sitting in an informal circle in a field sharing together their bread, wine and easy banter, there was no indication that they noticed the Gospel parallels or eucharistic echoes in the experience that I recognized.

This third category of pilgrims seems to offer the most insight into what is going on spiritually in the developed world—if for no other reason than that those in this category were a substantial majority of those I met. I believe it is of great importance to take seriously the fact that on the one hand there are deep interior movements at work within these young people, but on the other they lack both a vocabulary and a system of symbols to name those interior movements.

The ongoing secularization of European culture and the postmodern abandonment of specifically Christian symbols and stories that previously gave sense to the world have resulted in a generation impoverished in its ability to express itself spiritually. For example, whereas previous generations of pilgrims held as their goal the eventual encounter with the potent relics of the Apostle James, before which they would beg for a miracle, for most of these contemporary pilgrims that “end-point” held little interest. Clearly, the understanding of relics, intercessory prayer and even the granting of miraculous favors that so moved previous generations of Europeans no longer has a place in the interior geography of today’s young. But little in the way of new imagery or vocabulary has yet taken its place.

But I perceived among many there on the camino a thirst for such vocabulary and imagery. A small group of Christians singing Taizé hymns in a crypt would soon gather a quiet and respectful audience of young pilgrims. Similarly, they were drawn to any chapel or church where there was a chance to hear Gregorian chant. When they came to know that I, a fellow peregrino (pilgrim), was a priest, they were often surprised. Questions followed. I experienced in such moments a surprising openness to the Gospel and the church—expressed simply and in a way that drew on the realities we were experiencing together on the road.

In the face of both this poverty of symbol and vocabulary and a searching openness to a fresh expression of spiritual realities, is the church sensing an opportunity for the “new evangelization” for which Pope John Paul II has so often called? Sad to say, the presence of the church on the camino leaves much to be desired. Though the camino is dotted with churches that are treasures of Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque architecture, the “presence” of a living church is tragically lacking. Though much of the impetus for promoting the camino and providing the necessary infrastructure by way of refugios along the way comes from dioceses, parishes and church-related organizations in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, what is really needed is the presence of clergy, religious and committed laity on the road with the pilgrims. But this was so regrettably thin as to be almost invisible.

Furthermore, with some notable exceptions, the ministry to pilgrims exercised by the parishes along the way was minimal or worse. In one case, the pastor-caretaker of a rather large refugio in an isolated village was not only inhospitable (a capital sin among pilgrims); he was downright mean. In others, the celebration of the Eucharist was accomplished with such haste and enacted with such little obvious sign of prayerfulness as to be scandalous. I could only fear that such liturgies served to further distance the young searchers on the camino from any sense that the eucharistic symbols and rites have anything to do with what is happening within them.

The exceptions to this impoverishment were like oases in a desert. The beautiful and ancient “Pilgrims’ Blessing” given by the priests at the historic refugio of Roncesvalles was a source of grace that endured with me for days. The unfussy directness of an aging priest who heard my confession one Saturday morning was an unexpected boon to me. The prayerfulness of the small Benedictine community in the isolated village of Rabanal del Camino was restorative after many hard days of painful walking. (Their small chapel was filled with young pilgrims as the monks chanted Evening Prayer the day I was there.) Sadly, such ministrations from the church to the pilgrims of today’s camino are all too few.

If there is one message the Camino de Santiago and its contemporary pilgrims speak to the church today, it must surely be: “We are hungry and thirsty and our feet hurt; walk with us, share with us your bread, give us the signs we need to understand where we are going.” The question remains: are we listening?

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