A local priest retraces his steps on ‘the Camino’ where he renewed his vocation and gained insights on the pilgrimage of life
By Father Scott Connolly
In the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to walk the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where tradition holds that St. James the Apostle was buried. Often called “the Camino,” this pilgrimage is an ancient journey with deeply religious significance.
To travel as a pilgrim is much different than as a tourist. It means journeying with an intention and a grateful heart. It is best to journey with no expectations or preconceived notions of what is supposed to happen.
The pilgrim is open to being changed on the journey, and when the unexpected happens, instead of asking, “Why me?” we ask, “What do you want me to learn from this?”
One step at a time
I went on this pilgrimage to renew my vocation to the priesthood and my ministry as pastor of Assumption Parish in Bellingham. I began my journey from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, on June 15, exactly 40 days before the feast of St. James on July 25.
Each day began with prayer and selecting one short Scripture passage to reflect upon. This centered my day and set the intention for that leg of the journey. I also chose to pray for 40 people who had influenced my spiritual life over the years. These practices (almost like our Lenten practices) helped me to focus and take each day — each step — one at a time.
A typical day on the Camino began about 5:30 a.m. because it is so much cooler in the early morning. I usually arrived at my destination (after a walk of about 17 miles) at midafternoon. After checking into the albergue (a dormlike hostel) I would claim my bed, take a shower and wash my clothes. Sometimes I’d take a nap, read a book or journal on my iPad, or go out to explore the town.
Many of us would get together for dinner and enjoy the local food and wine. Many times we celebrated a “pilgrims’ Mass” or a prayer service in the evening. These prayer experiences were some of the highlights for me.
Walking the Camino. Photo: Father Scott Connolly
I arrived in Santiago on July 24, and on the feast of St. James I was able to concelebrate the pilgrims’ Mass with the local bishop and about 30 other priests. The swinging of the botafumerio (a huge thurible, or censer) was the highlight at the end of the liturgy. The next day, I attended Mass and went to the crypt below the cathedral to kneel and pray before the remains of St. James. Many tears were shed on that day.
‘The Dance of Christian Life’
Before I left for Spain I had written in the front page of my map, “The journey doesn’t end in Santiago. The journey begins in Santiago.” Today, pilgrims can catch a flight right out of Santiago, but in the old days, once the pilgrims arrived, they had to walk back home.
I ended up publishing a book, "The Dance of Christian Life," from the musings I entered in my journal, and have made presentations about my pilgrimage to several parishes. Both of these activities have really been part of my journey back home from Santiago.
I am grateful for this sabbatical, and I know I will be processing it for years to come. About halfway through my journey, a wise man in Leon explained how the Camino is really a simple reflection of life. Just as the Camino goes from east to west, from the rising of the sun to its setting, so too does life.
Every step we take is one step closer to our last day on earth. Every breath we take is one breath closer to our last breath on earth. The journey is really from birth to death, from womb to tomb.
I officially ended my pilgrimage by traveling to Finesterre (which from the Latin means “the end of the earth”). As I watched the sun set over the Atlantic, I was reminded how much I look forward to the day when I will come to the end of my pilgrimage and cross over to meet the creator of it all.
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