In the year 1213, St. Francis of Assisi left his humble dwelling in the mountainous region of Umbria and began a journey that would take him two whole years to complete. He was aware that thousands of pious men, women, and children were making their way from their homes and traveling on foot to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. When he heard the stories of what motivated these pilgrims to trek hundreds, even thousands of miles through the countryside risking life and limb, he felt moved to make the journey himself and visit the burial site of one of the great Apostles of Jesus Christ.
Since then, millions of people from all over the world, from all walks of life, from all religious faiths (and some from no faith whatsoever), have made their way to Santiago de Compostela and have descended upon it from all sides. Some choose to travel from the Pyrenees, some from Portugal, and some from the Mediterranean. Songs have been sung about the walk, movies have been filmed, and books have been written. All of them trying to tell the story of an experience that since the ninth century has captivated the hearts and imagination of people around the world.
What’s the allure of this pilgrimage? Why are so many drawn to it? Maybe it has something to do with St. James himself, and what we know about him. He, along with his brother John, was called by Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to leave everything behind and become a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). We know that he brought the Gospel to the Iberian Peninsula and then, on a pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, was captured by Herod and beheaded. He was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. Devotion to him quickly spread, he was adopted as the patron saint of Spain, and his remains were placed in Galicia where to this day they are venerated by the Church.
Or maybe the allure of the Way simply has something to do with our innate desire to explore, our yearning for adventure. Just as how people love rock climbing or bungee jumping, there is also a natural desire to explore our spiritual lives. The adventure is all about straying from the ordinary and into the extraordinary world of possibility. The possibility that there is something greater than me and my problems and my challenges. I once heard a priest preach in his homily that the world of today does not suffer from a crisis of faith as much as a crisis of imagination.
Maybe this pilgrimage that so many people have walked is a response to a desire to feed our imagination, to inject a sense of wonder and adventure. I mean, the journey of faith is all about venturing. God ventured into the world as he took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It was a dangerous venture that would eventually lead to his death. The Apostles ventured to the ends of the earth to preach and baptize, a dangerous venture too because it eventually led to their deaths. The Church ventures to this day, proclaiming the Good News from the pulpit, the classroom, social media, to every corner of the world. The danger has not subsided; it’s still very present and has taken on many forms.
Two years ago, when my classmates and I celebrated 30 years as Belen alumni, we got to talking about the year 2019 and how we will all be turning 50. Then an idea hit me. Why not do something together, as a class, a band of brothers? While we were students at Belen, we studied together, traveled together, played sports together, were mischievous together. Now, as middle-aged alumni, why don’t we pray together as we continue our life and faith journey? Thus, our pilgrimage was born.
Yesterday, along with 20 members of the Belen class of 1987, I flew to Spain to begin our Camino de Santiago. For the next week, there will be 20 middle-aged pilgrims weathering the elements of the Galician countryside, sporting their newly acquired hiking shoes and woolen socks, making sure that their arthritic feet stay dry, their ragged bodies stay hydrated, and their plump legs un-chafed (I have three tubes of Desitin for the occasion). From what I have been told, we will look more like mobile pharmacies than religious pilgrims. I wonder what St. Francis would think of these state-of-the-art wayfarers.
As we begin this Holy Week and journey together as a community of faith towards the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, know that I and the class of 1987 will take with us the intentions of the Belen Jesuit family. We know that there is much to be grateful for and much to ask for. We will humbly take both gratitude and petition with us along the Way.
May Jesus, who is the hope of all the world, through the intercession of his Blessed Mother, bless the Belen Jesuit community with the grace of knowing that He is risen and risen indeed.
Fr. Willie ‘87