Members of the Catholic clergy from around the United States hiked 100 miles of an ancient pilgrimage this summer, relying on God to give them strength to endure suffering along the way.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, N.M., Fr. Gerry Baker of Owensboro, Ky. and Fr. Don Kline of Phoenix accompanied auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley of Denver along the medieval “El Camino de Santiago” in Spain from Aug. 21 to Aug. 28.
Bishop Conley said he was inspired to make the trek when he walked with a group of young people along the Camino last summer, but was unable to hike most of it because of a foot injury.
“Think of all the saints that have made that pilgrimage,” he told CNA Sept. 7. “All these saints down through the centuries walked the same path.”
“El Camino de Santiago,” or The Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage consisting of a network of trails all leading to the tomb of the saint in Santiago, Spain.
Pilgrims have been making the journey for well over a thousand years to commemorate the life and sacrifice of the apostle.
Along with his brother priests and bishops, some of whom are former seminary classmates, Bishop Conley completed 100 miles of the pilgrimage in seven days.
Although the requirement to be a certified pilgrim of the Camino states that walkers must complete 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, of the journey, they decided to complete 100 miles instead.
“It was a whole lot more challenging than we thought it would be,” Fr. Baker told CNA.
Beginning in O’Cebreiro, Spain, the site of a Eucharistic miracle which caused a statue of the Virgin Mary to bow her head, was the “perfect place” for the men to begin their journey, Bishop Wall said.
Beginning each day just after six in the morning with prayer, hiking until about 2 p.m. and then celebrating the pilgrim's Mass in the evening, the men completed as many as 24 miles in a day to reach their final destination.
“Patience” and “humility” were among the chief lessons Fr. Baker took away from the journey.
“It was a challenge for a group of middle-aged men,” he admitted.
Archbishop Coakley said his faith in God was strengthened by the trials he encountered along the Camino.
“I think one of the things I've been focusing on a lot is trusting in providence, trusting in the grace that God offers in each moment,” Archbishop Coakley said.
“One of the things I experienced – we all experienced – was you never know what the day is going to hold,” he said. “So, you just have to take it as it comes and recognize the hand of God in everything.”
This lesson has proven especially important to Archbishop Coakley, as his aging father has been battling illness.
“I think one of the things I've been focusing on a lot is trusting in providence,” he added.
Enduring fatigue, blisters and even bed bugs along the way all paid off when the men reached Santiago.
Bishop Wall said in the “midst of the little sufferings” of the Camino, he was better able to unite himself with the suffering of Christ and others.
Bishop Conley called the pilgrimage of Santiago a “microcosm of life” saying, “It sort of encapsulates, on a small scale, what our life is like.”
“Along the way we meet people, we practice charity and forgiveness, but we have hope that there is a goal and we're heading towards someplace that is our destination, ultimately, it's our eternal destination: Heaven.”
Arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago on Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine, Bishop Conley was invited to be the main celebrant of Mass.
Bishop Conley, who chose St. Augustine as his confirmation saint when he converted to Catholicism in college, said he received a “great sense of gratitude” and “confirmation of my faith” from having completed the journey, especially on such a “significant spiritual feast day.”
Bishop Wall was the main celebrant of Mass at the tomb of his and Bishop Conley's namesake, St. James, in the crypt below the cathedral the next morning.
“For me it was very important to make the pilgrimage to the burial place of my patron to be able to reflect on his life,” Bishop Wall said. “It was powerful and something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Although the pilgrimage has been made by Catholics for centuries, many modern pilgrims making the trek do not realize the religious significance of their journey.
“I just hope and pray that more people realize this is a religious pilgrimage,” Bishop Conley said, because “this pilgrimage is built upon centuries of people's faith.”
Bishop Wall said that he “highly recommend” anyone, but especially “people of faith” make the journey themselves.
“I think that on that pilgrimage, you ultimately will find the Lord, you ultimately will encounter the living Christ.”