When asked what kind of music they talked about, Conley said the three were inspired by Brian Wilson’s music and life story, which has been the subject of several recent movies. The co-founder of the Beach Boys has struggled with mental illness throughout his career.
“We talked about his life and what a fascinating musician he was,” Conley said, adding that when they weren’t praying or talking on the Camino they would listen to folk music, especially Bob Dylan, Weezer, and the Avett Brothers.
Along the way, Conley said there were many opportunities to evangelize, although he said he thought as many as 80% of those they encountered were not believers.
When asked why he thought they were there, Conley said, “I think there’s something in the human heart that’s a desire for a quest, something that’s difficult, that is physically demanding, but at the same time has sort of a spiritual element to it.”
“And those that we walked the Camino with that are not of any particular religious affiliation, I think do it for those reasons — it’s a challenge, it’s physically demanding, it’s painful. And at same time there is a spirituality to it,” he said.
"Oftentimes, they don’t know the full story of why this Camino exists — the fact that there’s somebody at the end, who’s buried there, who was an apostle of Jesus Christ and a friend of our Savior,” he continued. “And that’s the reason why this trail, if you will, has been beaten down for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“And so they have some sort of vague understanding that this is important, and it has a deep history to it. But they don’t fully understand how really important it has been throughout the history of Christianity, going back to the ninth century, when the tomb of St. James was rediscovered by the bishop, through this miraculous field of stars, ‘Compostela,’” Conley said.
After walking so many miles, when people finally arrive at the cathedral where St. James is buried, it is “quite an emotional moment.”
“But [for many] it’s not really for Christian reasons,” he said.
The Camino, however, may touch them later in ways they might not have predicted, Conley said. He noted that a young Franciscan priest he met used the Camino to reach out to unbelievers.
“He gives everyone at the end of Mass this little pebble with a yellow arrow on it,” like the arrows found on the shell-shaped signs that help guide pilgrims on the Camino.
“He basically said, just remember that God loves you, and that he has a plan for you, and this arrow is pointing the way out for you,” Conley said.
“You see [something happen] with people, especially those [who] maybe haven’t even darkened the door of a church in years. I noticed there were even people that were crying because it's a beautiful church, the candles are lit, there is beautiful singing. It’s a real spiritual moment for them,” he said.
“They may put a pebble in their pocket and go on, but then someday they may pull that pebble out and look at it. Especially if they’re having a crisis in their life. It could be a source of strength and consolation for them,” he said.
Zelda Caldwell is News Editor at Catholic News Agency based in Washington, DC. She previously worked for Aleteia, as News and Culture editor.