My Camino

A Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – April 25 to May 6, 2002

by Chris Forbes

St. James Santiago in Spanish, was the first apostle to be martyred, apparently in Jerusalem, but legend says his miraculously preserved body was discovered in the ninth century in a field located in Galicia in northwest Spain.  How his body ended up in Spain is a mystery, but miracles began to happen and the faithful have flocked to the site ever since.  A church was built there and the town of Santiago de Compostela grew up around it.  The grave of St. James became an important Christian pilgrimage site in Europe, but what set it apart from all the others for me is that it has always been a walking pilgrimage.

In Spanish it’s called El Camino de Santiago, in English The Way of St. James. There are actually many different pilgrimage routes to Santiago from all over Europe, but the most popular is the Camino Frances that winds from France right across northern Spain.  It has also become a celebrated cultural undertaking for people of all faiths, so much so that it has been designated a World Heritage Cultural site by UNESCO.  All the routes have the same destination: the magnificent cathedral in Santiago with the silver casket holding the relics of St. James.

Everyday at noon a pilgrims’ High Mass is celebrated in the Cathedral and most of the year it is packed with arriving pilgrims, for while the pilgrimage began in the middle ages it is still very much a modern devotion for Christians.  At the pilgrim’s Mass on feast days and other special days a huge incense burner, the great silver botafumeiro, is swung from the roof of the transept to incense the pilgrims, purifying them, countering any unpleasant pilgrim odors, and creating a great spectacle.

Over the years a lively commerce in support of the pilgrims has sprung up along the Camino with inexpensive or free dormitories (refugios) every few miles, and a host of hostels, restaurants, shops and bars to feed and slake the thirst of thousands of pilgrims.  So, with a little planning what may at first seem like a daunting expedition can easily be undertaken as a serious and inexpensive walk.  I decided to undertake it in the spring, while the weather was cool and the number of pilgrims modest.


It takes four or five weeks to walk the 800 km (500 miles) to Santiago from the French/Spanish border.  I had only ten days, so after buying a special guide from one of the many websites on Santiago I decided to start my pilgrimage from Ponferrada.  This town is about 140 miles to the east of Santiago.  I reckoned that if my feet gave out and I could not walk the whole way I could take a bus.  So I flew to Madrid, took a bus to Ponferrada, walked all the way to Santiago averaging about 20 miles a day, spent the nights in hostels along the way, and took a couple of days in Santiago to sightsee and contemplating what I had done before returning to Pittsburgh.

St. James the Great is of course the patron of our parish in Wilkinsburg.  I had known about the pilgrimage for a long time, and Fr. Metzler once gave me a brochure about it, but it took many years for me to make the trip.  I decided to do it, to make my Camino as I call it, to take time alone to shed some tears and fears, to get closer to myself, and to chat with my Lord and his friends.  I wanted to see if there was anything more to insert into my life as I wend my way into old age.  I wanted to be alone for a while doing something physically and mentally difficult, to see if my life could support greater spirituality, and to help me plumb my depths and make some adjustments.  I walked through some lovely countryside, got lost along the way, found it easy to be understood, trusted that there would be somewhere to stay at the end of the day, thought and prayed a lot, and let St. James help me find my Camino.  It more than met my expectations.  One day I would like to do it again, next time all five hundred miles of it.  To anyone who would like to try it, I’ll gladly offer help and a “Buen Camino!”


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