Bishop Hying

‘Buen Camino!’ as we continue to walk toward God in this mysterious pilgrimage of life

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on August 13, 2017


       At the beginning of this month, I was blessed to walk a small part of the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route in Spain that leads to the beautiful cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the burial site of St. James, who was the brother of John the Evangelist and one of the 12 apostles. 

       James was the first to preach the Gospel in Spain, but returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by orders of King Herod, the first of the apostles to be martyred for the faith. The faithful brought his relics back to Spain, and in the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims made the arduous journey by foot to pray and venerate at his tomb. 

       In 2010, the film, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen, made this ancient and beautiful experience known to a wider audience. Today, the Camino is more popular than ever, with 350,000 pilgrims making the journey every year. Not all walk it for explicitly religious reasons, but it truly opens up minds, hearts and souls!

       Our group, principally composed of young adults from Gary and Milwaukee, walked 121 kilometers (75.19 miles) of the Camino in five days. Never having walked that far day after day with a backpack, I knew the pilgrimage would be challenging! The physical endurance of going up and down steep hills, aching joints and muscles, the psychology of perseverance and the sheer exhaustion was worth experiencing the beauty of rolling hills, deep forests, ancient stone villages, dark mystical churches, meeting inspiring people from all over the world and the joyous and prayerful companionship of our group. 

       Several times, I wanted to just lie down in a field and not get up, but we all endured. The experience was not as hard as it could have been, but was more difficult than I thought.

       During the Camino, many of us reflected on our experience of being humbled, not being as strong as we thought we were, needing to rely on the grace and power of Christ, while acknowledging our dependence and weakness. As unsettling as these insights can be, we need those moments that bring us to our knees, break our hearts, challenge our self-sufficiency and confront our radical poverty. 

       Only in humility and neediness can we receive the grace, mercy and love of the Lord. Jesus came to call sinners, not the self-righteous. Even in the midst of aching feet and stiff muscles, I felt a deep satisfaction in this pilgrim balance of glory and suffering, endurance and limitation, reaching the goal and feeling the pain of the journey. The Camino changes you.

       Every evening, we gathered at the local parish where we had stopped for the night for a Pilgrim Mass.  United with people from all over the world in the power of the Eucharist, we lived the universality and comm of the Church, deeply bound with people we did not know, praying in a foreign tongue, yet understanding the ritual and receiving of the Bread of Life as the sustenance for this pilgrim way. 

       The priests and parishioners joyously welcomed and loved us, and each Mass ended with a special blessing for all the pilgrims. This spirituality of pilgrimage captures the heart of our movement towards the Heart of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven. The Son of God comes from heaven to earth on a journey of love, peace, presence and mercy, so that we can make this opposite return from earth to heaven, making our pilgrim way towards God. 

       Teresa of Avila describes this mystical path as an interior journey to the Interior Castle of our soul where we will both encounter the fullness of God and our deepest self.  John of the Cross describes it as the Ascent of Mount Carmel; as we climb, we move past our sins, selfishness and false concepts of God, moving ever upward to a deeper and truer spiritual experience. 

       After climbing those Spanish hills and viewing ancient stone churches and fortresses, those images stir my heart to desire God in a deeper way.

       At the end of the journey, we reached the city of Santiago and entered the beautiful and dark cathedral. The magnificence of the main altar glittered in sharp contrast to the ancient stone. Shadowed side chapels beckoned with a beautiful array of statues, paintings and crucifixes, which vividly express the passion and power of Spanish Catholicism. Thousands of pilgrims lined up to venerate a statue of St. James and pray at his tomb. Gigantic bells tolled the hours, and on Sunday, the largest incense brazier in the world dramatically swung over the crowd, filling the ancient and holy place with the tantalizing fragrance of spiritual perfume.

       We were blessed to celebrate our own Mass in a magnificent chapel on Sunday afternoon. Listening to the Gospel of the Transfiguration, I was struck by the remarkable fact that the human remains of one of the three people who experienced this mysterious event rested just footsteps away from us.

       I pondered a reality both remarkably astonishing and staunchly prosaic - God simply uses people to accomplish his will here on earth. Jesus called folks like Peter, James and John, Mary Magdalene and Martha to follow him. Not necessarily the most intelligent, gifted or powerful, these individuals responded to the Lord’s invitation and struggled to believe and practice this new and strange way of understanding God and his transforming mercy.

       They dedicated their lives to proclaiming the Gospel and invited everyone they met to discover the same joy, freedom, peace and salvation they had found in Jesus Christ. This mission is ours as well, through the sheer grace and call of baptism. God uses us!

       In 1989, Pope John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day at Santiago. In his closing homily, he posed a central question to the millions of youth gathered there: “What are you looking for?  Are you looking for God? Our Christian tradition tells us that God is also looking for us.”

       On the beautiful and arduous Camino of Santiago, in the midst of hills, rocks, dust, sunlight and darkness, fellowship and solitude, exhaustion and exhilaration, we found the Lord we seek and he found us. 

       When you encounter other pilgrims on the Camino, you call out, “Buen Camino!” which means “Have a good pilgrimage!” As you keep walking towards God in this mysterious pilgrimage of life, I wish you a buen camino. Know you are loved and sustained by the God who passionately seeks us out and beckons us to the Kingdom.


       + Donald J. Hying

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