Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage for Jesuit

Jesuit Father Tom Curran, president of Rockhurst University, stands near a mileage sign 34 miles into his Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in July 2015. Only 463 miles to Santiago de Campostela. (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Jesuit Father Tom Curran, president of Rockhurst University, stands near a mileage sign 34 miles into his Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in July 2015. Only 463 miles to Santiago de Campostela. (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims have walked the 800km, 497-mile Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in France and Spain. They have walked it for many reasons — religious, spiritual, physical or perhaps just to be able to say they did it.

The Camino begins at several locations in France and Spain, and ends at Santiago de Compostela, where St. James the Apostle, patron of Spain, is believed to be buried.

Although their numbers had declined in the first half of the last century, recently more than 200,000 pilgrims annually have made the walk. One pilgrim was Father Tom Curran, S.J., president of Rockhurst University. On Sept. 22 he made a presentation to students about his July pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. The presentation was the inaugural of the College of Health and Human Services Lecture Series in the university’s newest classroom building, Pedro Arrupe Hall.

Saint James (Apostol Santiago in Spanish) was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem in 44 AD. According to Spanish legends, he had spent time preaching the Gospel in Iberia (Spain), but returned to Judaea after the Virgin Mary appeared to him on the bank of the Ebro River. One legend says that after his death, James’ disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula for burial. Off the coast of Spain, a bad storm capsized the ship, and the body was lost. Sometime later, it washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallop shells. This gave rise to the symbolic carrying of a scallop shell by pilgrims. Father Curran was given a scallop shell by colleagues at Rockhurst, and took it with him on the Camino.

In the year 813, a hermit, Pelayo or Pelagius, claimed to have “discovered” the remains in a wooded area. Pelayo and his brother hermits alerted Bishop Theodomir of Iria, and led him, his entourage, and workmen to the site. After clearing the undergrowth, they found a ruined building with an altar and three burials in a lower level crypt. A piece of parchment discovered in the sarcophagus identified the remains as St. James and two disciples, Theodore and Athanasius.

The bishop announced the discovery to Alfonso II, king of Asturias and Galicia, who shortly thereafter informed Pope Leo III and Charlemagne.

Construction of a church on the site, a monastery and cloister for its guardians, and a fortified wall around the area was ordered by the bishop, who also declared St. James the patron saint of Spain.

Pope Leo XIII sent a special commission to verify the relics and, with the Archbishop of Compostela, declared their authenticity on Nov. 2, 1884, in an Apostolic Letter, Deus Omnipotens.

The Camino de Santiago, the main pilgrimage route to Santiago follows a pre-Christian, Roman trade route, beginning at several places in France and continuing through northwest Spain to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, ending at Cape Finisterre.

The relics of St. James and his two disciples are encased today in a silver urn in a crypt directly beneath the main altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (“field of stars”). According to a common medieval legend, the dust raised by traveling pilgrims formed the Milky Way. Mass and a blessing by incense at the cathedral officially mark the completion of a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Father Curran recalled the 200 lb. brick of burning incense swinging on wires above the heads of the pilgrims in the cathedral, bathing them in fragrance. “We were all stinky pilgrims, so the incense bath really was a blessing,” he added.

During the Middle Ages, the Camino was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages, along with those to Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned. Over the ensuing centuries however, due to wars, epidemics including the plague, and the spread of the Protestant Reformation, fewer and fewer pilgrims made the walk. In the 1980s a widespread rediscovery of the Camino de Santiago began, thanks to Don Elías Valiña Sanpedro, a parish priest who dedicated the last decade of his life to placing markers along the Camino Frances, the route beginning in France. Early pilgrimages began at home, as pilgrims would set out on the Camino from their front doors. Father Curran and his fellow pilgrims took the first steps on their pilgrimage at St. Jean Pied du Port just across the border in France.

Making the pilgrimage had been a goal of Father Curran’s for a number of years; he had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2011 with other college presidents. He professed his final vows to become a Jesuit in May; he had been a member of the Society of St. Francis de Sales religious order.

Father Curran, who walks to and from the barber shop, the Tivoli Theater and around the university neighborhood and rides his bike about 100 miles each week, was prepared for the walk, but quickly discovered that when clothes, food, even a sleeping bag, is carried in a large backpack while walking about 18 miles a day in temperatures hovering between 95 and 100 degrees, it becomes imperative to lighten the load. “The very first night I started giving things away,” he said with a laugh. He added, “I never prayed so much for the sun to go down!”

He had traveled without wristwatch or camera, but extra socks, and shoes, some food, anything non-essential, were given to others or left at an albergue. And, after his return to Rockhurst University, his fellow pilgrims sent him almost 1,500 photos taken on the Camino, in the towns and in the Cathedral shrine of St. James.

Pilgrim’s hostels (albergues), dormitories with beds, provide overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial or pilgrim’s passport, which is stamped at each stop along the way. Pilgrims stay one night each at albergues along their route, and continue on their way by 8 a.m., the next morning. Having their credencial stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or albergue provides pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, and serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the pilgrimage was made on an official Camino de Santiago route, qualifying the pilgrim to receive a compostela (certificate of completion of 100km [approx. 62 miles] walking or 200km [125 miles] on a bicycle or donkey). Father Curran spoke of nights on the Camino when a fellow pilgrim sleeping in the dormitory snored so loud it kept others awake. “I laughed myself to sleep one night,” he recalled, “there was nothing else we could do.”

His presentation was one of recollections and reflections.

He reflected that he mentally divided the pilgrimage into three sections: the first part of the journey was for the body. He recalled wearing his socks inside out as a way of preventing blisters, which apparently worked as he only suffered one blister. That was good. “You walk 6 or 7 hours per day in that sun. Sometimes you’re walking with someone, and you entertain each other. But mostly, you’re walking alone, in silence. When it’s time to stop, you check into an albergue, go to Mass or take a shower, eat something and go to bed.”

The second part of the journey was for the mind. A video clip showed Father Curran and his fellow pilgrims trudging along the unpaved Camino. Because it is basically a wide dirt path, pilgrims must walk, ride a bicycle, horse or donkey. No motorized traffic is permitted. The men and women were singing, and the audience strained for a minute to decipher which sacred hymn. When the words to “You are My Sunshine” became clear, the audience burst out laughing.

He reflected on the scriptural roots of the Camino. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (15:24-28), he says,

“I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain and to be sent on my way there by you, after I have enjoyed being with you for a time … So when I have completed this … I shall set out by way of you to Spain; and I know that in coming to you I shall come in the fullness of Christ’s blessing.”

The third party of the journey was for the soul. Father Curran reflected that, “This wasn’t a nice hike, or a check off on a bucket list. We walk to cope with an innate restlessness. Walking propels stream of thought. I thought of Ignatius (Loyola) as a pilgrim, a soldier, and a seeker. I thought of my companions on the journey, my fellow pilgrims and those who have gone before me. Why I walked became clearer the closer we came to Santiago de Compostela. We need both solitude and the presence of other people. And I realized that although there were some discomforts and aches and pains, my walk was a cakewalk compared to the 300 million refugees in the world who are walking to find a home. My Camino was a walk in the park.”

Father Curran showed photos of the Camino, of fellow pilgrims, several cathedrals and shrines. He spoke of the Knights Templar, the hospitaller Order that protected pilgrims during the Middle Ages, and the many hospitals along the Camino to care for pilgrims. (In one town, he said, there are 12 hospitals serving pilgrims.)

He and his fellow pilgrims met people on pilgrimage from all over Europe and Asia on the Camino. “I met a pilgrim from Korea,” Father Curran recalled, “walking the Camino for the third time, barefoot!”

He placed the scallop shell in company with other shells, pebbles, mementos from around the world, prayers and notes at the foot of a cross raised on the highest point on the Camino. It truly was a holy place, he recalled.

He admitted that 70 percent of those who walk the Camino de Santiago do so for non-religious reasons.

Why did he make the pilgrimage? And why did his group continue walking another 60 miles to Cape Finisterre, Latin for the end of the earth or land’s end.

“We are all seekers of a deeper understanding. We need a community, we need one another. The imagery of the Liturgy describes our (Catholic) faith as the Pilgrim Church on earth. For us, who are members of the Pilgrim Church on earth, to walk is a metaphor for life. For me, this pilgrimage was a gift.”


October 26, 2016
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph