Two bishops experience 'river of humanity' on pilgrimage

For more than 1,000 years, various pathways have wound across northern Spain to the tomb of the apostle St. James in Santiago de Compostela.

Over that time, countless pilgrims have walked along these paths, known in Spanish as “El Camino” (“The Way”). Some have walked as a way to show sorrow for their sins. Others as a way to grow closer to God. Still others simply as an extended social event or adventure to experience.

These same reasons continue to inspire the thousands of men and women who walk the Camino every year as its popularity among pilgrims is renewed and expanded.

Among them this summer were Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, who walked 212 miles Aug. 10-23 along the oldest of the pilgrimage routes, the Camino Primitivo.

It was their third time walking to Santiago de Compostela together, having done it also in 2012 and 2013.

Encounters on the way

“Doing the Camino is a very earthy experience,” said Archbishop Coakley in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor. “You should see my feet right now — the blisters and bruises. It roots you in concrete reality. And that concrete reality, at least for me, is that I’m walking in the path of saints and sinners.”

That great mix of people is something that Archbishop Coakley called “the river of humanity.”

“You meet people from every walk of life, saints and sinners, believers and cynics, always kind of interacting with one another,” he said. “It’s really a microcosm of humanity and of the human experience.”

As they walked each day, it was natural for these two bishops to turn their thoughts to St. James, of whom they are successors as bishops.

When he, according to tradition, proclaimed the Gospel in Spain some 2,000 years ago, there were no Christians there.

The increasingly secularized Spain that these two bishops encountered, they said, is more like what St. James experienced so long ago.

“I think it’s appropriate to the whole notion of the new evangelization that this ancient way is being renewed in a land, Spain and Europe in general, that was once very Christian and is now very secular,” Archbishop Coakley said. “Our times, especially in Europe, are not so very different from the apostolic times.

“We cannot presume that the first evangelization that took place nearly 2,000 years ago in Europe doesn’t need to be renewed. It does need to be renewed.”

“There are many people who walk along the Camino as if God does not exist,” said Bishop Wall. “We had some really great opportunities to speak with people and to share the Good News with them.”

Bishop Wall recalled, “We met a person on the last day who was 100 percent non-churched. Everything was new to her. We sat down to a meal with her and had the opportunity to listen to what she was looking for and also to witness to our faith. I think we planted some good seeds in her life, and I’m hoping that they’ll come to fruition.”

Feeling connection

Bishop Wall was especially inspired in his pilgrimage by St. James since he is his patron saint.

“Each step really is a conscious choice to walk in those same footsteps that St. James walked in,” he said. “And each step is a conscious choice to choose Christ to reign supreme in your life as St. James did.”

As they took those steps, the bishops took in with the eyes of faith the beauty of the landscape that surrounded them.

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“I was repeatedly astonished by the natural beauty of the places that we passed through,” Archbishop Coakley said. “I got a lot of refreshment in that. It was just the experience of being immersed in creation, allowing the Lord to minister to me, in a certain sense, through the work of his hands in such a pure way.”

He shared many of these experiences with people around the world by posting photos and short messages on Facebook.

“It was an opportunity to share a few things, some of the sights, some of the experiences of the Camino that I knew others would be interested or inspired by,” he said. “It was a small way of perhaps sharing my own faith journey with others.”

When he started on the pilgrimage this year, Archbishop Coakley at first appreciated the break from the daily routine and challenges of leading his archdiocese.

“I would start walking and I would think, ‘What a blessing this is,’ ” he said. “I’d lift up my heart in prayer and gratitude to the Lord. All I have to do today is walk. No meetings. No appointments. No challenges except one foot in front of the next.”

About a week later his body led him to a different perspective.

“We’d start the day’s walk early in the morning before sunrise and I’d say, ‘Oh my goodness. All I have to do today is walk,’” Archbishop Coakley said. “My feet were swelling. I had blisters. It was becoming a burden.”

The eternal destination

The daily highs and lows of walking along the Camino culminate in the arrival in Santiago de Compostela, which both bishops said was emblematic of being welcomed into heaven.

“You’ve invested so much,” Archbishop Coakley said. “You’ve been looking forward to it for so many days. And to finally arrive is a great source of joy and reason to celebrate. It’s wonderful to linger in the plaza in front of the cathedral and to see pilgrims arriving and their expressions of joy, relief and celebration.”

“We talk about our earthly pilgrimage, which we ultimately desire that it ends in the new and eternal Jerusalem in heaven where there will be perfect joy,” Bishop Wall said. “Walking the Camino and arriving at our goal gave us a foretaste of the perfect joy that we’ll receive in heaven.”

Returning to their dioceses after walking along the Camino, the bishops say the pilgrimage will have an effect on the way they lead the people under their care.

“It certainly has shaped me and affirmed and confirmed elements of my own faith and spirituality,” Archbishop Coakley said. “I think it has a way of grounding me. I hope that is something that I’m able to express and transmit to others.”

Having walked along the Camino three times now, Bishop Wall encourages others to consider doing it and thinks he’ll do it again in the future — but not for a while.

“Right now, if you were to ask my feet, they’d say, ‘No,’” Bishop Wall said with a laugh.

Sean Gallagher writes from Indiana.