Tuesday, July 10, 2018 - Updated: 8:35 am
Walking 289 kilometers (180 miles) through the Spanish countryside in 13 days gave 16 young adults from the Diocese of Pittsburgh plenty of time to get to know each other. More importantly, this community got to experience the very life of God in and through each other.
Since the ninth century, millions of people have embarked on an epic pilgrimage, El Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). The tomb of St. James the apostle is the destination in Compostela, Spain. Billed as the “pilgrimage of a lifetime” the young adults from Pittsburgh embarked on a profoundly enlightening, spiritually nourishing and physically challenging trip which began May 26 and ended June 10.
“The pilgrims who went on the Camino are a witness to the mercy and grace of God,” said Jacob Williamson, diocesan Director for Young Adult Outreach and the leader of the pilgrimage. “They have now been empowered to invite others in the relationship with him and his Church.”
The group, which included Father Benjamin Barr, ate breakfast together each morning and were briefed on where their walk would take them for the day. The first hour was walked in silence, which allowed for each person to reflect and pray to start the day. They went to daily Mass at a local chapel or church and even celebrated outside among the rolling hills. In the town of O Cebreiro the pilgrims went to a mountaintop chapel where a Eucharistic miracle occurred in 1300. The monstrance is still on display. At this Mass, blessings were read in Spanish, Inglosh, Italian, Korean, Polish and Russian.
“The priest there was so inviting and loving,” said Alex Zimmerman. “He hugged every pilgrim and presented them with a stone. I felt as if Christ said Mass for us.”
After walking 20-30 kilometers each day, the group settled into an albergue (hostel) to have dinner and discuss the day’s events and personal experiences. They encountered many other pilgrims of various ages and races along the way. They shared the path, and meals and resting areas, with people from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Some were surprised to find the Pittsburgh group walking the path for religious reasons, as the basis of the Camino is the way that the remains of St. James were transported to Spain after he was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem.
Nick Wytiaz connected with a couple from Calgary, Alberta over hockey and Catholicism. Wytiaz, a pharmacist at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, said this couple makes one religious pilgrimage each year. They spotted his Penguins jacket and struck up a conversation. Their son, Steve, is also a pharmacist and holds a similar position at a hospital in Calgary.
“We exchanged contact information and now I have a place to stay if I ever find myself north of the border,” Wytiaz said.
As prepared as the Pittsburgh pilgrims were by packing lightly, the Camino is still a rugged course over rough terrain through intense weather conditions. It was colder than many anticipated and it rained most days. The longest portion of the Camino was the 32-kilometer walk to Samos. Then, after knees swelled and breaths were shortened, the group eventually came in view of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
“Reaching the end and entering the cathedral was a beautiful culmination of a life-changing journey,” said Joni Mulvaney. “I had the chance to pray right in front of the tomb of St. James and it was really moving. I sensed something special about the place and kept praying for St. James’ intercession: ‘You who followed Jesus so closely, help me to follow him.’”
Zimmerman was thankful for the opportunity to go to confession at the cathedral. “It was packed with pilgrims,” she said. “It was a great way to end the day.”
The pilgrimage became an actualization of the journey of life, Wytiaz said, as it was a tangible microcosm of our path to out final destination, the true end of our pilgrimage in heaven. “I felt a sense of unity and connection with those walking beside me and those who have walked before me,” he said.
With the 16 pilgrims now back in Pittsburgh, they will continue their journey to grow the church at home. They plan on hosting a regular young adult book study, forming a Frassati group and taking their skills in the Spanish language to assist in Hispanic ministry.