A Spiritual Journey Along The Camino De Santiago

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October, 2014



By Jim Ignasher

     In O’cebreiro, Spain, stands the Catholic church of Santa Maria la Real which contains relics and a statue connected to a 14th century Eucharistic miracle. The story relates that in the year 1300, a priest was celebrating mass during which the communion wafer and wine that Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ were suddenly transformed into real flesh and blood.   It is said that when the transformation occurred, a nearby statue of the Virgin Mary turned towards the altar and bowed her head. The church has been regarded as a holy pilgrimage site ever since, and this past August, Father Francis Santilli and Dennis Sousa, both of St. Phillip Church in Greenville, stood before those very relics contemplating the miracle before beginning an eight-day trek, by foot, across the Galicia portion of Spain from O’cebreiro to Santiago de Compostella, a distance of nearly 100 miles. They were not alone, for each year tens of thousands of religious pilgrims travel to O’cebreiro to view the relics as part of their walk along the Camino de Santiago.

     The Camino de Santiago, a.k.a. the Way of Saint James, is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes dating to the 9th century. Some begin in France, others in southern Spain, ending at the Cathedral of Saint James in the city of Santiago de Compostella. Those who travel the pathways do so on foot and each must decide for himself where to begin their journey.  

     Those who walk the Camino do so for many reasons. For Father Santilli, the trip was the fulfillment of a desire he’s had since he was a seminary student.   For Dennis Sousa, the Director of Religious Education at St. Phillip’s, it was a response to God’s call to experience and grow in his faith.  

     Their walk along the Camino required them to cover between 12 and 13 miles per day, which left their knees and feet somewhat tired by evening. They traveled “light”, using walking sticks for support on hilly terrain, and carrying only the bare necessities in their backpacks. The path they traveled dates back more than a thousand years. Some parts are paved, others gravel, but most portions are no more than a dirt foot path which in some places is worn deep into hillsides by the trodding of millions of feet over the centuries. The trail meanders past picturesque medieval towns and beautiful rolling countryside dotted by farms.

     Looking through photographs that Dennis had taken of their journey, I noted the isolated rural character of the route and asked if they ever feared for their safety. Neither man did. “The Camino lends itself to a dependence on God,” Dennis explained, “All you carry is what’s in your backpack.” Both trusted in the Lord to provide the rest.

     “There are places to stay along the route,” Father Santilli added, “and people told us we would need reservations, but we never made any. We trusted in God to find us accommodations, and we always had a nice place to stay and ate good meals.”    

     The trail is well marked with yellow arrows, but on one occasion when they came to a fork in the road they inadvertently took the wrong way. After they had gone about 75 yards they heard people calling to them. Although they didn’t understand the language, they understood they were on the wrong path. ‘Who knows where we would have ended up.” Father Santilli said. “We weren’t carrying any maps.”  

     Father Santilli also recalled a day the two of them became lost in the town of Sarria. As they stood on a street corner contemplating which direction to go, a man from a second floor window suddenly called out, “Do you want the Camino?” and then gave them directions to get back on the trail. “In moments like that,’ Father Santilli stated, “God provided to keep us from getting lost.”

     Both men were pleasantly surprised at the camaraderie they encountered with fellow pilgrims who ranged from college students to the elderly. Most pilgrims can be identified by a scallop shell worn on a lanyard around their neck, or attached to their backpack. The scallop is the traditional symbol of the Camino and is seen virtually everywhere along the route. There are several legends explaining its significance. The most popular states that the sarcophagus containing the body of St. James was lost at sea during a storm while it was being transported by ship to Spain for burial. A few days later it was said to have washed ashore in Galicia, Spain, covered with scallops. Scallop shells are plentiful in Galicia, and it is said that early pilgrims carried them home as souvenirs.   

     Metaphorically speaking, the ribs in the shell of the scallop merge together and meet at bottom, thereby representing the different pathways of the Camino leading to the tomb of Saint James.  

     Of symbolic importance to Father Santilli was the reoccurring image he encountered of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, whose feast day is June 27th, the day he was ordained a priest. He also encountered images of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he is named for. Father Santilli also noted that like himself, St. Francis also made a pilgrimage to Galicia 800 years earlier, in 1214.  

     Just outside the city of Santiago de Compostella the men encountered a seven verse poem about the Camino scrawled on a bridge and took note of the words. The poem, signed by Eugenio Garibay, asks passing pilgrims, “Whose voice is calling you?” The last four lines read, “The force that drives me on, I can never explain or show. The force that draws me to it, only the One above can know.” Both found special meaning in the poem.

     Later that day they entered the city where the Cathedral of St. James is located. The cathedral is the final destination of most that walk the Camino for it is there that St. James is buried in a crypt below the main altar.  

     Saint James was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles who was martyred in 44 AD which is why the cathedral is considered an important site to Catholics. As one enters they pass an ornately carved stone pillar atop of which sits the image of St. James holding a pilgrim’s walking stick. There was a time when pilgrims completing their journey would touch the base of the pillar, but over time countless hands have worn portions of it away, so physical contact is no longer permitted.

     The cathedral is a magnificent piece of architecture and craftsmanship. Construction began in 1075, and improvements have been taking place ever since. Mass is held daily, and Father Santilli was one of several visiting priests from different parts of the world who were honored with an invitation to help concelebrate mass.

  Father Santilli and Dennis feel that their journey was very rewarding, but found it hard to sum up into just a few words. “It’s one of those experiences that needs to be “unpacked” over some time” said Father Santilli. “I’m sure that the lessons of the Camino will be part of me for weeks and months to come as I continue to unravel its treasures and cherish its moments.” Both were extremely grateful, which Dennis summed up in this way, “I was grateful that we had made the journey safe, I was grateful for the opportunity to go on this pilgrimage, and I was most grateful that God had made Himself known to us in an intimate and personal way throughout each and every step we took.”


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