I Would Walk 500 Miles
6/1/2018by James Jeffrey
The rugged pilgrimage route to Compostela leads Knights on a path of faith and charity
Michael Cebulski was cold and soaked to the skin as he desperately looked for somewhere dry to rest. In the remote Spanish village, no one could be found except for an angry-looking man and woman trying to corral a bull.
Trudging through the rain and praying for guidance, Cebulski finally came to a small church. Its doors were locked, but a dry patch remained under its entrance archway. There, he got into his sleeping bag and out of his wet clothes. He awoke the next day warm and refreshed, pondering yet another example of God’s grace during his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.
“On the Camino, away from bills, family and commitments, it’s easier to surrender yourself and let the Holy Spirit work on you,” said Cebulski, 60, a professional orchestral musician and a member of Father Thomas O’Reilly Council 4358 in Decatur, Ga. “I heard people say the Camino will provide, but the Camino is just a path. God will provide.”
In the summer of 2013, Cebulski completed the ancient 500-mile pilgrimage route to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of St. James the Greater (“Camino de Santiago” is most commonly translated as the “Way of St. James”). He is one of countless Knights of Columbus who have donned backpacks and hiking shoes and followed the yellow arrow and scallop shell markers across the pastoral breadth of northern Spain. They often return spiritually changed — and charged — witnesses of faith, fraternity and charity.
THE JOY OF GIVING BACK
The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage extends along numerous routes throughout Europe into Spain. The most popular starts on the French side of the Pyrenees in Saint Jean Pied de Port and continues westward for about 500 miles (800 km) to Santiago de Compostela.
Samson Elsbernd, 33, a member of St. John Paul II Council 4901 in Vacaville, Calif., made the pilgrimage twice, completing the full French route in 2009 and then walking the shorter 13-day Primitive Route last summer, just before his wedding.
Elsbernd, who likes to visit religious sites during his travels, was attracted to the Camino because of “the large number of churches on the route for silent reflection and prayer.”
He added, “Because you are also tired, you end up in a different mental and physical place, which helps you to connect more.”
Kevin Campos, 25, was one of five members of St. Anne Council 10540 in Gilbert, Ariz., who responded to the challenge that their pastor, Father Sergio Fita, made to parishioners: “Wanted: 10 brave souls willing to walk 500 miles in 40 days.”
In the summer of 2014, Campos and the other young men from St. Anne Parish undertook the Northern Route, a less popular and more arduous path to the north of the main Camino, during unseasonably bad weather.
Due to a bad knee injury, Campos required a lot of assistance from fellow pilgrims.
“I was often at the back, and it gave me a new, humble perspective. I realized how weak I am and needed the others,” he said.
One of the young men who joined Campos, John Caballero, recalled, “Walking with my fellow brothers, if someone had an injury, or a bad blister, I noticed that I could help by giving of myself. I started realizing I had never really known charity and giving.”
Although it was constantly raining, and the journey was stressful and even miserable at times, it proved to be a beautiful experience.
“So that got me asking,” Caballero said, “what was it that was filling us with joy, in a way that alcohol and drugs never managed to do in my life? It was because I was getting close to God through the Eucharist. We had Mass every day, and no matter how tough the day had been, everyone cheered up at Mass. I became happy as I opened to something greater that I hadn’t encountered before: a sense of community and the sacraments.”
This led to Caballero, 32, reassessing the Knights of Columbus, whom he had encountered before in his parish but whose invitations to join had previously not appealed to him.
“I viewed them as this group of old guys who play golf together,” he said, “but after the Camino I saw that these men were pillars — men who have wisdom — and I realized my misconception of them.”
Two months after returning from the Camino, Caballero joined Council 10540 and found that lessons he had learned on the pilgrimage continued to bear fruit. He began working as the council’s youth director and was then offered a fulltime job running the parish’s youth ministry.
“It came about,” he said, “through my stepping into a group of men who are disciplined and focused on how to give back.”
THE END IS THE BEGINNING
By his own admission, Michael Cebulski is a keen talker, and over hundreds of miles of walking, he spoke with lots of pilgrims. Each had a different story to tell, though there was one theme he noticed often repeated by older pilgrims.
“Time and time again they told me they were most proud that their children had come back to the Catholic faith, and so they were walking in gratitude for that,” Cebulski said. “As a parent, they did the most important thing by giving their children their faith.”
In Cebulski’s case, he had thought about walking the Camino for some time, and his summer work schedule was open.
“I wanted to do something physically challenging that also had a strong spiritual element, and the Camino kept coming up in books, articles and television shows,” he explained.
Unsure whether such a venture would be financially possible, Cebulski prayed and also asked others for prayers.
“Unexpectedly, my council gave a donation in support of my journey,” he said. “So, I went on the Camino with the intention to trust, obey and surrender to God.”
At the end of their journey, pilgrims behold the Greek letters Alpha and Omega — Christian symbols for the beginning and end — etched in the stone façade of the cathedral in Santiago. But as Elsbernd observed, the letters are in reverse order.
“First, there is the Omega as it marks the end of your pilgrimage, followed by the Alpha marking the beginning of your post-Camino life,” he explained.
“The Camino had a profound impact on my values and changed the way I live,” Elsbernd continued. “It taught me how I don’t need so many material possessions, and how even when I had pain on the pilgrimage, I was the happiest I’ve been in my life.”
Despite lessons learned, the pilgrims who have completed the Camino are often left pondering how to square what the journey revealed to them with the reality and demands of modern society.
“During the Camino, even though everyone is a stranger, people are still so nice to each other,” Elsbernd said. “So afterward, you’re left thinking: Wow, why aren’t we like this normally, even with people we know? Why is that Camino spirit so hard to transition to regular life?”
According to Campos, the Knights of Columbus provides a way to live out this “Camino spirit.”
“On the Camino, we were all working toward the same goal, but in life, people’s goals are often contradictory — and so we stop helping each other, even sabotaging each other,” Campos said. “We must find a form of community to work toward the same goal, and the Knights of Columbus are one way of doing that.”
Caballero shared a similar perspective.
“I’ve got a different outlook on life because of the Camino and being part of the Knights,” he said. “It’s about waking up each day and saying: Yes, even though I might not know what the day has in store, whatever happens, even if it goes wrong, I will offer it up to the Lord. That’s where joy comes from.”
JAMES JEFFREY is a British freelance writer working between the United States and United Kingdom. He made the Camino pilgrimage in 2017.
The Origins of the Camino de Santiago
•The remains of St. James, the brother of St. John the Apostle, are believed to have been brought to northern Spain from Jerusalem, where he was martyred in A.D. 44. The location of his tomb, however, was forgotten in the third century, following the persecution of Christians in the region.
• Pilgrimages began in the ninth century, after a shepherd named Pelayo was drawn to a field by a bright light or star around the year A.D. 813. The city name of Santiago de Compostela, where the saint is presumed to be buried, is derived from the Latin for field of the star (campus stellae) and the Spanish name of St. James (Sant Iago).
• During the reconquest of Spain for Christianity in the Middle Ages, it was claimed that St. James appeared during a number of battles at crucial moments to turn the tide in the favor of the Christian forces. St. James would eventually be named the patron saint of Spain.
• Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Santiago de Compostela grew in importance and prestige, at times even eclipsing the pilgrim routes to Rome and to Jerusalem, when the Holy Land was inaccessible after the crusades. St. Francis of Assisi made the journey during this period, founding several monasteries along the way.
• The various routes of the Camino, snaking across Spain to Santiago, grew to include hostels to house and protect pilgrims that were run by the Knights Templar and later by the Hospitallers of St. John. Collectively, these paths provided a framework for the reemergence of Catholicism throughout Spain.
The Camino Pilgrimage Today
THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO pilgrimage is more popular than ever. Last year marked the first time that more than 300,000 people officially participated — walking at least 100 km or biking 200 km.
After Spain, the most represented countries were Italy, Germany, the United States, Portugal and France. Pilgrims most commonly cited religious reasons (43 percent) or spiritual/cultural reasons (47 percent) as their motivation, whereas only 9 percent approached it strictly as a cultural experience. Men and women participated in nearly equal numbers, with 27 percent under age 30 and 17 percent over age 60.
For more information, visit the official website of the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela: oficinadelperegrino.com