Epilogue – Back home

The gorgeous picture above was sent to us today from our friends Magda and Dorota.  You might recall that I wrote earlier about giving them each a Miraculous medal in Santiago before seeing them off on their continued journey to Finisterre.  With an eye for composition, this is the photo they took of their journey’s end and the medals I gave them.  I was stunned.  This is simply beautiful.

Back to work!  Back to our parishes!  Back to our families!  We’re slowly crawling back into our old routines, and although we’re glad to be home, we still miss the excitement of every new day on the Camino.  We’re still feeling peculiar spasms and occasional aches in our feet, almost as if they are telegraphing our brains, asking what time the hike will start today.  I don’t have the heart to tell them that today there will be no wool socks and no boots.  We’re taking the car.

Since coming home, I’ve had the chance to meet several of the folks who supported us on our trip on this blog through their prayers and encouragement, and it’s been a real joy to share stories with them.  Many were people I didn’t know before we left, so I’m grateful that this pilgrimage has brought us new friends here at home, as well.  I look forward to meeting even more of you in the near future.

Some people have asked if I will continue blogging.  I’m not sure, but occasionally I do post musings, pictures and my recorded homilies on my Facebook account.   I hope to see you there.

Arriving at Dulles, we were very grateful to hear that Hurricane Florence had been repeatedly downgraded and wasn’t posing a threat to our area.  After piling into our rental car, we were just too exhausted to speak.  We’d been awake for close to 24 hours, and we just wanted to get home.  Nevertheless, there was a particular moment when we all spoke to one another in telepathic signals, clairvoyantly discerning the urgent message we had to share with one another.  We needed to find a Five Guys.   1200 calories later, we were back on the road.

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America.

On our flight home, Air France managed to maintain their predictable standard of excellence in customer service.  Friendly and attentive flight crew, extended legroom, a wide selection of streaming movies and music, Camembert cheese and cool cucumber salad, wine, fresh fruit, and yes, they lost my luggage…again.  This time, they have no idea where it is.

I believe the video below accurately represents the exhaustive search for my backpack that is currently underway by Air France’s “Top Men”.

 

It’s good to be home.

 

¡Buen Camino!

-Deacon Bil-

Probable W3W location of my luggage: gangways.code.ordain

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Thank you!

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Thank you for supporting us! Thank you for praying for us! Thank you for entrusting us with your prayers!

We are grateful for our parishioners, friends, fellow pilgrims, hospitaleros, the wonderful people of Spain, the priests, sacristans, shopkeepers and complete strangers who smiled at is and wished us “Buen Camino”. To all the new friends we made from the United States, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Germany, Poland, France, Australia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands – we enjoyed your company and your friendship.

And to our families, for not calling us crazy when we said we were going to do this and for praying for us in our absence.

And especially to Almighty God, who leads all pilgrims and guides them towards His Son, Jesus Christ.

God bless you all!

-Father Marco Schad-
-Deacon Juan Ortiz-
-Deacon Bil Carter-
-Patrick King-

Day 23 & 24 – Santiago de Compostela

On Wednesday we woke up and knew it would be a day unlike all the others. We were less than three miles from the Cathedral of Santiago. We were just outside the city and so close to the goal of our pilgrimage. For me, I couldn’t help but think of the many years I’ve thought of completing this, not knowing if I would ever get the chance. And now we were all so close.

We emerged from our albergue and into a dense fog. Our gait was not as aggressive, not as fast as usual. We didn’t have the task of getting ahead of the midday sun before its arrival would sap us of our strength and slow us down as it had so many days before. We just had to walk down a gentle hill and into the city. We wanted to savor it.

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Santiago city limits. Excited, exhausted, exhilarated, all at the same time.

Eventually, the fog gave way to the sight of the spires of the cathedral. Deacon Juan was so excited, he gave everybody a hearty back slap. I didn’t see mine coming and it almost knocked the wind out of me, but I completely shared his excitement.

Along the Camino, we carried a booklet called the credencial which is used to collect stamps every day that you hike. Once the booklet is completed, you take it to an office near the Cathedral and wait with many other pilgrims looking to get their Compostela, which is the parchment certificate of completion.  After a clerk examines the booklet, the pilgrim receives the document written entirely in Latin and containing the Latin form of the pilgrim’s name and the city they began their pilgrimage in. Also presented is a certificate of distance traveled. That document is in Spanish. The wait was about an hour, but I don’t recall anyone complaining. This was well worth it.

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My Compostela! This is the document all pilgrims get if they’ve walked over 100km or ridden a bicycle over 200km.
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This document is a distance certificate. This shows that I walked 505km from the city of Burgos. This document is in Spanish instead of Latin.

Every day during the week, there is a pilgrim Mass offered in the Cathedral at noon. Everyone starts filling the pews about an hour earlier, so we found a place to sit and spent the time admiring the beauty inside.

Every Catholic knows that any Mass you go to, anywhere in the world, is the same liturgy. It may be in a different language, but the readings are the same, the parts of the Mass are the same, and most importantly, the Eucharist is the same. Santiago offers one more feature that pilgrims have come to love about the Mass here. The botafumeiro! (incense thurible).

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The botafumeiro (literally – “smoke thrower”) and its early 17th century pulley system. When this thing swings, it’s full speed, all the way across the transept of the church.

Whenever incense is used in Catholic liturgy, it is almost invariably dispensed by a minister known as the thurifer who swings a metal censer called a thurible from the end of a small chain. In Santiago, the thurible is five feet tall and swung from a pulley system attached to the ceiling high above. A team of men hoist it upwards and with a succession of swings and tugs on the rope, the thurible is soon swinging the entire length of the transept of the church. Fast. The pulley system is the same one that was installed over 400 years ago.

Immediately after Mass we headed over to the sacristy and were pleased to find out that we would be able to have our own Mass the next day. We opted for the earliest available time, which was 8:30. We walked out of the cathedral in a daze. We met our friends, Magdalena and Dorota who told us that they were continuing on to Finisterre, which is a promontory on the west coast of Galicia, an additional 45 miles past Santiago. They were pleased to know that we could offer them another chance for Mass in the morning before their departure.

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Father Marco celebrating Mass ad orientem as Deacon Juan and I assist. As Father pointed out in his homily, we were about 15 yards away from the tomb of the Apostle during this Mass.

We had hoped for a small group of our friends at this Mass, but only Dorota and Magdalena were present at the time we had to start Mass. We were very glad to have them with us. And then a funny thing happened. Because the chapel mandated that we celebrate the Mass ad orientem, and we opted to sing the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei in Latin, we were unaware that people had heard us and were drawn to the chapel. By the time we turned around, we saw people grouped outside the chapel and several of the pews filled. It was a fitting end to our series of Masses in Spain. We had hoped to attract people to the Mass, and we had done just that.

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Father Marco preaching in the beautiful chapel we were assigned at the Cathedral. Our vestments were red for the votive Mass of St. James.

After Mass, we wished Dorota and Magdalena well and I blessed two Miraculous Medals for them and gave them a blessing as well. I was very glad we got to meet them and witnessing their strong faith was encouraging. Sometimes we had a slight language barrier, but when you see two young people who know that the Christian life is powered on the Eucharist and prayer, you know everything you need to about their character.

After they left for their continuing journey, I walked out of the chapel and climbed the small metal staircase directly opposite to do something I’ve been waiting weeks to do. Throughout our trip, priests we’ve met have sent us off on our journey with the request that we give the Apostle un abrazo (an embrace) when we finally made it Santiago. At first, Deacon Juan and I thought this was just an idiomatic expression, but finally, one priest told us that it is meant literally. Once we got to the top of the staircase, still in our vestments, we stood behind the large sitting statue of Saint James that adorns the main altar, and we literally gave him a hug.

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Deacon Juan embracing the Apostle. Thank you, Saint James! Pray for us!

After embracing the statue of the Apostle, we finally got to do what all pilgrims before us have come to do for 1000 years, and it was humbling and extremely moving. We descended another metal staircase and knelt in the small crypt before the remains of the Apostle, and thanked God for His graces that got us to this point. We thanked the Apostle for His prayers of intercession and quietly, we each said farewell to this amazing place.

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Entrance to the crypt containing the mortal remains of the Apostle James.
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This picture was taken from the kneeler in the crypt. The ossuary containing the bones of the Apostle is beneath a pendant star, symbolic of the story of the bones’ discovery. This tomb contains the remains of a man who walked with Jesus Christ and was the first of the Apostles to die for the faith. That still amazes me.

Tomorrow we head back. We have a hectic day of travel involving a taxi, a rental car and four airports, all beginning at 4:25 a.m. We will miss this incredible adventure, and we will always thank the good Lord for putting the strength in our legs to walk and the words in our mouths to preach along the way. We made some wonderful friends and they remain in our prayers.

Schad, Carter, Ortiz and King. Out.

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Today’s Mass – Votive Mass for the Memorial of St. James
Prayers were offered for the intentions of Pope Francis and for the repose of the soul of Bob Pollonowski
W3W address: outlines.leap.design

Day 22 – Monte do Gozo

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Monte do Gozo.  This is the last stop before entering into the city of Santiago de Compostela and only about two miles from our destination.  The name means “Mount of Joy” because it was the first point on the Camino where the spires of the cathedral could be seen, telling them that their long trek was finally over.  Today there are some obstacles in the way of those spires, but the city itself can still be seen clearly from the hill.

Our entire hike today was about 14 miles, and a fairly tough one as much of it was up steep hills, but still there was a sense of satisfaction from seeing the distance markers decreasing down to almost unimaginable numbers from what they were only a few weeks ago.  After starting over 320 miles ago, it’s hard to believe that the expansive plain of the meseta, the busy streets of Burgos and León, the once-distant and seemingly impenetrable mountains of eastern Galicia and the rolling farmlands of Lugo and A Coruña are behind us.  In fact, everything is behind us.  The beautiful sentiment of this place is that for 1000 years, pilgrims before us have stood at this point, now marked by a monument, and looked over the city of the Apostle.  God is good.

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That’s the city of Santiago, right over Father Marco’s head. It may still look far, but we’ve come to see objects on the horizon as being much closer than they appear.

So today was the last chance we would have to look upon many of the things that have become so common to us.  The distance markers, the breathtaking beauty of every vista, the Spanish people invariably offering a “Buen Camino” to us as we pass, or perhaps a Galician “Bo Camiño” instead, the daily breaks for a cold orange juice, the centuries-old churches that dot the landscape and offered us a haven for our daily prayers as we passed through sleepy towns, the livestock, the roosters, dogs, cats and sheep that look at us as if we’re the millionth pilgrim they’ve seen pass by, the plains, the mountains and the fields full of grain and corn, the ubiquitous Galician hórreos (granaries), the public drinking water spigots put along the path to refresh the pilgrims, the lingering aroma on paths through eucalyptus forests, the fruit trees overflowing with apples, pears and figs – all of it under the cerulean blue sky of Spain.  It was a privilege to see them all, and we will miss them.

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An hórreo – these are all over Galicia and are emblematic of the region. They are narrow, raised granaries that are usually on a set of stone or concrete pedestals. Some are functional, but many are purely ornamental.
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Cold drinking water. Everything along the Camino is aimed at helping the pilgrims, and so are the people.
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This little church was locked when we arrived today, but we sat in the shade and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours here before moving on.
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Leaf litter on a path through a forest of high eucalyptus trees. Yup, smells like Vicks.

Walking for hundreds of miles can change you in unexpected ways.  When we began, we all commented on the seemingly endless meseta, with little variation or respite from the monotonous straight paths that took days to complete.  Then we groaned as the high mountains appeared on the horizon, knowing that we had to get over them one day soon.  Nothing in life is a single step, but everything begins with one.  That much became clear to us.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray, and then He calls the Twelve.  The reading lists them all by name and calls them “Apostles”.  The word comes from Greek and means “the ones who are sent”.  I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate Scripture reading myself if I’d tried.  By our baptism, we are called so that we too can be sent.  Each of us is charged by Christ to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to the entire world, just as the Apostles did, just as James felt the call of the Spirit to come to Spain.

The mountain is a recurring theme in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament.  There is one commonality to every ascent – you are supposed to be fundamentally different when you come back down.  Moses receiving the Law on Sinai, the Transfiguration of our Lord, David’s ascent into the Hill country of Judah, Abraham taking Isaac to sacrifice him, the people who heard Jesus preach in His Sermon on the Mount, and ultimately our Lord climbing Golgotha to offer His life for our salvation and for His glorification, show that God speaks to His children when He calls them to a higher place.  You can’t go back down the same way you went up.

A pilgrim is meant to be changed; all of them in different ways, but all of them more focused on the will of God in their life and their commitment to serve others.  I pray that tomorrow, as the four of us make our last descent of this adventure down into the city of Saint James, we leave something behind on the mountain, and bring something new back down.  I pray we are better men, fathers, husbands, sons, priest, deacons, bosses and most importantly, humble servants of Christ.

Saint James, pray for us!

 

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Today’s Mass – Tuesday of the Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time
Prayers were offered for the intentions of Ray & Patty O’Toole and Family, Billy & Nicole Connolly and Family
W3W address: meowing.wicket.spud

Day 21 – Salceda

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Every day a little closer. Today we reached the small town of Salceda, only about 17 miles from Santiago. We can push this thing out in just one day. We’ve done more than this before.

But we’re not going to do that.

Instead, we’re walking about 12 miles tomorrow and stopping again, just shy of the city limits of Santiago. The original intention was to do this so that we could have a very short walk into Santiago on the day of our arrival, but now we’re discovering a new joy in this plan. As we’ve been arriving early in each town, we have time to sit and enjoy a beer (or sometimes a delicious orange juice) on one of the many terraces that bars usually have in Spain. In doing so, we see the stream of pilgrims filing past, and it has occurred to us, many of them are now our friends. We know so many people now. Many have joined us for Mass, or stayed in the same albergues as us. Some have seen us suffering with our feet and have offered assistance, and others just were fun to talk to along the way. Now that we have taken a much more leisurely pace, we see them all passing us again.

Several weeks ago, a pair of somewhat skeptical young Polish girls appeared in one of our Masses and we spoke with them and got to know them. After that, it become somewhat comical, because it seemed we were running into them everywhere. Then we met other Polish pilgrims who said they had heard about these Americans clerics offering Masses, giving blessings and praying for the people they met. We’d become minor celebrities among the Polish representation on the Camino!

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The Maryland gang with our friends Magdalena (l) and Dorota (r).

Today I was sitting with Deacon Juan and we were thinking of the few pilgrims we’d lost sight of. As dads of daughters, we also naturally get nervous when we see young women traveling far from home. (It’s a dad thing.) We said, “where are those two Polish girls that we used to see everywhere? I hope they are ok.” Within an hour, from our perch on yet another terraced bar, we saw them across the street and they actually ran over to greet the four of us. They were eager for a blessing, and to know when our next Mass would be. I told them that we are hoping for a big finale in Santiago, and we would contact them if we are fortunate enough to get into a church when we arrive.

Salceda is very small, and hard to actually qualify it as a “town”. It’s one of the few places we’ve seen so far with nothing at all resembling a church. But there is a kitchen in our albergue, and we set up for Mass there. Once again, friends came. Our friends from France and Spain assembled for Mass. When I realized that I had forgotten some of the items we needed for Mass, I ran back to the room to get them. On the way down, I saw three ladies sitting in front of the albergue having a conversation. I recognized them as being the three Polish ladies that had checked in at the same time we did. I introduced myself as a deacon and explained that a priest was also with us, and that we were about to start Mass. Before I could get the actual invitation out of my mouth, they all jumped up simultaneously and got very excited. One woman managed to tell me that she was “looking for us” because she heard there was Catholic clergy among the pilgrims on the Camino. Another woman actually knocked over a chair on her way to the Mass. That’s the faith in Jesus Christ we all need.

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Four very happy pilgrims from Poland, two from Spain and two from France after our Mass this evening. The Polish ladies asked us if they could sing an entrance hymn, and they gave a beautiful rendition of “Ubi Caritas”.

A fourth woman from Poland, Nina, was also eager to discuss the faith with us. Nina is a very intelligent and wise young woman who has a deep desire to know Jesus Christ better. It was a real pleasure to have a conversation with her this evening. I was happy to give her a blessing after we spoke.

Come to think of it, I should also mention that every time a pilgrim asks for a blessing, I am overcome with a sense of humility. I am truly honored that they asked me, a sinner myself, yet very happy that they realize the power of God’s blessing that they should ask for it from a priest or deacon when they get the chance. All of us need to understand the power of seeking blessings. If you speak with a priest or deacon, never hesitate to ask for a blessing. It is a grace on both parties.

As I am finishing this blog entry, I have been sitting at the reception desk because this is where the best WiFi coverage is. I looked up and saw a small puppy looking at me from outside the window. I went outside with him and in the distance, I could hear his mother howling, so I knew he had gotten lost. I offered him water, but he didn’t want it. I had nothing else, so I prayed for him to get back to his mom. So I gave him the only other thing I had. A blessing. I think he liked it.

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My newest friend getting a diaconal blessing, right before the albergue owner took him back to his litter and fixed the hole in the fence.

So many things on this trip have been blessings to us, as well. The ability to have Mass almost every day, the privilege of praying for so many personal intentions both in the Mass and in our personal prayers, the wonderful hospitaleros who take care of us and of course, the other pilgrims who are all eager to greet the Apostle when we arrive to Santiago. Even the blisters have been blessings. This experience should teach us all that in our lives, we are surrounded by blessings in the people we know and the communities we live and serve in. May God grant us the grace to always see that in them.

Don’t stop believing!

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Today’s Mass – Monday of the Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time
Mass offered for – The intentions of Adam Joseph Rison
Prayers were offered for the intentions of Mariangeli Ortiz, Beth Hill, Jody Reynolds
W3W address: spoiler.constraints.contradictions

Day 20 – Boente

You know what?  My feet don’t hurt.  I haven’t been able to make that claim for a while.

Today we set out for the small town of Boente.  It was about 12 miles from our last location, and for us, that’s become a rather routine stroll.  After the agonizing pain yesterday that kept me up all night, today was a pleasure.  We all stopped in the city of Melide for a hearty lunch.  Everyone opted for a steak and salad except me.  I’m in Galicia after all, and it would be a crime if I didn’t have some pulpo a la gallega.  Delicious.

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Pulpo a la gallega. That is, octopus, Galician style. Hey, don’t judge me.

We got to our albergue and realized we had struck gold.  Our own room!  Our own bathroom!  Our own little personal shelf with individual power outlets for recharging our devices!  Did I mention – our own bathroom!!

The accelerated schedule we’d adopted recently in order to reunite with Father Marco and Patrick cost us our “day off” in Portomarin, but this worked out even better.  Being Sunday, there is no better day for rest, and we arrived about 1:30 in the afternoon, took care of our laundry and shower, and then we all took naps.  All this siesta business is starting to make a lot of sense.  The beautiful town church is directly across the street.  The albergue owners told us that the church only has one Mass a month, and today was the day.

Deacon Juan and I had eaten within an hour of the Mass, so we elected to not serve, but to simply sit in the pews tonight.  Additionally, we served in the vigil Mass last night, so there was no obligation on us.  Father Marco introduced himself to the priest who had just arrived and asked if he could concelebrate the Spanish Mass, and for the first time, the answer was “No!”…followed by “I’ve done five Masses today.  You can be the main celebrant, and I will take a break for a change!”  So Father Marco was the sole cleric in the sanctuary for Mass, although I did have the privilege of being the Lector.

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The interior of the beautiful Igrexa de Santiago in Boente.

The priest was a wonderful (and grateful) man named Father Rodrigo Rua, and he was thrilled at the good fortune of meeting some pilgrims who could give him well-deserved break from his arduous Sunday routine.

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Father Rua treating us to some beers and great conversation after Mass.  This good priest has 19 parishes throughout the diocese.

Father Rua told us a lot about the current state of the Church in Spain, especially here in Galicia.  Overall, there are some points of hope for growth, but the clergy is simply overwhelmed with responsibilities and it causes pastoral work to suffer.  At one point he joked that he has a home, but he doesn’t see why because he lives in his car anyway.  As beautiful as the culture and the people of Spain are, and the gracious way they receive guests, it is always painful to hear about the state of the Church in the country that did so much to provide the faith to us.  As someone who grew in the Church in Puerto Rico as a child, I ultimately have the centuries of Spanish priests who came to the island to thank for the legacy they left and the faith that was given to me.

Everyone in our group is feeling great.  We’re strong, and getting very excited about the next few days.  I’ve asked everyone to ramp up the picture-taking!  Keep praying, and thanks for the support you’ve been sending us.  It matters a lot to us!!  God bless.

 

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Today’s Mass – Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mass offered for – The repose of the soul of Michael Hackert
W3W address: realm.upstarts.delude

 

Day 18 & 19 – Portomarín / Palas de Rei

You can’t spell Spain without ‘pain’ – Patrick King

(Late entry! I wrote this last night but couldn’t get WiFi until today.)

When we left Samos on Friday, Deacon Juan and I knew we had to make up a lot of miles to catch up with Father Marco and Patrick, so we pushed out the longest walking day of the trip yet. After 26 miles, we finally reached Portomarín. The entrance into this city is quite dramatic. Pilgrims entering by foot must cross a high bridge that spans the river that runs well over 100 feet below. Once across the river, there is an imposing staircase that is climbed before one is welcomed into the city. By the time I reached the staircase, I really wasn’t sure if I could even climb it. My feet were so sore that each step was torture. Deacon Juan and I stayed in a very nice albergue with a great restaurant only a few yards away.

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The bridge to Portomarín. You can see the staircase at the distant end. At the top right you can see the church (Igrexa de San Xoán).

On Saturday Deacon Juan and I made the last 16 mile stretch to catch up with the rest of our group, and the punishment I put my feet through the day before made today’s hike just as difficult. What we saw along the way was quite a shock. The long, solitary hikes across a barren landscape are long behind us. Now the streets are teeming with hikers on their way to Santiago.

When we passed the town of Sarria yesterday, we passed the 100km marker that indicated the last possible place a person can start the Camino and still receive credit for doing it. What had just recently been a meditative and tranquil exercise is now something akin to a human Iditarod. The narrow path that leads us to Santiago was filled with packs of noisy, excited and crisply dressed day trippers, and they’re easy to spot. They show no signs of wear or fatigue. They aren’t limping, stopping to take off their shoes or caring for injured feet with an assortment of tape, bandages or creams. In fact, they generally espouse a rather exuberant attitude that is a bit startling to the “veterans” who have been slogging it out for the last 200 miles or more.

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A distance marker. These are virtually everywhere along the route once you get to Galicia. The number on the marker indicates the precise distance left to reach Santiago.

When we reached Palas de Rei, we met Patrick and Father Marco waiting at the albergue, who already had a frosty mug of cold beer waiting for each of us. We shared war stories and got cleaned up and ready for Mass.

Mass at the town church of San Tirso was beautiful. We once again asked the pastor if we could join, and he graciously allowed us to vest for Mass. Father Marco concelebrated, Deacon Juan proclaimed the Gospel and I served as deacon of the Eucharist.

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You can’t tell from the picture, but the thunderstorm outside made it feel like the walls would fall down.

Without question, the combined 42 miles covered in the last two days up hills and down hills, over pavement, gravel, loose stones and solid bedrock have been the most physically grueling so far. At night, both Deacon Juan and I woke up at various times because of sharp pains in our feet. Sometimes, just sitting still the pain can continue to send excruciating jolts through our soles and calves.

In fact, the very word “excruciating” means “from the Cross”. The Camino gives us a very real reminder of what Christ did for us. Through His pain and suffering, He brought us out of sin and into redemption by the victory of the Cross. On every Camino, Christ is our companion, every step of the way. And that’s no coincidence, because the word “companion” just happens to mean “one you share bread with”. The Bread of Life takes every step with us, through every pain, and through every victory.

We’re on to the home stretch now. We’ve got four days of walking to cover about 45 miles. Keep praying!

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

W3W address: washy.emblem.plurals

Day 17 – Samos

This might have been the most exciting day yet on the Camino.

Deacon Juan and I woke up in O Cebreiro, high up in the Galician mountains. We headed out at 6:30 into one of the densest fogs I can recall ever seeing. Had it not been for our head-mounted lights that we had on, I would have lost sight of him within a few feet. We hiked almost six miles before the sun came up. We agreed last night that we would hike as much as possible in order to catch up to Father Marco and Patrick who are both many miles ahead of us. We need to reunite the group and continue heading towards Santiago without losing days needed to make it there by the 12th.

When we began the hike today, we realized that we might not be as lucky as we were yesterday when we were able to attend a beautiful Mass in O Cebreiro. As long as Father Marco isn’t with us, we aren’t able to have Mass without him. Today Deacon Juan and I resolved ourselves to not being able to have the Eucharist, and we started out towards the rather small town of Pintin. Since the town is extremely small, we decided to call ahead and book two beds in the albergue, but nobody has been able to get a call through to any of the numbers in that town. We just figured we would try our luck and see if there was any if we got there.

In Galicia, we’re learning, the yellow arrow system of directing the pilgrims isn’t as consistent or as obvious as it had been in other areas of Spain. That said, we took very careful note of every sign we saw, and yet we still missed the option to take the route we had agreed upon. Instead, we ended up going through the mountains on steep hills through many farming areas.

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We saw this pilgrim coming down the path in the wrong direction. We told her, but she didn’t seem to care.

So we were stuck on the side of a mountain, on the wrong road, going to a town we were deliberately trying to avoid. After 22 miles of uphill and downhill hiking, we finally emerged from a narrow wooden trail to see this:

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The Benedictine monastery of San Xulián in Samos has foundations dating back to the 6th Century.

Besides being a sight for sore feet, it just looked so majestic from our vantage point up on the hill. I remember thinking “Maybe we’ll get to go to Mass tonight after all.”

After checking in to the albergue, Deacon Juan and I went over to the monastery and saw the entrance to the gift shop and strolled in to have a look. Immediately we saw one of the monks working behind the counter. We began talking with him and Deacon Juan spotted an accent that implied the monk was not a native to Spain. The conversation went something like this:

Deacon Juan: Is there Mass tonight?
Benedictine monk: Yes. At 7:30.
DJ: Will you be the celebrant?
BM: Yes, I will.
DJ: Where are you from?
BM: Where do you think I’m from?
DJ: You sound Puerto Rican. I am Puerto Rican.
BM: I am also Puerto Rican. I was born and raised in Mayagüez.
DJ: I graduated from the university there.
BM: And you? (speaking to me)
Deacon Bil: I grew up in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.
DJ: We’re two deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington.

From that point on, everything took a surreal turn. He offered us complimentary tickets for a tour organized by another extremely knowledgeable and affable monk. We learned that the monastery has the largest cloister in all of Spain and the entire edifice is simply majestic. It dominates the town and the most stunning part is that it is inhabited by only five monks. The interior of the main church is comparable in size and grandeur to upper church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, albeit of a different artistic style.

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Yup. Only five monks in there. We met them all.

At some point after that, Deacon Juan mustered up the courage to go back to the monk we had spoken to and he asked if we could serve the Mass with him. He immediately obliged.

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The sacristy we vested in…
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…and the altar we served at.

We learned that the monk working in the gift shop was Father Gerardo Ibarra Rodriguez, the Superior of the monastery. He gave us a very warm welcome and by letting us serve Mass with him, perhaps the most euphoric feeling of amazement for both Deacon Juan and me since the day of our ordination. The Mass was amazing. As Deacon Juan was proclaiming the Gospel, all I could do was look up at the furthest stones in the architecture and visualize his voice echoing off them back down to the people. How many readings, homilies and hymns have been sent up to the stones high above the people’s heads over the centuries to be sent back down as a powerful, booming call to prayer? And the two of us, dusty, tired and limping pilgrims from Maryland had the honor shared with us to do the same.

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Main dome and upper altar piece of the main altar.

I read the intentions and served as deacon of the Eucharist. It was an immense thrill for both Deacon Juan and I to be at that altar, surrounded by the successors of Saint Benedict, bringing the Eucharist to the faithful as they’ve done for 1500 years.

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Facade of the main church of the monastery.

The entire monastery is just breathtaking, and Deacon Juan and I left thinking we couldn’t have planned that day any better if we had tried.

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Inside the main cloister. The monastery has this one which dates back 300 years, and a slightly smaller one that is 500 years old.

After getting back to the room and looking back on our day, it was only too obvious to us that God Himself intervened. My simple prayer in the morning was “Lord, I sure hope we can find a Mass today.” I never thought much past that simple request. God responded by making us get on the wrong road, walking much further than we had anticipated, on rough paths through very difficult terrain, in the fog and in the cold.

And then He gave us the Mass we prayed for.

The irony is that Deacon Juan and I tried everything we could to avoid the road to Samos today, but we were open to God’s will, and the reward was immense.

I pray that everyone is able to accept the will of God in their lives, especially when He takes us down unknown roads, sometimes against our own best judgment. God only wants the best for us, His children. When we let Him direct our lives according to His will, not ours, we can be amazed and radically changed by the precious gifts He has waiting for us at that end of that road. Sometimes, quite literally.

Before leaving after Mass, we had a long conversation with Father Gerardo, and he sent us off on the Camino with his blessing. Many thanks to him and to his brother monks. They are in our prayers.

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After Mass in the sacristy with Father Gerardo Ibarra, Superior of the Monastery of San Xulián in Samos.

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

W3W address: weird.smarted.whom

Day 15 & 16 -Trabadelo / O Cebreiro

Another double-header today.  Last night was just too busy to write.

In the last two days we’ve had a lot of activity.  We left Ponferrada and saw some drastic changes to the landscape.  On Tuesday we walked through the Bierzo region of León.  This is an area marked with almost endless orchards, farms and vineyards.  Everywhere, even in people’s yards, we saw trees overflowing with fruit on them.  It dawned on us that the color green had made it’s first prominent showing since we started the Camino.  When we were on the Meseta, brown was the dominant color.

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The rolling hills of the Bierzo region of León. Grapes, pears, apples, pumpkins are everywhere.

We made it up to the town of Villafranca del Bierzo and checked in to our albergue.  We arrived a bit late in the day, and we were just exhausted.  On top of that, the terrific company we had at dinner kept us busy until late at night.  The albergue is right across the street from the church, and we had another beautiful Mass there.  Many of the pilgrims joined us.  This time we had people from France, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain joining us.  Dinner was prepared by another pilgrim and the event soon turned into a lot of wine and singing.  As we’ve seen again and again, the hospitaleros (people who run the albergues) are incredibly devoted to making their guests comfortable and making sure they leave with some fun stories to tell.

On Wednesday we had a bit of a setback.  Father Marco, who has been suffering from problems with his feet and shins, was advised by a pharmacist to go to a medical facility in another town.  Patrick went with him, and it essentially took the entire day.  Father Marco was given some antibiotics and instructions to reduce his daily amount of walking.  Deacon Juan and I continued the hike, but we weren’t able to have our own Mass today.

We did reach a milestone, though.  We reached the region of Galicia.  Years ago, as an exchange student, this is the region I lived in, and I love it here.  Galicia is different in many ways from the rest of Spain.  They have a unique culture, history and topography, and they speak a distinct language called Galego.  Culturally, they have many roots shared with the Celts, and it’s seen in the gaita (Galician bagpipes) that are played throughout the region, as well as the thatched roofs of many of the buildings.  The terrain is lush green and marked by high mountains and deep valleys, as well as beautiful beaches in the west with water that can sometimes be extremely cold.

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Deacon Juan standing over the mountain he just conquered.

We reached the town of O Cebreiro and thanked God for a safe day.  We went to inspect the local church, and found out that it was built in the 9th Century.  Our brains could barely grasp the enormity of that.  How many Masses, baptisms, weddings and funerals took place her in the last 1200 years?  Deacon Juan and I both felt the urge to touch the walls of this gorgeous church.

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Church of Santa María in O Cebreiro.

After a few moments of private prayer, we headed to a side chapel to see the tomb of Father Elías Valiña Sampedro.  He was a priest of the region and a well known hospitalero, offering hospitality to pilgrims in the 20th Century.  He revived the international interest in hiking the Camino, and one of his innovations is something I can personally be grateful for; the yellow arrow system.  All the way across the hundreds of miles of road and paths on the Camino, pilgrims are led by a continuous sequence of painted yellow arrows on the ground, the walls and painted on signs.  They become your lifeline to the Camino, and they are always there to put you back on track.  Deacon Juan and I flanked his grave and prayed our evening prayer with him.  Thanks, padre!  We haven’t gotten lost yet.

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We were very glad that we could pray at this tomb and give thanks for his love of pilgrims.

Deacon Juan and I then left the church to leave, and as we were walking out, the bells rung for Mass.  This is a bit of a surprise, because until now, the only time we heard church bells ring was when we were ringing them for our own Mass.  So we were thrilled to see that a Mass was starting.  The celebrant and pastor, a Franciscan named Father Miguel, gave a a beautiful Mass and blessing for all pilgrims.  At the end, he invited us up to accept a small gift.  We each got a small rock painted with the yellow arrows made famous by his predecessor buried only a few feet away.

Tomorrow Deacon Juan and I will head out and try to put a lot of miles behind us as we attempt to catch up to Father Marco and Patrick who are both in the town of Sarria.  Please keep praying for our safety and that we meet them soon and in good health.

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Day 14 – Ponferrada

Today was hard.

Today we made the descent from the our albergue in Foncebadón to the town of Ponteferrada about 17 miles away. Almost the entirety of the journey was over jagged, rocky terrain, slowing us down considerably and making us even more grateful that we got our walking poles back in León. A single slip can sprain or break an ankle, and there were a few scares as we momentarily lost footing a few times. In the end, we made it all the way down, none the worse for wear.

Very shortly after leaving in the morning, we came upon a Camino highlight. The Cruz de Ferro (iron cross) that is marked by a large hill of small rocks surrounding it. All the rocks are brought by pilgrims from their homes and left at the cross as they move on towards Santiago. Some leave the rocks as a humble offering to God for a safe journey, or for a sin or habit they have remorse over. I prayed for a safe journey and also for my wife and children. My son Joseph gave me a rock painted with the Maryland state flag on it. I found a perfectly sized niche in the wooden base of the cross to press the stone into.

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Right in the middle.
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The Cruz de Ferro behind me.

Well something new happened today. The color green arrived. We haven’t seen much green since we left Burgos on the 24th. Walking across the arid meseta, virtually everything is shades of brown. Now that we are high in the mountains, everything is lush. It’s an entirely different landscape, and one that is equally difficult to traverse, but still a very welcome change.

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The gorgeous mountains of northern León.

We arrived rather late to Ponferrada, but we had a had a beautiful Mass in their chapel. The chapel appears to be a converted 16th or 17th century church, but I couldn’t find anyone to give me a quick history lesson on it. I walked in expecting to find a converted room with a makeshift altar. Here’s what I saw instead…

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One of the three beautiful wooden altarpieces in the St. Nicholas de Fluë chapel at our albergue.

Tomorrow we have a day that we expect will be much more forgiving on our feet, but also our first day of rain on the pilgrimage so far. Keep praying for us!

¡Buen Camino!

-Dcn Bil-

Today’s Mass – Memorial of St. Gregory the Great
Mass offered for – The men of the “Fratican”
Prayers were offered for the intentions of Jim & Julie Benjamin and family, Sue Antroinen and Mary Stevens.
W3W address: beaker.players.rejected