|Members of the group led by Father Terry McGowan, the campus minister and a theology teacher at Pope John Paul II High School, walk along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. People from around the world have been making the pilgrimage since the 12th century to Santiago, which according to tradition is where St. James the Apostle is buried.
When Father Terry McGowan announced during an assembly at Pope John Paul II High School that he was organizing a trip to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, that the group would be walking up to 20 miles a day in the summer heat, Meghan Sooker and her friends thought that sounded like a lousy way to spend their summer.
But the more they thought and talked about it, she said, they started thinking it might be cool to spend the summer before starting college backpacking through Spain. “When else would I be able to do this,” Sooker thought.
So she and six other graduating seniors from JPII – Carlie Campbell, Anna Fox, Zach Janson, Maggie Mann, Katherine Willoughby and Grace Wood – and a friend from Father Ryan High School, Madie Bellante, joined JPII theology teacher Julianne Staley, Father McGowan, a priest friend of his from Ohio Father Jonas Shell, his nephew Jordan Cheatham, and Diocese of Nashville seminarian Mark Simpson to make the long pilgrimage across northern Spain.
Since the 12th century, people from around the world have been making the journey to Santiago de Compostela, which, according to tradition, is the place where the apostle St. James was buried.
“You meet people from all over the world,” Father McGowan said. “Some are there for religious reasons, but many are not.”
“The saying is everybody has their own Camino,” Staley said. “It’s what you make of it.”
Walking the Camino is something Father McGowan has wanted to do for years, ever since, as a seminarian, he heard a priest talk about the pilgrimage. “He said don’t go unless you’re prepared to have your life changed.”
Father McGowan, his nephew, Father Shell and Simpson arrived in Spain on June 23 and started their pilgrimage in the city of Pamplona, about 400 miles from Santiago. The rest of the group joined them on July 12 in the city of Leon, about halfway to Santiago. They all arrived in Santiago on July 24, the Feast of St. James.
“It was long days,” Father McGowan said. The group, which covered anywhere from 12 to 20 miles a day, would walk seven or eight hours a day. To avoid the worst of the midday sun, the pilgrims would get up before 5 a.m. and start walking under the stars.
“It was very beautiful to see the stars out every morning and, of course, the sunrise right after that,” Janson said.
They would arrive at the next town about noon each day and find a spot in one of the hostels, or albergues, that are available for the pilgrims, Father McGowan said.
“In the afternoon, you’re dog tired,” Father McGowan said.
“I didn’t realize how strenuous it was on your body,” Staley said. “We did a couple of walks beforehand, but nothing could prepare you fully.”
“I was thinking it would be easy and I’d be at the head of the group and walking like it was nothing,” said Janson, who will attend Aquinas College in Nashville this fall. “Sometimes I got that, but there were a few days the walking kicked my butt.”
|Recent JPII graduates Grace Wood, left, and Katherine “Kitty” Willoughby make their way along the Camino. The group walked between 12 and 20 miles a day during the pilgrimage.
After checking into the albergue, the pilgrims would shower, wash their clothes, and take a nap. In the evenings, there typically was a Mass for pilgrims, Father McGowan said. The group would visit with new found friends among the other pilgrims on the Camino and usually eat about 8 or 9 at night and were in bed by 10 or 11.
“It’s a different rhythm of life,” Father McGowan said. “You get down to the essentials of what you need,” including shelter, food and drink. That lifestyle allows a person to “focus on the things that are important,” he said.
“It’s a retreat essentially,” Father McGowan said. “You spend about half the day in more or less solitude, then half the day was very social. I like both.”
There were times the pilgrims found themselves walking alone with their thoughts or prayers, taking in the scenery. But sometimes, Staley said, even that seemed like a lot. “It’s like sensory overload.” She kept a journal, Staley said, which helped her keep track of her thoughts along the way.
Walking alone could take on a spiritual aspect, Janson said. “Very often I found myself alone in the middle of nowhere,” he said. He would “stop and spend time with Jesus … to make that the center of our whole journey and really our whole lives.”
One of the pleasures of the Camino is meeting and walking with other pilgrims.
“I loved the relationships that were made,” Janson said. “You meet so many wonderful people when you walk. Everyone connects somehow. It’s amazing how everyone connects.”
|Members of the group, made up primarily of recent graduates of Pope John Paul II High School, who completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain this summer, include, from left: Grace Wood, Anna Fox, Maggie Mann, JPII theology teacher Julianne Staley, Diocese of Nashville seminarian Mark Simpson, Father Terry McGowan, Carlie Campbell, Zach Janson, Meghan Sooker and Madie Bellante.
“Something we all realized you would talk with someone for three days and never learn their name,” having forgotten to ask, said Sooker, who will be a freshman at the University of Dayton this fall.
Sooker and Anna Fox took a detour one day. While walking across a bridge, they saw people swimming in the river below. “We thought that looks fun, we could go swimming,” Sooker said. So they took a quick dip and then returned to walking.
Staley liked to use the afternoons to explore the towns and cities where they were staying. “I would walk around the town and investigate,” visiting the churches in each place, Staley said. “That was my favorite part.”
Father McGowan bought a guitar along the way, and in the evenings “we would all play and sing,” said Janson, who is a singer and musician. “That was a great way to connect.”
Walking into Santiago at the end of the journey, Sooker said, felt a bit anticlimactic. “Even though Santiago was beautiful, you realize it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
“It was just a blast,” Father McGowan said. “It was a trip of a lifetime.” He’s already planning to do it again.
Janson’s advice to others planning to walk the Camino is to “take the experience one day at a time. It’s a very long trip, but it will change the way you look at your life.”