Why are you on the way? This is a question I tried to ask and was frequently asked on the way. The Europeans think that Americans are coming because of Martin Sheen. It surprises them that I have come for traditional reasons-- to do penance for my sins and to pray for those I love. Some of them then disclose that they are there for the same reasons...but only a very few.
My favorite answer came from a small woman with a slow and painful limp from a far away and non-Christian country. As her 500 mile trek of 35 days was coming to an end this morning, I caught up with her and asked her my question. Annoyed at what should have been obvious to me, she retorted "Because it is there."
Like this woman, many on the way see the Camino as a physical feat like climbing a mountain. Others enjoy meeting people from all over the world, even Americans like me. They are hungry for real connections. There are also entertainment tourists, bon vivants, with an appetite for hedonistic pursuits. Still others cannot or will not articulate what draws them... But something (or Someone) is.
I have wondered how to speak a word of truth, a true word of life into this. It is more than a matter of knowing what to say and when to say it. Sometimes, silence itself speaks more than any word conveys. Early on, one pilgrim was annoyed when after rejecting my offer to help I told him he would be in my prayers. Today when I saw him in the Cathedral, he spontaneously grabbed my hand and thanked me for my prayers. Will there be moments like that in heaven?
There are moments of authenticity when a soul discloses itself. These moments are more frequent on pilgrimage because it is demanding and we touch our poverty in the difficult situations that come up. What reverence and respect is called for in these fleeting moments! And yet the slightest gesture or simplest word plants a seed....a hope where it is most needed.
Pilgrimage in post-Christian Europe offers a moment of not only penance, but also evangelization. Saint John Paul understood the importance of pilgrimage for the New Evangelization. Pilgrimage to traditional holy places like the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela reintroduces believers to their rich heritage of faith and opens up the soul to a deeper encounter with God. At the same time, these traditional roads and places are filled with people drawn for reasons they do not know. Some of my best conversations happened with these pilgrims. I merely asked questions or offered to pray, but they disclosed a deep yearning and desire for answers for the questions of the heart.