The Catholic University of America


The Gift of the Camino

  9/11 service day

Fr. James Garneau pictured immediately after celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. James. 

The feature article Walking with Nathaniel in the fall 2012 issue of The Catholic University of America Magazine details the experience of one family who found hope and healing while walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient route of Christian pilgrims to the tomb of St. James in Galcia, Spain. The article also includes a sidebar commentary by Rev. James Garneau (Ph.D. 2000), a Church historian, who walked the Camino in 2004. In this online extra, Father Garneau answers our questions about his life-changing journey through Spain.

How did you find the opportunity to take a month to become a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago?

I was finishing my term as a faculty member at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and had some time before resuming pastoral work in the Diocese of Raleigh. This transition in my life allowed me the time commitment. I had always been intrigued by the Camino — the adventure of it, the history of it. I was grateful that certain things fell into place to afford me the opportunity to go.

What surprised you about the experience?

The gift of slowing down and taking life one step at a time. And when we do that, the personal lessons that God has for us.

The gift of leaving behind all mechanized transportation. I also left behind the world of instant communication. I chose not to bring a cell phone or a camera. I did check Internet from time to time because I had elderly parents alive at the time, but I was not tied to instant communication. And that actually became a great relief. I am grateful for the pictures that I have received from others. They are a source of many happy memories. But I never regretted my decision not to have anything between me and whatever I was looking at. I never had to think about capturing a view or a conversation or people. I was just able to experience things in the moment. That was all part of the great experience for me and I was surprised by how much it opened me to seeing things and experiencing things in a new way.

The other surprise was the people God sends your way. The Camino is a microcosm of life. There are days you think you want to be alone and you can’t get away from the crowd and days you are alone and you are thinking, “Where is everybody?” and those are the times that maybe God is calling you to come a little closer in a more prayerful way. Just like in life there are those you choose to walk with on the Camino and those people you might not choose to be with. Then you realize that by the Grace of God this person has enriched me.

Given that your name is James did the Way of St. James mean something special to you?

Oh it did, very much. I normally go by Father Jim. But on the Camino I introduced myself with the name James. It is more easily translatable — Jacques, Santiago — into other languages than a nickname. James is my patron saint. It made the experience even more beautiful for me. Not in a proprietary sort of way, but in a very humbling way.

You celebrated Mass at many of the towns where you stopped along the way. And you concelebrated at the daily Mass when you reached the destination of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. What was that like?

It was very special. There is a Mass every day at noon for the pilgrims, and priests who have arrived from the Camino are invited to participate. I was there in 2004, which was a holy year in Spain. Any time the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, it is a holy year. On that day, July 25, the King of Spain comes to the Mass and thanks St. James for the blessing he has bestowed on the people of Spain and asks for his continued intercession. Crowds come. It is very festive. I arrived on June 29, which was the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. The bishop of the diocese was there to celebrate Mass that day and afterwards I asked him for the privilege of celebrating Mass the next morning at the tomb. So very early that next day I went down to the tomb amid the relics of St. James and held a small Mass and the people who had walked with me on the Camino were invited. I’ll never forget it.

Do you keep in touch with people you met along the way?

Yes, some are Americans and some are foreigners. I’ve visited one in Italy and others have come to visit me. You form a special bond on the Camino.

You have talked about the spiritual experience of walking the Camino. What was the experience like for you as a historian?

By walking across Spain, you can see the centuries of history unfold before you. I found myself saying “Oh, that’s where an event of the Spanish Civil War happened or here is some cultural evidence or some architectural remnant.” History is everywhere you pass.

What from your time on the Camino has stayed with you eight years later?

What I experienced in Spain is still a reminder to me that I don’t control all the factors in my life. That as I put one foot in front of the other, I should trust God with each step. As Americans, we are so project oriented. We are so focused on completing a task and rushing to the next one. We need to slow down and walk with God sometimes. I understand the importance of planning and I’m not against projects. But it is also very important to remember that God’s providence reigns over all. The retreat of the Camino helped to refocus that for me.

What advice do you have for others who are planning to walk the Camino de Santiago?

There are some very good websites dedicated to the Camino de Santiago. Some provide timely information such as detours. Research is a very important first step in planning the trip.

I received some wonderful advice a few years before I went from a woman who was from Spain. She said “Everyone walks their own Camino.” Everyone walks at their pace and that is certainly true in the physical sense, but it is also true spiritually and emotionally. If you are going with others, it is particularly good advice to know that you are not always going to walk side by side. Some people need more physical recovery time, some might be feeling more energetic on a particular day, and others might spiritually need their own time alone. Just like in life with our friends and family — sometimes we walk alongside them and other times we need to give them a little space or we need a little space.