By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2005
To thank God for his 20 years of priesthood, backpack-clad Father Marty Kopchik, MSFS, took a summer trip to Spain to hike along the rugged “Camino de Santiago,” one of the most important Christian pilgrim paths since medieval times, leading to the shrine of St. James the Apostle.
In 2002 he had spent a sabbatical year in Avila, Spain, studying with 50 priests and sisters from around the world. They studied the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, where he read about this historic, prayerful walk of faith west from France across northern Spain to the state of Galicia and the shrine in “Santiago de Compostela,” traveled by increasing numbers in the 1990s and culminating with nearly 180,000 pilgrims in 2004, according to Santiago-today.com.
“This sort of jumped out at me as something I could do,” said the priest with a penchant for non-traditional vacations.
One of the original disciples, St. James, Santiago in Spanish, was beheaded in Jerusalem, but it is believed that he had crossed the Mediterranean to preach in Spain and that his remains were later reportedly taken there. The church was built in the early 800s where they discovered his remains. A bigger church built by 899 was later destroyed but rebuilt by 1003 and by 1211 a Romanesque cathedral was erected. Devotion quickly grew as a pilgrimage to Santiago was frequently imposed as a sacramental penance by judges. And shrines and brotherhoods dedicated to the apostle were established around the world. When the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century, he became the patron saint of the locals trying to regain control of the nation, which also increased devotion to him.
“Compostela,” or “field of stars,” refers to the traditional belief that a hermit was attracted to a field of stars where the bones were discovered. The Council of Europe declared the route the first European Cultural Route in 1987 and it was named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993.
Father Kopchik, 56, made his pilgrimage May 29-June 22. As he arrived at the Madrid airport, the casual hiker discovered that the checked trekking sticks he brought to support him along his 10-mile-a-day, three-week trek didn’t make it to baggage claim and that he was experiencing–sooner than he would have liked—his first spiritual exercise: detachment. According to the trail map, the steepest climb of 300 meters would be the first to face. But the former computer programmer from Indiana reminded himself that it’s good to leave behind his comfortable, organized life as a parochial vicar at St. Jude the Apostle Church, and to rely on God for the climb. And the path traveled by saints and sinners, athletes and nature lovers, on foot, donkey, horse, bike, and even crutches since the 8th century must be so commercialized by now, he assured himself, that it’s more like a “giant sidewalk through the hills,” plus he’d been training back home by taking daily walks for three months after breakfast, lunch and dinner.
After he gave up on his lost sticks, he found the hostel was closed in Roncesvalles and that he had missed the Mass there to commission pilgrim walkers. So he spent the night in Pamplona and consecrated his pilgrimage to God and “began the process of detaching myself from anything that prevents Him from guiding me.”
He arose each morning at about 5 a.m. to leave an hour later to set out along the walking path through the hilly, mountainous region, coated with sunscreen and carrying about 20 pounds worth of supplies in his back pack, including clothes, a blanket, and a guide book. The air was windy and cool in the mornings but quickly rose to the 90s along the dry and shade-less trail. He typically met around 150-200 people a day, mainly Europeans, and when he wasn’t greeting folks he prayed, recited the rosary and meditated.
He soon found that the walk wasn’t just one long sidewalk but “very difficult.” The poles “would have been one thing I could have used going up the foothills … The first couple of days are torture,” he reminisced. Nevertheless, “losing the poles taught me I don’t need anybody but God on this trip, a very simple kind of lifestyle.”
But after valiantly hiking that first hill sans poles, he was rewarded as a shopkeeper gave him a splintery stick for use as a trekking stick. He felt like John the Baptist in the wilderness.
The path went from being rocky and steep to downhill, to flat and dusty dirt or red sandstone, and the sweat-soaked priest was sun-drenched and endured “pain in every muscle, bone and joint.”
The trail did turn to sidewalks as it passed along the outskirts of cities. Yellow signs with seashells marked their route, as in the Middle Ages it was the custom of pilgrims to carry back with them from Galicia scallop shells as proof of their journey. He learned to pay close attention to those signs, as he missed them several times including one day where he wandered off the path to another one for over a mile before a truck driver told him to turn back. “Luckily he caught me before I got too far … Sometimes your mind wanders when you’re walking and you’ve missed it because there are other trails that go off.”
He also learned quickly that it’s good to arrive at the hostel for the night by noon to stake out a good bunk in the dormitory-style dwellings, where pilgrims pay $7 a night and another $7 for a meal, with a choice of local dishes such as paella. There Father Kopchik washed clothes and hung them out to dry, showered, took a siesta, and sometimes explored the nearby town or village.
“Even small towns had very beautiful churches in the center of town made of stone and a lot of gold-plated altar scenes and crosses. Spain was the center of the universe during the time of the conquest of South America and the Americas and (the explorers) brought back a lot of gold.”
When the Internet was accessible, he filed occasional “Pilgrim’s Progress” reports back to St. Jude’s. He said Mass each night at the hostel for whomever wanted to participate and eagerly climbed into bed where “I have never slept so well in all my life.”
“Some of the hostels were different distances, and you had to plan the hikes accordingly and patiently from stop to stop and trust that there would be room in the inn and there would be food there and a place to buy food for the next day’s journey for lunch,” he said. “You were just totally trusting things were going to work out. Some of the climbs were pretty steep. I didn’t try to rush it,” he recalled. One night the hostel was full, so he slept on a mattress on the floor in an overflow building, as temperature dropped to the 40s.
A Missionary of St. Francis de Sales, Father Kopchik said a primary route of El Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) actually begins in England, then crosses France, where there are various paths, and goes on to Spain, adding that it’s described in “The Canterbury Tales.” It’s different than taking a pilgrimage to holy cities such as Rome, as “this a personal journey of faith and trying to strip yourself of everything and just get close to God.”
Gulping water as he struggled against the penetrating sun’s draining effect, he was impressed by the physical stamina of a “delightful” 75-year-old French priest from France and a young Irishman “in perfect shape” running up and down the hills, wearing a mini backpack. A husband and wife in their 60s and her sister from Brazil had started the trail in the Pyrenees of France before crossing the Spanish border. Youth, free for the summer, hiked as well, and mountain bikers often walked their bikes up hills. Father Kopchik hiked about10 miles each day from one hostel to the next, but one day he trekked 15 miles to get to the next stop.
“It was a very rigorous kind of schedule.”
He savored the beauty of the verdant farmland with vineyards and olive orchards and refueled at pilgrims’ water fountains and rest stops along the way, even enjoying some red wine—the unconsecrated kind. At one spot was a monastery where, according to trail tradition, pilgrims were once poisoned by drinking water from its fountain, which had been accidentally contaminated. The monks felt so bad that to make up for the tragedy they’ve made red wine and poured it into the fountain, and Father Kopchik and many others gladly filled up with the beverage.
“Everyone goes out of their way to the monastery to drink it,” he recalled with a smile.
Pilgrims generally were very spiritually focused, he noted, but unfortunately active Catholics are uncommon there. When living in Spain he saw that a small minority attend church regularly and he was told that many turned against the church as a backlash following the rule from 1936-75 of the dictator Franco, dismayed that it didn’t properly denounce him. “They say 5 percent (attend church regularly), and going to church you don’t see any young people in the churches and very few vocations. It’s a difficult time for all of Europe.”
Along the route, once believed to be traveled by the likes of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Father Kopchik heard God reminding him, “bloom where you are planted.”
“You can be holy right where you’re at, being a saint is doing ordinary things extraordinary well … Every life is a pilgrimage of learning how to listen to God in our everyday, ordinary experiences and following his path the way he directs you. If you can do that you can eventually reach Him and be rewarded for your faithfulness.”
As his 200 mile walk came to an end in El Burgo Ranero, just south of Leon, he took a bus up the remainder of the journey and up a hill to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where he was overjoyed. The ancient Romanesque structure set on a hilltop had side doors depicting purgatory and the Last Judgment that flanked the main door surmounted by Christ presiding over apostles and elders at the Apocalypse with St. James as intercessor. He prayed for the needs of St. Jude parishioners and asked for St. James’ intercession as he embraced the saint’s statue, following tradition. And he found a sense of peace in his own small sacrifice and a renewed commitment to follow God’s will, in the spirit of St. James, whose feast day is July 25.
“Just to imagine that this great apostle was there just gives you a sense of joy and a sense that you’ve reached out and touched him and maybe some of his grace will come upon you and help you with whatever God is calling you to do to follow Him,” he said. “And reaching the tomb of St. James the feeling was that this man went before us and we owe our faith to men like him and the other apostles who really had a hard life but were willing to do anything for God and to even suffer for God.”
With three days in Santiago de Compostela, the stronger and 10-pounds lighter parochial vicar shared stories over meals with other pilgrims and checked into a real hotel. He was welcomed home to St. Jude’s with a potluck supper with some 150 parishioners. As he settles back into parish life, he leaves the chart of El Camino de Santiago tacked to the bulletin board in his office, and strives anew to stay in shape and follow the seashell signs along the path of life.
“It was a way to get away from all the comfortable things and renew my promise to follow God through thick and thin. I came back refreshed, my mind clear and focused and renewed. This is one of my best vacations, and I’m ready to go back to work,” he concluded. “There are so many distractions … and in a place like this you don’t really have anything else to do but see God all around you and to try to communicate with Him and to listen to Him, step by step. It’s a process of learning patience, of learning what do you want me to do and where do you want me to go and the arrows and directions on the path keep you focused on what’s really important in life, and learning courage, that you don’t have to just do the things that are easy, you can carry your cross and trust God is going to help you no matter what happens and He’ll be there to support you.”
In his final “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Father Kopchik reflected on the beauty he sees around him and on his insights from the trip.
“We are meant to connect with God … Our job is to discover this God-given design, by applying Jesus’ example to each situation we are in … I discovered on my journey that the pilgrimage of life, like the pilgrimage to Santiago, is literally one step at a time. If we persist we will reach the top of each hill and can see clearly, with God’s help, what to do and where to go next.”