This is the first of an occasional series “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas. These are sketches with a theme of pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle Saint James (Santiago in Spanish). Pope Francis declared a double Holy Year 2021-2022 for pilgrims to Compostela. The writer is British but lives in Spain and sees their shared European culture as reflecting centuries of Catholic tradition.

At the age of fourteen, I marched to Compostela in the pilgrimage Holy Year 1965. The boys of our school group went with the OJE, the Organización Juvenil Española, a sort of Catholic uniformed scouting movement. One night we stayed in our tents on the grounds of Samos Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that has its origins in the 6th century. After morning Mass, we marched through the town of Samos on our way to the shrine of Santiago the Apostle.

As we passed through towns and villages in this region, there seemed mainly widows dressed in black. They turned their backs on us. As we marched through Samos, a poor place smelling of drains, a double-amputee—sitting immobile on a cushion at his door—spat as we passed by. This was Franco’s Spain and we were the uniformed youth of the Catholic Church, the glorious future of the Patria, yet the people in these poor places turned away from us.

“They’re not like the people at home,” whispered my friend Joaquín. We had stopped at a sweet shop before leaving Samos and the shopkeeper had not spoken a word. “They don’t like us at all.”

That is my first snapshot, a postcard from Samos Abbey, in 1965.

Over twenty years later, I was a Franciscan friar walking the Camino in habit and I stopped for the night at Samos Abbey. The Benedictine community retired for the night after the office of Compline, but as a visiting religious I was free to make my way into the village. I walked again along that same street where we had marched in our blue shirts one morning twenty years earlier. Three hundred yards from Samos Abbey, there is a bar looking out over the monastery’s extensive orchards. I went inside and ordered a coffee.

“Aren’t you monks supposed to be locked up for the night?” asked the barman.

“I’m on holiday,” I smiled. “And I’m not a monk, but a Franciscan friar passing through. I marched along here in the Holy Year 1965 with hundreds of youth.”

“¿Falangistas?” he asked. “The blue-shirts?”

“We wore a similar blue shirt in the Catholic OJE,” I replied, “but we were schoolboys, not fascists. People in Samos turned their backs.”

“Of course!” said the barman. “I’ll tell you something…”

He poured a glass of Veterano brandy for himself and brought a glass for me, saying, “I invite you.” He took a gulp of his brandy and he looked me straight in the eye. It was the end of the evening and only two other customers sat at the bar. He poured me a generous glass and I thought I would sleep very well; but then he told a story that would not help me sleep at all. In the years after the Civil War, the victors under Franco were meting out their ‘justice’ to cities, towns, and villages of the opposing side.

“Samos Abbey employed many village men and women: in the kitchens, the laundry, and there were cleaners, gardeners, and builders. In those days—the ‘years of hunger’ in the 1940s—the townspeople saw how the monks lived well, while we starved.”

The two other customers stopped talking and listened to the story, nodding. They found it interesting to see the tale told to a visitor who represented the Church.

“Give us some bread for our children, for they are hungry and you have so much,” the women would say to the monks. “You have meat and vegetables, fruit and wine, and we do not even have enough bread.”

“And what did they say?” I asked.

“They said God punished us justly and we should learn our lesson: ‘You made your choice, and you chose communism and opposed the Church. Don’t come here complaining.’ So, brother, there’s a reason why people turned their backs on you when you marched through here. Religion is for the cruel victors.”

The dictator Franco had been dead for a decade and now there was free speech, but the Church remained tarnished.

“I don’t tell you out of anger,” said the barman, “but I tell you so that you will know it.”

“I suppose the monks from Samos Abbey never come in here?” I said, but the bartender did not reply. He finished his Veterano in one gulp. I did the same, taking the bull by the horns. I thanked him and said I must return to the monastery. He refused my few pesetas for the coffee. It was a gesture about generosity and I nodded to show that I understood. I walked back to the palatial Samos Abbey, found my way through the cloister to my guest room, and lay awake pondering the contradictions of the institutional Church from one time in history to another.

That is my second snapshot, a postcard from Samos Abbey, in 1989.

A recent comment on the WPI Facebook page asked why WPI readers ‘hate’ conservatives. It was another of those pointless barbs in the culture wars, but I thought it worth replying. I pointed out that I still regard myself as a ‘conservative’. It was the way the radical right indulged fascism in recent times that eventually stopped me identifying with rad-trad views, out of shock and revulsion when I saw Catholics buying into the politics of division and seeking a scapegoat.

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis specifically addresses the kind of politics he sees as “unhealthy ‘populism’ when individuals are able to exploit politically a people’s culture… for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power” (59).[1]

The culture wars are complex. An English Catholic intellectual who I much admire—a fellow Compostela pilgrim of similar age—recently wrote, “I think on balance, the right side won,” referring to the victory of Generalissimo Franco in the Spanish Civil War after three years of bloodshed. It was a surprising remark, as a comment on some reflections I wrote for the English pilgrim association, recalling the poverty I remembered seeing on the Camino in northern Spain.[2]

My Catholic friend’s enthusiasm for the dictator could not have come at a more provocative moment. I had recently read a Spanish feature article about the way senior Nazis from Germany came to Spain to study Franco’s concentration camps. These future architects of the “final solution” toured Spain looking at forced labor camps for capital projects such as dam building. They noted how Franco used mass imprisonment of political opponents as an instrument of social repression. How could any Catholic in 2021 look back at such ghastly history and quietly assert “the right side won”?

Unlike the horrors of Germany and Italy, there have always been English Catholic conservatives prepared to gloss over the ugliness of Spanish fascism. They saw Franco as he proclaimed himself: the leader of a ‘Crusade.’ An Opus Dei priest I knew—an archdiocesan vocations director in London, only a decade ago—thought it was chic to have a screensaver photograph of Franco, in full Generalissimo regalia, on his diocesan vocations computer, to impress office visitors with his ‘conservative’ credentials.

I let my correspondent’s remark go unchallenged, for I had no interest in rising to the bait. The populist view despises history and does not want us to connect up the dots, but simply identify a present enemy. My friend’s defense would perhaps cite the horrors inflicted on priests and nuns by left-wing violence in the 1930s, but if the answer to communism is fascism, then the answer to Covid-19 would be smallpox! But what has really happened here, I wonder? Twenty or thirty years ago, such a lazy slide from conservatism into fascism would have been loudly challenged, and more Catholics should wake up to the blurring of the edges between distinct political categories. In his critique of populist politics in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes that “the proclivity to selfishness that is part of what the Christian tradition refers to as “concupiscence”: the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests.”

True conservatism was never like that: it presented a wider vision. Thankfully, some conservative voices are meeting some of these issues head-on. The wonderful recent essay by Anne Applebaum[3] sketches the situation many of us know so well, whereby ‘conservative’ friends seamlessly morph into enablers of a fascist project we did not even suspect was lurking behind the curtains! “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum says, and she speaks with knowledge of European politics in the age of neo-populism. We see how fragile democracy is, within Europe after Brexit in the UK and authoritarian politics returning to Hungary and Poland.

When a fellow Catholic comments about a fascist victory with the words, “I think on balance, the right side won,” you might be ‘kind’ and see it as eccentric; maybe keep an embarrassed silence and avoid a pointless skirmish in the culture wars. Or you could have a shouting match, which will eventually prove to your interlocutor that you are on the side of the communists who murdered priests and nuns; you are indeed the very devil, and probably also a vegetarian who wears home-made sandals!

My preferred route these days is to invite such voices to say what kind of Church do they think we belong to. If they are Catholic, isn’t it natural we should refer to Fratelli Tutti and simply ask, what does the Holy Father say? I spent a long time in the rad-trad wilderness trying to work things out for myself, or worse, listening to the bitter voices of dissenting prelates. The game was over when I began to glimpse the puppet-masters behind the curtains, such as Steve Bannon pushing the extreme views of Archbishop Viganò, while fostering neo-fascist movements around Europe. These people win easy victories in Catholic social media because readers are unversed in history, and unfamiliar with the way the snake of fascism always sheds its skin to grow a new one, as Umberto Eco explains in his classic essay on the subject.[4] The rad-trad sellers of snake oil always promote suspicion of historians and experts of any kind, and there is a reason for that.

In these culture wars, it is perhaps only fellow Catholics of a certain age who you will find expressing nostalgia for a long-discredited fascist regime with words like, “on balance, the right side won,” and when I hear that, I picture a poor woman working for the monks at Samos Abbey while begging for food for her children, and I think of the forced labor camps of a dictatorship supported by the Church. I ask again, what kind of Church do I think we belong to, and what alternative vision do we offer against the neo-populist politics of our time?[5] Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti helps me form that vision. Irrational rad-trad political voices in the Church no longer hold sway over me, but the harder task is now to discern what is the appropriate form of politics to accompany the mission of the Church in the 21st century.


[1]. Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, Chapter 5: “A Better Kind of Politics.”

[2]. The author, “Marching the Camino in 1965 (without rifles),” a memory of the Way of Saint James, https://www.csj.org.uk/blog/marching-the-camino-in-1965-without-rifles

[3]. Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy, (Allen Lane, UK, 2020).

[4]. Umberto Eco, “Ur Fascism” (New York Review of Books, 1995.) https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/

[5]. After I wrote this piece, WPI featured Rodrigo Guerra on Fratelli Tutti and neo-populism, which I recommend. It is worth making a distinction between the old-style fascism that I refer to and the new category of populism which Guerra writes is “not so much an ideology, but a way of exercising power.” https://wherepeteris.com/rodrigo-guerra-on-fratelli-tutti-and-neo-populism/

Images provided by the author. Copyright Gareth Thomas. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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