This is the second in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Holy Father declared that the Holy Year of Compostela in 2021 would be extended into an unusual double holy year: “Xacobeo 2021-2022.” Whenever the Feast of Saint James (July 25) falls on a Sunday there is a year of special indulgence. This year’s extension is due to the pandemic travel difficulties and also recognizes the need to recover the hostelry infrastructure of the Camino de Santiago after the economic disaster of the Covid shutdown.

Our postcard picture is of the church in the Galician hamlet of O Cebreiro whose community of twenty residents run the wayside bars and hostels and claim a hospitality tradition that is a thousand years old. In normal times, hundreds of pilgrims pass through daily, even braving the snows of winter. As we look at the deserted main street now, it is a moment to remember that the pilgrimage was all but forgotten until half a century ago.

In the 1950s the tiny traditional hamlet of O Cebreiro, which is built of dark stone, would be lucky to see one pilgrim a year walking through the cobbled street. Nor did villagers know what a ‘pilgrim’ was or suspect that this little byway had once connected to main roads through Europe. Their perceptions and their village changed in the last part of the twentieth century due to the mission of Don Elías Valiña Sampedro.

A native of Sarria, a small town further west, Don Elías arrived in the village as its pastor in the 1950s to minister to the needs of his small flock. Galicia was an economically depressed region of Spain and village life had changed little since the 19th century. The civil war had left people even more impoverished, as explained in Postcard #1 from the Camino. O Cebreiro was an inhospitable place at the top of the steep mountain pass where travelers enter Galicia from the next-door province of León. Don Elías was intellectually inquisitive and probed the history and archeology of his new parish, and he stumbled upon a forgotten tradition.

Pilgrims walked the Camino de Santiago for over a millennium and in recent times much has been communicated about it. There have been starring roles for celebrity pilgrims, perhaps the best known in recent times being Martin Sheen and his director son, in their film The Way, a convincing Catholic redemption story about a man carrying the ashes of his deceased son and coming to terms with grief and unresolved threads of their relationship.

Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who walks the Camino de Santiago, a historical pilgrimage across northern Spain. Along the way, he sprinkles the ashes of his son, who died on the 500-mile route.

Since the 1980s the pilgrimage has become a spiritual and tourism phenomenon leading to economic growth that revived depopulated villages and generated regional tourism. The Camino jumped its Catholic origins and entered popular ‘wellness’ culture. Spirituality met sport, with pilgrim mountain bikers. Popular authors such as Shirley MacLaine and Paolo Coelho set a new trend with New Age mystical road paperbacks that in turn helped promote the Camino in a global travel culture that brought Korean tourists, worshippers of ley-lines, aspiring Knights Templar, and a German comedian who wrote a bestseller claiming that the pilgrim trail was a great way to meet girls! The Way of Saint James, the Catholic medieval pilgrim route to the shrine of the Apostle, had reawakened in an age of multi-layered post-modern spiritual myths.

If the revival of the Way of Saint James over the past half-century owes a debt to any one person, it is to Don Elías Valiña, and his story is a remarkable testimony to the way that tradition is rediscovered and renewed for different times. He recovered the village history and showed how it had once been a key part of a European network of routes, and he reactivated the local Catholic tradition of pilgrimage that had lain mostly dormant in recent centuries. His mission was not simply a revival born of nostalgia. He saw the economic benefit for his parish and other rural settlements left behind in Spain’s gradual recovery from civil and political strife.

Don Elías did extensive groundwork, literally: it all began with archaeology. His parish included early medieval foundations showing a pilgrim hospital had been built on the site before the 11th century. He began to study manuscripts of ancient pilgrim guidebooks. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was only the occasional pilgrim, maybe once a year! When Don Elías began explaining the Camino de Santiago to children in the school, they learned a new word: “peregrino.” They had never heard of pilgrims before.[1] Don Elías told them their little village had once been a place of international travel, the gateway into Galicia for hundreds of thousands from all over Europe. His energy went into pastoral care for his parishioners, but he increasingly devoted his free time to the history of the pilgrimage. He researched the route meticulously, reading everything he could find, traveling to distant libraries and examining church records, until he became the expert on the subject.

Then his interest moved into a new phase: he began marking the Camino in his local area with yellow arrows. First he painted them on rocks and walls, up the old pilgrim track from the valley to O Cebreiro. Then traveling further afield in his little Citröen car, he painted more yellow arrows in his free time from parish work, ever further east towards the Pyrenees. He began to recruit volunteer helpers from his family and friends marking yellow arrows all the way from the French frontier to the shrine of the Apostle in Compostela. It was a labor of love, a project done initiated without the support of any cultural agency. In 1987 he organized a congress on the Camino de Santiago.

Now the revival of the pilgrim route was in full swing. The Canadian writer and pilgrim, Laurie Dennett who knew Don Elías and joined in his work of making the Camino better known, tells the story of two suspicious Guardia Civil officers who once inspected his little car filled with pots of yellow paint and brushes. They asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I’m preparing for an invasion.”[2]

We now take yellow arrows for granted in Spain, and in the semiology of the Camino a yellow arrow simply means the pilgrimage to Compostela. Now there are yellow arrows all over Spain on newly designed or rediscovered provincial routes leading to main Camino arteries. The main route from France is now so well marked that you cannot go wrong, even if you have no guidebook: for every junction, each slight deviation of the path, and every wall between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic ocean is brightened with a yellow arrow pointing the way forward. It was not a committee that decided to mark it like this, nor a tourism board, but just the parish priest, Don Elías, with his Citroen car filled with pots of yellow paint and brushes. (The photo shows him and his car at O Cebreiro.)

Don Elías liked to be known simply as “lo cura do montaña,” the priest of the mountain in Gallego. His project had begun as a parish enquiry prompted by his pastoral role, simple from a desire to help the villagers of O Cebreiro understand their own history, as a people and as a place of hospitality; but his vision ultimately had the effect of regenerating the economies of villages and towns all along the pilgrim trail. The success of his mission is measured in hundreds of thousands of people, many Catholics but also thousands more of other faiths and none, who have been inspired to take part in the historic pilgrim tradition.

Although he died at the age of sixty in 1989 he lived long enough to see the first fruits of his mission in O Cebreiro. A new pilgrim hostel was constructed on the outskirts of the village because the number of pilgrims now seeking accommodation had grown exponentially. Guided by the research of Don Elías, this refuge was named after Saint Gerald of Aurillac, a French Benedictine reformer, after whom the original 10th-century priory and pilgrim hospital at O Cebreiro had been dedicated. There is a wonderful modern legend about the confusion of Saint Gerald’s name – Sant Gral in Gallego – with the name for the Holy Grail, Sant Grial, which may explain why visitors can now see the Holy Grail on display in the village church![3]

The real modern legend here is the priest himself, Don Elías, and this postcard from O Cebreiro invites our reflections on priesthood. Don Elías is a good model for Catholic priests of our time. Nearly twenty years ago, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II wanted to identify key aspects of the formation of priests “in the circumstances of the present day” (the subtitle of the document) and he cited four pillars for priestly formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. They are distinct but interconnected. One of the great challenges is recognition that priests in our time have to adapt their role to a fast-changing culture: those circumstances of the present day. The world is evolving and undergoing change at a pace that is both unusual in human history and in the experience of the Church, as its tradition comes under criticism in a secular age.[4]

One response is to batten down the hatches and retreat within our comfort zone of spiritual space, drawing upon tradition as a shielding blanket. Another response is to explore the authentic tradition and customs of the Church and offer them to the faithful and also to the secular world in fresh and exciting ways. Pastores Dabo Vobis asks priests to “learn to open the horizon of their mind and heart to the missionary dimension of the Church’s life.” As Don Elías, priest of O Cebreiro said, “I’m preparing for an invasion.” He painted those yellow arrows to show the way to everyone, not just for Catholics.

As Catholics and pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in the Holy Year 2021-2022, do we turn up our noses at the New Age worshippers of ley-lines and the German followers of the Kamino Komedian, and the mountain-bikers following those yellow arrows from the Pyrenees to Compostela for the thrill of pedaling with thirty-gears on a rocky trail? Do we say they are doing something lesser than our Holy Year pilgrimage of special indulgence? That is not the example of mission Don Elías showed us. He wanted those ‘invaders’ to interact with his parishioners and for them to provide authentic Catholic hospitality. There is perhaps—beyond the Camino—a wider message here. Mission doesn’t start with Catholics scrutinizing each other to judge who is a ‘proper’ pilgrim.

Notes:

[1] Antonio Regalado and Beth Ann Lahoski, Un Paso en el Tiempo: Historias y Hospitalidad a la vera del Camino del Apóstol, (Silex Ediciones, 2005.)

[2] Laurie Dennett’s A Hug for the Apostle (Macmillan, 1987); out of print for many years, it was republished by Words Indeed Publishing in 2019.

[3] Mathew Kuefler, “How the Holy Grail ended up in O Cebreiro, Galicia” (2012); San Diego State University, full text PDF available at URL: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/493b/baf889457bfe2d7d7badae5b2bbdaff8c77e.pdf?_ga=2.248550465.71783477.1618496506-582079354.1618496506

[4] Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031992_pastores-dabo-vobis.html

Images: Header photo by the author; O Cebreiro deserted, La Voz de Galicia, 6 Feb 2021; photo of Martin Sheen, The Way (Amazon); Don Elías and his Citröen car, El Correo Gallego, 17 Dec. 2020.


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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).

Postcard #2: O Cebreiro and the priest who prepared an invasion
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