The Camino route junction where pilgrims walking to Compostela from France meet those coming from the east in Spain on the Camino Aragonés is at Obanos, after which they all mix together in the hostel dormitories of Puente la Reina. The pilgrimage Holy Year will attract large numbers and the Covid restrictions on movement have now been removed, so these next few weeks will be a test of pilgrims’ responsibility for both themselves and others in Camino towns.
Sadly, there are already signs that some Catholic pilgrims are preparing to deliberately ignore medical advice to have Covid-19 inoculations before starting along the Camino. Looking at online discussions, there is a significant irresponsible minority who are happy to put the health and potentially the lives of others at risk. One particular Catholic pilgrim told me he is shortly setting off from southeast France to walk the Camino and he says, “Whether or not I decide to receive the vaccine is entirely my choice. I am not going to be dictated to.”
Since he contributes his Covid skepticism daily online, loudly pitting his non-expert voice against public medical advice, I am not optimistic he will make a sensible decision. He therefore potentially endangers every Camino pilgrim with whom he shares a dormitory. There is a subterranean fault line in digital culture wars that can break into the real world on the surface. Poor moral choices can cause real social tremors: actual health casualties, measurable extra deaths. If there is any doubt about the risks, ask any experienced pilgrim to remind you how quickly an outbreak of bedbugs can spread from one hostel to another along the length of the Camino from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic at Finisterre!
Apart from breaking off any further communication with such a person–which I have now done–there is little more to be done with such an “isolated conscience” as Pope Francis explains this kind of moral individualism. He also made clear in a January interview for Italy’s TG5 news program, “that ethically everyone must get the vaccine, it’s an ethical option, because your health is at stake, your life, but you also play with the lives of others.” Catholics who argue against the vaccine and try to influence others to think likewise are acting contrary to Church advice and only acting upon their ignorance. They should ask themselves serious questions, but many seem unlikely to do so while involved in a mutual circle of dissent and rebellion.
There is, however, another moral category that is becoming increasingly apparent: the many people who are simply “needle phobic” rather than having an ideological position on vaccines. This group is now a real concern. The majority of patients now being admitted to hospitals with Covid symptoms in some European hotspots are those who were offered the vaccine but did not accept it, and it is reckoned that a sizeable number of these are simply hesitant, or phobic, rather than outright refusers. They are people who have had an adverse reaction to vaccines in the past, such as long-lasting “needle arm” which they experienced after a flu shot or some other vaccine; or they habitually avoid inoculations if they can, or delay the moment indefinitely. If asked, they would not self-identify as “refusers,” but might say, “Well, I’ll probably have to get it eventually.”
It would be hard to find anyone who likes having a needle stuck in their arm! I recounted in the previous Postcard my experience of getting the first dose of the Covid vaccine, and I am waiting for my second, next week. But I do have an admission to make about the past. When I joined the Royal Air Force at age sixteen as an aeronautical technician apprentice, I had to line up for inoculation in the Medical Wing at the No.1 School of Technical Training. As I stood in line with all the other recruits, I began to feel queasy and faint, for I had always been “needle phobic”. I tried not to look at what was coming, but I glimpsed the needle going into the arm of the guy in front of me. I passed out.
I didn’t remember anything else for a few minutes. When I woke up, I realized the medics had bandaged my head. As I passed out, I had toppled over and knocked my head on a steel medical trolley before hitting the floor. The medics told me I had been inoculated while they were bandaging my head, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore… until the next jab was due in six months! In a close-knit military unit, it took me a long time to live that down, because fainting before a needle looks very wrong in a macho military culture. It was only when I proved myself a better shot on the firing ranges later – and earned my marksman’s badge – that I regained the respect of my comrades. So I sympathize with those who find needles difficult: I’ve been there, hit the medical trolley, got the bandage!
For vaccine-hesitant people, facing up to the Covid-19 inoculation, and receiving it for the good of the whole community, is the correct Catholic discipline, as taught by the CDF and the Holy Father himself. But it is not as easy as that for those who fear the needle. They are not deciding to go against Church instruction, but they are simply hesitant and afraid. So it should be a pastoral duty for all of us to help our neighbors overcome their fears. Again, I emphasize this is a different category from arguing with Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers, where a different skill-set is needed.
As Catholics we have to take up our cross for the good of all. In Puente la Reina is the best example I have ever seen of people taking up their cross. It is in the Church of the Crucifix, where there is a remarkable 14th-century crucifix of German origin with Italian influence, with the cross in the shape of a Y like a natural tree. Close inspection shows that the timbers were assembled with the tree bark intact, and a few flakes of bark remain.
A few years ago, I made an unusual request when I stayed in the pilgrim hostel in Puente la Reina. I explained to the priest in charge of the Church of the Crucifix that I had walked from England and I would like to spend a whole day contemplating the Crucified in this special sculpture. It was considered an unusual request for dispensation of the one-night-stay rule, but the priest discussed it with the hostelero and they agreed to my request. I spent an entire day in the church contemplating Christ on the Cross in this crucifix. The representation of broken humanity of the suffering figure on this cross is remarkable in itself, but the story about how this sculpture came to be here is even more compelling. A group of 14th-century German pilgrims carried this heavy cross and figure of Jesus across Europe, over the Pyrenees, and along the Camino to Compostela in the northwest of Spain. Then they carried it back again for another five hundred miles to Puente la Reina where they donated it to the church before walking back to their homes in Germany. When you consider the weight of it and the distance involved, the command to take up our cross and follow Christ is well-served by this literal example.
In the past week, some rad-trad websites were very quick to take offense when the message “Vaccine Saves” was projected onto the Christ the Redeemer figure towering over Rio de Janeiro, in support of the United Vaccine Movement to share Covid protection with less developed countries. One site re-blogged it crying “Blasphemy!”–as if Jesus would not be on the side of saving lives. Brazil has reported 435,000 lives lost to Covid. (Just imagine the difference in reaction if a pro-life slogan had instead been projected on the figure, and what a triumph of holy propaganda that would have been!) When Catholics undermine the health of their poorer neighbors to wage culture wars, they should pause and consider their consciences.
In conclusion, it might seem an overblown suggestion that accepting a vaccine is taking up our Cross. A simple jab, a pinprick, compared with the hours of torture our Lord and God suffered on the Tree. For those who are hesitant, or who are mildly afraid of getting the shot, or who have been swayed by others preaching anti-vaccination messages or Covid denial, it can be a huge sacrifice and courageous decision. So for some, it can amount to the effort of taking up their Cross. We have a pastoral duty of care to offer our encouragement to them to do so. Please offer that support where you can see the need, for the good of your community and the global effort to eradicate this pandemic, and because that is what the Holy Father has urged us is the right moral action.
Images: Photos of the 14th-century Crucifix at Puente la Reina courtesy of the author; photo of Christ the Redeemer with vaccine message, courtesy of Reuters.
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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).