On September 6, a Lourdes Pilgrimage Malade together with a team of California members of the Order of Malta departed for Spain for a week on the Camino de Santiago. Responding to an invitation by the Orden de Malta de España, the Western Association assembled a team to join them on a journey through a network of ancient footpaths throughout Europe, ending in northwest Spain at Santiago de Compostela. It was the first ever Camino sponsored by the Western Association.
For centuries, pilgrims walked from all over Europe to the magnificent Cathedral to receive forgiveness, offer gratitude, or seek solace by venerating the bones of St. James, which are believed to be buried under the Cathedral. Today, pilgrims continue to earnestly walk these footpaths. Our pilgrimage was the El Camino Sobre Ruedas, or The Way on Wheels, referring to the specifically designed wheelchairs or joelettes used to transport the Malades.
Our group of 17 members and volunteers included teams from Spain, Albania, and the U.S., with each team hosting a Malade. The Spanish Association provided extraordinary leadership and coordination. We walked along segments of the Camino Frances (a popular section of the network of trails) and stayed in traditional communal albergues or hostels. We attended Mass daily, prayed together, and dined on local fare. Along the way, we visited the Order’s ancient hospitals and churches. Then, as now, the Order of Malta cared for and protected pilgrims on the journey.
Nearing the Cathedral, we donned our red vests, unfurled our country flags, and with our beloved Malades, processed reverently through the old part of town. When we entered the Plaza de Obradorio, we were greeted with cheers and applause from the other pilgrims. It was a blessed and joyous moment for all of us, one that we will remember forever. We prayed together aloud in gratitude for our safe arrival, then burst into rounds of hugs, well-wishes, and tears (and photos!). This experience was expanded on by one of our pilgrims:
"The square was filled with hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world. As we entered the courtyard on our joelettes, the crowd clapped and cheered. We were overwhelmed with emotion as tears of joy flowed. We spent the next hour taking it all in while we sat beneath the beauty and grander of St. James Cathedral." - Richard Gardner
Our joy continued later that evening when we took our place in the front row of the Cathedral for the Pilgrims’ Mass. One member of our group read a proclamation from the altar introducing us to the congregation. The celebrant made several references to our presence. The Mass culminated with the extraordinary butofumario (the famous giant censer spreading incense throughout the Cathedral) flying above our heads accompanied by triumphant organ music. The solemnity of the occasion continued with a private visit to the tomb of St. James beneath the altar, and the traditional embrace of the statue of St. James above the altar. We were then escorted to a private courtyard in the Cathedral complex where we were awarded our Compostela, or official certificate of completion, written in the traditional Latin verse.
This pilgrimage was intense -- we shared close quarters, we worked as one unit, we were physically exhausted. And yet, we enjoyed a closeness and camaraderie, and experienced moments of enlightenment and transcendence that will stay with us forever. Most important, we were bound together by what God has called us to do -- care for our lords, the poor and the sick, and were greatly honored for this responsibility.
Voices from the Camino
Camino Day 1: Andrew D’Ambrosio, KM
“My goal is to separate the horizontal City of man from the vertical City of God on a trail that is measured in days and miles and involves a heavy physical toll. How can I bring God more into my life? How do I make each stage, each step, not as a chance to celebrate an accomplishment but as a chance to thank God? That is what I will find out on the Camino. I will find out in The Way.”
Camino Day 2: Michelle Navarro, Order of Malta Pilgrimage Coordinator
“Like Lourdes, there are no words to describe it. How do you describe a journey with strangers who become family, with guests who have put their faith in us to take care of them, and fellow pilgrims who we rely on to keep us going when our bodies ache? A pilgrim who inquired about our journey at a rest stop said, ‘I have been on the Camino for twenty days and this is the first day I cried.’ And so did I.”
Camino Day 3: Micah Navarro, Orange Location Auxiliary
“We walk for four hours a day for several miles, and there is little respite for a contemplative moment. During the walk, I’m 100% focused on our malade and trying to make the journey for him as comfortable as possible. Whether it’s pulling the cart while fixated on the ground in front of me to make sure his ride is as smooth as possible or walking beside the cart to keep pace, it is tough to keep your personal goals and aspirations for the trip in focus. Our malade must always come first.”
Camino Day 4: Karen McClintock, DM and Team Captain
“After twenty years in the Order, multiple pilgrimages to Lourdes and Guadalupe, and local service in Los Angeles, I watch with fascination as our colleagues demonstrate respect and compassion on a level I’ve never seen. No matter the disability, I’ve watched them care for our lords in a matter that takes my breath away. I’ve shed many a tear as I watch them minister to our malade guests with indescribable tenderness and pure love.”
Camino Day 5: Scott Lukens, KM
“Our walk continued through the fog passing small streams and then to a hiking trail that took us to an albergue tucked in the woods. The ancient house and barn were remarkable for the quantity of hodgepodge decorations adorning them: a potted plant painted like a frog, another a cow, a collection of a dozen rubber duckies, just to name a few. No flat space wasted. Here, we enjoyed local desserts and fresh tomatoes before continuing on our journey.”
Camino Day 6: Andrew D’Ambrosio, KM
“With Santiago so close, the interior quietness sharpens while the exterior signs of pilgrims past and present grow. There are more pilgrims on the Camino now. The Way is not our own anymore….The monument is a twenty-foot high Cross with crucified Christ on one side and Mary holding infant Jesus on the other. It is a 17th century testament to those faithful who went before us. There are petitions and prayers as well as rocks and flowers at the base of the Cross -- symbols of our hope and trust in God.”
Last Day of the Camino: Richard Gardner, Guest
“I was very humbled by our Pilgrimage as I know all of us were. Each of us faced challenges in our lives. May we find comfort and confirmation in our faith by placing our love and trust in God’s hands as he will show us The Way. Thank you to all who made this journey and Pilgrimage possible for me.”