A group of pilgrims’ backpacks on the paving stone of Obradoiro Square, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. AdobeStock

The Priesthood as Pilgrimage

A priest’s trodden path is a communal experience and an opportunity for encounter

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Some years ago, as a priest for nearly 10 years, I was able to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. It took a month and stretched over 500 miles. As readers may know, for millennia, Christian saints and sinners have followed this pilgrim route, which leads to the tomb of the apostle James the Greater. Nearly 25 years later, the experience of being a pilgrim on the road to Compostela continually resonates in my heart and mind, offering guidance on my journey as a priest.

“Wow, you walked the whole thing,” people sometimes say. I smile to myself knowing that the step I took at Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees was not “the whole thing.” I met pilgrims who started walking to Compostela from their back doors in Belgium, France and beyond. Two men I met started walking from their homes in Poland! What does it mean for a pilgrim to walk “the whole thing”? I knew my pilgrimage didn’t start in Roncesvalles, no more than my priesthood started on ordination day.

Several months before priestly ordination, a seminary professor recommended to a classmate and me that we make a pilgrimage to the churches where we were baptized. It seemed like a good thing to do. As we drove up to the church where my friend was baptized, the doors of the church were open wide. The pastor was getting ready for a funeral and was awaiting the hearse. Standing in the sunlight, he was already vested in a beautiful white chasuble. Recognizing us as we approached the church, he flashed a big smile, came toward us, embraced us and led us to the baptismal font. What a wonderful memory!

The pilgrimage to my own baptismal church was not as spectacularly memorable. Except for a side door, where we managed to enter, everything was locked. The colored glass windows created a depressing gloom reminiscent of the Upper Room before Pentecost occurred. I presumed that a glass bowl stuck in the corner of the sanctuary was used as a baptismal font. There was no water in it. A dish at the door with a wet sponge would have to do as a memory of my own baptism. That was OK. I knew the gift of God I received there as an infant had been devotedly “[stirred] into flame” (2 Tm 1:6) by my family, the people who worshiped there and many others. Only gratitude filled my heart that day for the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:5-6). Certainly, baptism is the first significant step of our earthy pilgrimage as priests.

A Sign Forward

When walking the Camino those many years ago, I met a woman who had a difficult time. She wanted her pilgrimage to be special because she was searching for her special self, her unique identity. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts. So, when she arrived at Roncesvalles, she decided that she would do what other pilgrims did not do: She decided to walk in the opposite direction, heading toward the previous town on the route, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It was already dusk, and many people tried to dissuade her. It was too late and soon it would be dark, they told her. And besides, they said, the route is meant to lead people toward Compostela, not away from it. But she was determined to do it her own way, and she set off away from Compostela.


A few hours later, she found herself lost and weeping. It was dark. Suddenly, she saw the lights of a town in the distance. Her tears dried. She was sure that Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was before her. As she energetically walked into the town, she discovered that she had been walking in a circle and had returned to Roncesvalles.

The next morning, the woman got up early and again began walking in the opposite direction of the other pilgrims, away from Compostela. The route is well-marked. But the yellow arrows that guide pilgrims are painted on trees or rocks facing pilgrims as they walk toward Compostela, which she could not see. She became hopelessly lost and in the same situation as the day before. The driver of a car saw her weeping by the side of the road, stopped and returned her to Roncesvalles. She took it as a sign. The woman decided to follow the other pilgrims. She began walking toward Compostela and not away from it. However, though she was following the pilgrims, she still had a lot to learn about what it means to be one.

The Trodden Path

Indeed, since “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1120), the priest never searches for a special or exotic pilgrimage path, but always follows the one trodden. It pleases God to bring salvation to everyone, “not just singly, apart from any mutual bond, but to mold [us] into a people in which his sons [and daughters], once scattered abroad might be gathered together” (Ad Gentes, No. 2). As with the rest of the Church, the pilgrim-priest encounters God while marching with the sacramental presence of the Lord as his guide.

As she walked, the woman would learn that we do not come to understand ourselves so much from looking interiorly. We come to know ourselves — even our special selves — through relationships, by looking exteriorly to observe how people respond to us and to how we respond to others. Though she was walking in the same direction as the others, she was still doing things her own way, without much appreciation of others. While all the other pilgrims would get up early and begin walking, she would sleep late and arrive late at the albergues, where pilgrims sleep, disturbing their much-needed rest. This did not win affection from other pilgrims.

After a few days, she was ready to quit. She was tired. Her shoulders hurt from carrying her backpack. She had blisters on her feet. However, her individualistic schedule did not allow others to get to know her or offer her support. She told herself that she would give it one more day.

The next day she got up with the others and began keeping a schedule closer to that of her fellow pilgrims. Day by day, things got better. Her backpack got lighter. Her stride was stronger. “Then things in my mind began to change,” she recalled, “and a little bit of clarity started to come. I just felt that something inside me started changing, and it was very good.”

Opportunity for Encounter

Pilgrimage is a communal experience, an opportunity for encounter. The role of the priest is to encourage people to walk the trodden path, where the Lord is met, and to place no obstacles in their way. What priest, in his own life as a pilgrim, doesn’t encounter the Lord’s true presence among those gathered with him around the Eucharist? What priest doesn’t encounter the Lord’s own tenderness when he hears the confessions of others and absolves them? What priest doesn’t encounter the Lord’s own hopefulness each time he baptizes? We encounter the Lord because we follow the pilgrims’ path marked by the sacraments.

The pilgrimage route to Compostela can often be full of people, making it difficult to find a place to sleep in the albergues that offer hospitality. A pilgrim to Compostela told me about how irritated he became with the many pilgrims he encountered. He recounted one experience when he arrived at the albergue and found a long line. As he waited, tired from a full day’s walk and aching from carrying his pack, he was afraid that he would not get a bed. Waiting in line, he did not look on his fellow pilgrims as partners and guides toward a common goal; rather, he looked on them as obstacles and impediments.

Later in the day, perhaps after a shower and a nap, he went to Mass. He said that while sitting in church before Mass “I heard a question: Why are you walking to Compostela? What is it that you are walking for? What is it that you want?”

The pilgrim reflected that he reacted so strongly while waiting in line because it caused him to feel like he was just part of a mass of people on their way to Compostela. He didn’t like that. He wanted to feel different. He wanted to feel special. “My body was aching and there was no glory in it,” he said. “I realized that I was walking because of who God is and not any glory of my own. If I was seeking my own glory, I was not going to find it.”

In his own trials and tribulations, the priest also discovers that he will not find his own glory on the pilgrimage path that is his life as a priest. But he will find God’s glory by always treasuring his own baptism, which first set him on his pilgrimage way. He will find God’s glory by looking around, seeing God’s people and helping them all to stay on the trodden road.

FATHER EDWARD LINTON, OSB, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, was ordained in 1991. He currently serves as director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education (ICTE) at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy.

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