If you only have a short time or short attention span, try this three-paragraph review (if you have more time or interest, see the longer article that follows below):
I recently read Discovering the Camino de Santiago after an autographed copy was sent to me by Mary Rose Garych, one of the parishioners of Fr. Greg Markey, who wrote the book. Mary Rose is a Facebook friend, and she thought I might be interested after she had read a lukewarm review I had posted about The Way, a recent movie by Emilio Estevez about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. In my review, I had found the movie lacking because it tries so hard not to be religious that it falls short of being the powerful movie it might have been.
In contrast, Fr. Markey’s book describes a devout Catholic pilgrimage. I already had a great deal of admiration for Fr. Markey, who I'd met along with some of his parishioners at a Sacred Music colloquium in 2007. He is a zealous, comparatively young priest pastor who wears a cassock and a Roman collar and who also offers Traditional Latin Masses in the Extraordinary Form and supports a high-quality sacred music program at his parish in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Fr. Markey’s account of his pilgrimage is a perfect book for a Catholic to read, whether or not you are planning to try to walk the Camino yourself. He provides background information about the history of the Apostle St. James the Greater that you need in order to understand why pilgrims have been trekking to the northwest corner of Spain to honor the saint for centuries. All we learn in the Scriptures is that St. James lived in Israel. Fr. Markey’s book presents the evidence for the traditional beliefs that St. James evangelized Spain, that he returned to Jerusalem and later died as the first martyr among the Apostles, and that his body was brought back to Spain for burial. And Fr. Markey’s own journey to the shrine of St. James is humbly told, reverent, and inspiring. From a comment I posted to the National Catholic Register review of the book.
If you have time for or interest in pondering the history of pilgrimages in general and the Camino de Santiago in more detail read on.
Probably the most famous of all pilgrimage stories is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which recounts a series of predominantly raunchy tales that are exchanged by a group of men and women to amuse themselves as they travel together on a pilgrimage in April of 1387 to the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, England. Even if you haven’t heard of Canterbury Tales, you probably have heard of the movie Becket, which starred Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, and dramatized the murder of St. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his cathedral. St. Thomas Becket was killed because he had stood up against his friend and king, Henry II, to support the autonomy of the Church. St. Thomas Becket was canonized as a martyr only two years after his death, in 1173. And his tomb has been a pilgrimage destination ever since.
William Blake’s 1 ft. x 3 ft. engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims
Canterbury Tales was written about two hundred years after St. Thomas of Canterbury’s death. Chaucer’s work is full of references to Catholic practices and saints, to Christ and His Mother. Among the thirty-odd pilgrims are both male clerics (a prior, a monk, three priests, a parson, a pardoner, and a summoner), and women religious (a prioress, and a nun). At the end after the raucous tales were over, when Chaucer was nearing death, he added a retraction, repenting for any harm he might have done out of ignorance by writing down lewd tales and asking for forgiveness for any parts of his work that “sownen unto sinne” [lead readers by bad example towards sin].
From the characteristics of the characters as portrayed by Chaucer and by the stories they told, it’s obvious that even back in the 14th century most people made pilgrimages more for fun than for penance. True, Chaucer’s pilgrims were on their way to the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket but the pious destination for many seems to have been a pretext for a lark. In an era before cruise ships, travel agents, and package tours, people in Chaucer’s time traveled for many of the same reasons people travel these days, to see new places, to escape their ordinary lives, to get out in the open air in the springtime, to meet new people and to have adventures to boast about when they returned home. You didn’t have many choices back then if you wanted to see the world, you either went to war (if you were a man), or you went on a pilgrimage.
Aside from the knight in Chaucer’s story, who is travelling to give thanks for his survival during the Crusades, and who is a “a verray, parfit gentil knight,” the only other truly inspiring member of the company is the parson, a poor priest who Chaucer describes as rich “of hooly thoght and werk.”
But then, you might consider the five–times-married conniving Wife of Bath to be inspiring (as I once did during my feminist days when I admired her independent ways). Chaucer wrote that the Wife of Bath knew much about wandering by the way and had “passed many a strange strem.” Chaucer was making ironic digs about the much-mated woman’s indiscretions, but this bawdy 14th century character had wandered much and had passed many strange streams also because she had made an astounding number of pilgrimages: three times to Jerusalem, another time to Rome, and other times to other major pilgrimage sites, Boulogne in France, Cologne in Germany, and most apropos to this review, she had also gone to Santiago, in Spain.
The ancient Christian world had many pilgrimage sites. And before them, the Jews had the Temple at Jerusalem that they were bound to visit several times a year, until it was destroyed. It’s intriguing to realize that the roads in the Judeo Christian world have been tramped by pilgrims for thousands of years, and that people have been traveling a lot longer distances and for many more years than we can probably even imagine.
Santiago [Sant Iago] means St. James. Santiago de Compostela is the short way to refer to the Cathedral Shrine of St. James at Compostela where the Apostle St. James the Greater is buried. And the Camino de Santiago is the short way to refer to the road (camino=road) that pilgrims take to St. James’s Shrine.
Discovering the Camino de Santiago, by Rev. Greg Markey, is a much more humble work than Canterbury Tales, and it was written in our era, which is for the most part no longer even nominally Catholic and which knows little or nothing about pilgrimages. Fr. Markey started writing this brief (75 page) book as he travelled prayerfully and contemplatively on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during a sabbatical, from late June to late July in 2009. The book is not a work of literature, and it is not a guide for someone who plans to check off “Walk the Camino” on his or her bucket list.
Hundreds perhaps thousands of books have been written about the Camino. When asked why he wrote yet another book about it, Fr. Markey replied that very few Americans know about the Camino and that misinformation abounds.
He describes the significance of St. James the Greater whose bones are credibly believed to be entombed at the cathedral in Compostela. He quotes from significant Church documents about the shrine and provides some of the rich history of the Camino. And then he describes how he walked along the road with both a Vatican flag and an American flag hanging on his backpack and a rosary in his hand, handing out blessed Miraculous Medals as the opportunity presented itself, among a shifting stream of people who came from all around the world for many and varied reasons.
No bawdy tales are recorded in this good priest’s book and nobody’s foibles are parodied. Fr. Markey wrote in his introduction that he wanted to write about the Camino “from the perspective of a believer” both because the Camino is rich in Catholic history and because the great contribution of the Apostle St. James to the evangelization of Hispanic peoples deserves to be better known. Devotion to St. James was the original motive for the pilgrimages to Compostela that began to be made about thousand years ago, and a record of widespread devotion to the great Apostle remains in Europe, the Caribbean, and in Central and South America in the scores of cities and towns and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches, that bear Saint James’s name.
The distance from where Canterbury Tales began in Southwark in London to where it ended in Canterbury is about 58 miles, and the journey took four days for most people mounted on either a horse or mule. In contrast, Fr. Markey walked 496 often-pain-filled miles of the popular portion of the Camino called the Camino Frances, which extends from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near France’s border to Compostela, and his pilgrimage took him a month. He walked the Camino to offer thanks to God for his ten years as a priest, with the resolution to offer up any sufferings he might experience along the way.
This French map shows the vast network of Compostela pilgrimage routes across Western Europe and England. Four of the major routes converge in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, where Fr. Markey began his pilgrimage
How many of us could imagine that hundreds of thousands travel on the Camino and converge on Compostela every year? As was true in Chaucer’s tale, only a scant few of Fr. Markey’s fellow travelers could be said to be on the Camino for pure motives of performing penance and showing sorrow for sins.
Fr. Markey greatest camaraderie occurred during the times when he fell in with a pious and joyful group of Catholic young people who are members of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and who seemed to be on the Camino for all the right reasons. After they kept running into each other, they decided to join forces, and from that point on they read the Liturgy of the Hours, said the Rosary, and participated at Mass with Fr. Markey, until the end of the pilgrimage.
Fr. Markey’s goal was to arrive at the shrine by the Feast of St. James on July 25, and in spite of setbacks from “Brother Ass” that put his plan at risk, he made it--the day before the feast. He concelebrated with the archbishop and many other priests on the feast day, and a day later he was able to say a private Mass with the FOCUS group at the tomb of St. James.
The experience of the Camino has been exhausting—perhaps the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life—yet filled with many graces. The Camino beats you down, wears you out and purifies you.
I met Father Markey, along with his parish choirmaster and organist, David Hughes, and a number of their parishioners, at the 2007 Sacred Music Colloquium in Washington D.C. (Above)
Fr. Markey is pastor of St. Mary Church in Norwalk, CT. One of his parishioners who attended the colloquium, a dear young woman named Mary Rose Garych, sent me an autographed copy of Fr. Markey’s book, after she read my review on Facebook of the recent movie about the Camino de Santiago, called The Way.
Father Markey wears a cassock and a Roman collar, which I believe makes a much-needed statement about the special calling of a priest. I especially admired him when I first met him because he seems to do all that he can to foster reverent worship at his parish, as he wrote on the parish website, “to simply bring St. Mary Church into conformity with the norms of the Church.” Now, after reading his pilgrim story, I admire him even more. Since the book was published, Fr. Markey has become sought after as a speaker about pilgrimages, justifiably so.
Fr. Markey at Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s Norwalk (December 25th, 2011). The parish offers a Traditional Latin High Mass daily and offers the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin on Sunday mornings
Another reader who commented on the National Catholic Register review of this book remarked that pictures would have added a lot. Here is a photo from the web of the Virgin of Orisson, a beautiful statue that Fr. Markey encountered soon after he had entered Spain on the Camino Frances and started climbing in the Pyrennes