A modern app offers hope and help for the ancient Camino de Santiago

Father Mark Beckman, the pastor of St. Henry Church in Nashville, walked the Camino de Santiago in 2014. He is shown here at the alta de perdon near Pamplona, Spain. A new app, Camino for Good, allows people to walk the Camino virtually while supporting the owners of the small hostels that serve pilgrims along the route.

Pandemic and pilgrimage. They can go together, at least on the centuries-old Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes in Spain leading to the great cathedral where tradition holds that the relics of St. James the Apostle can be found.

A group of seven men and women who walked the 500-mile Camino are trying to help keep the ancient pilgrimage route alive as Spain, and the rest of the world, gingerly navigates the ripples of the pandemic shutdown. Their efforts are centered on a smartphone app called Camino for Good, and they formed a Tennessee corporation last year to raise money through it.

“This is a critical time in Spain, we need to help. We need to give this money to the albergue owners, and so we formed a public benefit corporation,” said Bellevue resident Susan DePue, who proposed the idea for the app to her friend Kelly Gilfillan last year. “It just took a life of its own. I had a little thought, nothing compared to what it’s become.”

The app enables users to virtually walk the Way of St. James by logging in the miles they walk in daily life. The organization reported this month that it has given more than $57,000 in grants to 21 small hostels along the Camino, raised from the $60 registration fee paid by subscribers.

These hostels, called albergues, are a crucial resource on the Camino journey. The pandemic has all but dried up the revenue which comes from the pilgrims – about 250,000 annually before 2020 – who showed up at their doors seeking a place to spend the night after a long day of walking.

The outlook for 2021 from anxious albergue owners, pilgrim organizations, and U.S. and Spanish embassies is that any sense of normalcy won’t set in for many months to come.

2021 is an especially holy year for Catholics in the city of Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino because the July 25 feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. Whenever this occurs, the cathedral’s Holy Door – the Door of Forgiveness – is opened on New Year’s Eve in a ritual-laden ceremony that begins the Jubilee Year. The faithful who walk through the door and fulfill other conditions may obtain plenary indulgences.

According to news reports, Pope Francis extended the Jubilee Year through 2022 to account for the effects of the pandemic on the pilgrimage route. The last Jubilee Year was in 2010 and officials estimated more than 100,000 pilgrims showed up.

‘Connect with the journey’

Father Mark Beckman, pastor of St. Henry Church in Nashville, said the idea of supporting the ancient pilgrimage tradition through a modern-day app is a good way to participate.

“Right now in our world, there’s so many people who long to go traveling and can’t go physically,” he said. The idea of virtually walking the Camino can be “a wonderful way to connect with the actual journey itself and maybe will inspire people once things open up to go back and visit.”

“Pilgrimage, journeying, walking – these have all been part of the human experience from the beginning,” he said. “There’s always something about our relationship with the mystery of God that is inviting us on a journey.”

Father Beckman walked the Camino Francés while on sabbatical in 2014, starting with two friends from Tennessee in St. Jean Pied de Port in France and crossing over the Pyrenees to enter Spain.

He kept a journal during his travels and upon his return home, put together a series of columns and a booklet containing spiritual lessons he learned along the way.

Free copies of the booklet are available by contacting the St. Henry Church office. Father Beckman’s Camino columns are currently being included in the parish’s weekly bulletin as a means of spiritual wisdom and encouragement for parishioners and interested readers.

“I love the fact that the Camino is something that is now universally drawing people, and I believe it is drawing them into the mystery of God even if they don’t necessarily, intentionally start that way,” Father Beckman said.

For himself, he said, the ongoing grace of his own Camino experience is “the whole awareness of life being a journey and living one day at a time and being open to what each new day will bring.”

“You know, the pandemic has been a lot like the Camino in the sense that the pandemic has been a journey for our whole community, indeed for the world,” he said. “And like the Camino, when you wake up each day on the Camino you don’t know what the new day is going to bring … there have been new, unexpected vistas that have opened up and unexpected challenges and difficulties.”

‘It saved me’

DePue, a retired business consultant, said she was drawn to walk the Camino in 2018 as a nod to her 70th birthday as she pondered growing old and the regrets of life.

“I wanted to go the St. James Way, the way of forgiveness. I wanted to go to forgive me,” she said. “I really felt like I felt God when I was walking outside.”

She told of deep friendships she made, moments of humor and kindness, and the feeling of blessedness that filled her after she walked the final mile.

Gilfillan walked the Camino that same year, a journey that marked the end of a 30-year marriage and the family life built around it. She took time out from her job as publisher of an online news organization and threw herself into the healing paces and Camino “family” that walked alongside her. 

Gilfillan shared her intimate story with the app audience as did some of the other co-founders, including Bill Austin, a California businessman who has walked four different strands of the Camino and plans to go again once the routes reopen.

“There’s part of the Camino that stays with you and this (app) project has helped me reconnect with that,” Austin said. He recalled seeing the 2010 movie “The Way” by Martin Sheen and Emilio Esteves, which inspired him to add the Camino to his bucket list.

Hard times hit his business and life. He said he needed an escape and headed to Spain in 2014. “The Camino, it really had a way of connecting to you at that time in your life when you need it and I never expected that,” Austin said. “It just saved me, it really did. The Camino gave me way more than I expected, way more.”

Giving hope and help

The Camino For Good app currently features 207 towns on the Camino Francés and the group aims to expand to some of the other routes. There are thousands of photos from pilgrims as well as personal stories, walking tips, and motivational content.

A monthly Zoom gathering featuring pilgrims, albergue owners and other guests has proven useful, as have Facebook forums, in building a sense of community.

Other app co-founders include Austin’s daughter Shay Austin, who has traveled the world in conservation activities, database expert Lindsay Teychenne in Perth, Australia, and new partners Fabio Elia and his wife, Veronica, who own F1v, a software development and design firm.

A huge highlight is the inclusion of content from John Brierley who has written a number of guides to the Camino routes. For Camino pilgrims, the guides are a precious tool to navigating the day’s journey.

Austin said he has spoken with Brierley, who expressed concern about how the pandemic would affect viable albergues on the routes, particularly in areas where the stops were already sparse. In some cases, “it could turn a 15-mile walk into a 45-mile walk, Austin said. “He’s very concerned about those albergues.”

Even so, as Austin comments on the group’s website, caminoforgood.com, the Camino “has been there for 1,000 years and will be there for another 1,000 for sure. But for now, it could use a little of what it gave us, hope and help.”