Tennessee members of the Knights of Columbus returned from Spain last month after having an opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in the Catholic faith.
The Camino de Santiago, known in English as “the Way of St. James,” is considered one of the greatest pilgrimages in Christianity. It follows a series of nearly 500 miles of paths through Northern Spain, known as the path of St. James the Greater’s journey across the Iberian Peninsula prior to his martyrdom. Tradition holds that St. James’ body was subsequently returned to what would become the city of Santiago de Compostela and a shrine was built to him there.
Three years ago, several members of the Knights of Columbus in Tennessee began pulling together plans for an official pilgrimage of 32 local knights from across the state to walk this historic trail, which finally occurred between Oct. 12-20, and covered 70.8 miles of the historic path over five days of walking.
Tennessee State Chaplain Father Gervan Menezes, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville and director of campus ministries for the Diocese of Nashville, was approached by his fellow knight Michael McCusker in late 2020, and the two of them announced the trip formally in January 2021. McCusker is the Supreme Master of the Fourth Degree for the Order, but was the State Deputy of Tennessee at the time.
The pilgrimage almost immediately drew more interest than expected, necessitating expanding the trip from 20 people to 32, with many of them reserving their seats two years in advance. The trip included parishioners from all three dioceses in Tennessee.
“It was an amazing experience,” said McCusker. “The one thing I’ve reflected on as we walked miles and miles was that when you have that much time to talk with God everyday, you start seeing other connections develop. You can walk, pray, talk with God, and feel his presence, and then you can find yourself feeling the presence of the Blessed Mother or my parents, who are deceased now. I could sense them walking with me in my thoughts and prayers as I went. On one particular day, the Feast of St. Luke, it was interesting how I started to feel a connection toward him as I contemplated his life as a saint.”
“The Camino is a spiritual journey, and it’s amazing. It was incredible, to be there, to experience the commune was one of the most amazing experiences that I had in my life,” Father Menezes added. “My role was to be the spiritual director to the pilgrims, and walk with them. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
The journey on foot itself was relatively smooth, discounting the days and days of torrential downpouring rain that they experienced for the duration of the work. At points, the weather turned enough that the knights had to wear ponchos over their raincoats. Fortunately, the group persevered through the difficult aspects of the experience, with only a handful of blisters, swollen toes, and scraped knees.
“I didn’t quite do as well as I hoped to do. I had to skip out about eight miles of the entire Camino which still left me with plenty over the minimum to reach the Compostela [the certificate each pilgrim receives after walking 100 km],” said Murfreesboro resident Bill Strebel.
“The whole group got there at some point or another. I think for everybody the pilgrimage itself was a success. It was physically tiring, but it was also emotional and spiritual and fulfilling.”
“I would say that the trip was about 70 to 75 percent rain while we were walking, but once we passed that Santiago de Compostela sign, walking into town there to walk through the cathedral plaza and pray the rosary on the way in as a group walking through the streets, … suddenly there was no more rain for the rest of the trip,” Strebel continued. “We walked around Santiago on that Saturday without a drop. … It was amazing. Our visit to Madrid was dry, our visit to Santiago was dry, and it was just the walking period that was wet.”
Despite exhaustion and a small handful of mild injuries, which challenged even Strebel and McCusker, who both have experience in the military and with tough conditions, the journey proved to be worth it. McCusker even said he intends to journey back to walk other parts of the full trail in the future when he has the opportunity.
“There was a sign on the last night we saw at the Camino that says ‘The Way Begins Now,’ meaning you may have walked this journey, but the real way begins now,” McCusker said. “You have to walk the rest of your life knowing the things you’ve learned. It’s kind of like going through a good confession. You need to stay focused and stick on track. My journey isn’t over and I’ve got to keep going.”
“Santiago is a way for us to know that we are on this pilgrimage towards heaven. That is our life,” Father Menezes added. “That is our journey. Trying every day isn’t going to be easier, and sometimes it is going to be harder, but the Camino is not only that opportunity to be there in Santiago. It’s an opportunity to know that we are on that journey to heaven where we’ll see God face to face.”