Monday, May 7, 2012

Is This Really the Best Catholic Book about the Camino de Santiago?

I've been looking for a good Catholic book on the Camino de Santiago, in order to convince myself not to write one. This is the old publisher in me, surveying the market to see if the niche has been filled. In twelve years in the business, I tried not to sign up a book when there were others like it already on bookstore shelves. As a writer now and no longer a publisher, I don't want to waste a year of the rest of my life on a project that has already been done. The good news is, it hasn't. That's also the bad news.

You would think that a thousand-year-old Catholic pilgrimage to the final resting place of one of the twelve Apostles (St. James, Sant Iago), which currently attracts well over 100,000 pilgrims a year, would result in several good Catholic books. I have now read most of five recent books on the Camino, and only one of them mentions Jesus or any other Christian term in its title, subtitle, or main message.

My further survey of recently published titles has turned up several practical guides, many "spiritual" journeys, a puerile memoir by an Episcopalian "back-bencher" who takes pot shots at Catholicism when he isn't cracking fart jokes, the memoir of a particularly angry nun, and not a single good Catholic book about The Way of St. James. The definitive travel guide is from Findhorn Press, named for the place in Scotland where New Agers grow really big cabbages with crystals.

The only book I've found that comes close to being Catholic and good is Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus by Fr. Dave Pivonka, a Franciscan priest who made the pilgrimage to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his ordination. His 2011 publication is Catholic through and through, but not particularly good, I'm sorry to say. It reads like a series of folksy homilies that were not copyedited. And they are unlikely to move anyone who's not already in the choir.

"I love being a priest," Pivonka writes in his foreword. "Have I mentioned that I love being a priest?" he asks three pages later. Such expressions of joy are suited to a blog by, say, my pastor, but in a book-length narrative, they wear thin quickly. Only the devout Catholic will stick with Pivonka to the end of his pilgrimage.

This is one reason I admire the recent film "The Way." It is a Catholic film that non-Catholics can enjoy without their hackles rising. In this time of the "New Evanglization," it's important that Catholic art be credible to even the most cynical, witnessing to the faith without either chest-thumping or brow-beating.

Father Dave's book has many good lessons in it, if your heart is still open to receive them by the time you get to them. But chances are you've long since left his Camino.

So I guess I'll write a book, a Catholic book, about the Camino de Santiago. Because chances are, no one else will.


  1. Webster,

    My wife and I did the Camino in the summer of '09 and were shocked to discover the same utter lack of good Catholic books about the most traveled pilgrimage route of the middle ages.

    So please do write such a book. I can guarantee you at least one willing buyer.

  2. As I mentioned when we spoke of your doing the camino, Msgr. Kevin Codd has a book, To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela, which is very good. And there is Fr Greg Markey's book, Discovering the Camino de Santiago.

    Safe travels.

    Paul Zalonski


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