When I began preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago this spring, I expected a mob scene, especially from the USA. How could American Catholics not turn out in record numbers after seeing "The Way," the Emilio Estevez film about the Camino? Well, they haven't. This traditional Catholic pilgrimage has become a hotspot of European cultural tourism—and a terrible missed opportunity for American Catholics. Half the people I have met, though they may say they're not religious, are practically begging to be evangelized. Where are you, Catholic guys and gals?
I have been walking the Camino with my daughter Marian for nearly three weeks now and am posting about it every day. I have some thoughts about why US Catholics are so poorly represented. (I've met more Korean Catholics than American ones, and more Aussies than Yanks.) And I have some personal experiences that demonstrate what a fertile field this Compostela ("field of stars") can be.
First, the thoughts. Compared with "secular Europe," the USA may be far more religious, but we're also far more fat. I have walked with German women in their mid-70s who would put to shame US women half their age who take zumba classes seven days a week. I traveled this morning with a typical French retiree: at 72, he has three children, three grandchildren, but likes nothing better than bicycling in the Alps for a week at a time with men his own age. He walked the soles right off my 60-year-old feet for 25 kilometers. It's one thing to do 50 minutes of cardio at your local health club, and quite another to walk eight hours a day for 35 days, without complaint beneath a 20-pound pack and 90-degree sunshine. For what? How about for Jesus?
We Americans also need to learn some foreign languages. I'm not talking about fulfilling a two-year Spanish requirement in high school. I'm talking about actually desiring to communicate with people from other cultures. Europeans put us to shame, making Yanks look like self-satisfied isolationists. Fortunately, I know a good deal of French, and Marian is fluent in Spanish, so between us we can communicate with roughly half of all we meet. I am tempted to resume my high-school German studies. That plus Italian would allow me to evangelize virtually the whole world. (Most Koreans speak some English.)
And OK, here's a third reason. We must not care enough. I mean, about evangelizing. About witnessing openly to our Catholic faith on a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route that, let's face it, would not exist but for Jesus Christ and his apostle James. Anyone who walks this Camino—atheist, Buddhist, Catholic, deist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, New Ager, or Taoist (in alphabetical order, of course)—cannot escape a simple fact, no matter what their attitude to the Church or to Christ: They wouldn't be here if not for Him. They might be walking across England, or trekking the Himalayas, but they wouldn't be here.
Yet Spanish road signs now proclaim the Camino an itinerario cultural Europeo, a European cultural journey. And most people here, when you ask them, will say they are not religious, but have come for a vacation, for the exercise, to see a bit of history, to challenge themselves. But like the four characters in "The Way," many will say more when you scratch the surface. Remember how Sara said she was walking the Camino to quit smoking and then confessed to Martin Sheen's character that she was tormented over aborting her only child? You'll find stories like that one here on the Camino every day, all you have to do is open yourself to encounters with the people you meet. Let me give you two examples.
Last night, I sat with a 38-year-old woman from Canada, "Carrie." I asked her why she was here, and she answered, "To challenge myself mentally, physically, and I thought the food would be better." Pretty secular answer, huh? She talked about the rampant drug use among younger people on the Camino. I talked a bit about my conversion to the Catholic Church in a way that was anything but pushy: this is just what has happened to me in the past five years. She began to ask a few questions. Then she told me about her experience caring for her father in a Catholic palliative care facility for his last six months, about the nuns who came to speak with him, how her father pretended to sleep when the nuns came in, and finally how Carrie, though not raised Catholic, took a medal of the Blessed Virgin from the nuns one day and still wears it. She pulled it out from under her tee-shirt to show me, and it matched my own.
Just before dinner, Carrie confessed to me that she was impressed by friends who had received what she called "signs," verification of their faith. She said she hungers for signs, but is afraid to open herself. I told her about my friend André, whom I met in Navarette, a Catholic who said to me, "The Camino will change you. All you have to do is empty yourself." Then we went in to dinner. Whether I even see Carrie again, the Camino will determine.
This morning I walked for over six hours with the bicycle-crazy French grandfather, "Jean-Paul." We talked about everything under the sun (of which there was a plentiful supply). Because I am unafraid to talk about my faith experiences, I mentioned early on that I am a convert of four years' standing and shared some other facts surrounding my life in the Church today. The conversation, all in French, moved on to many other things. Then, about five hours after we met, and after a long silence, he began, "Si ce n'est pas indiscret—" (If I'm not being indiscrete—). Then he asked what it was that had triggered my conversion. He said that he himself had been raised Catholic, educated in Catholic schools including a very strict Jesuit lycée. Then he had then fallen away from the church for over 50 years. But now in his 70s, he finds himself opening up again to the faith of his youth, and wondering just how much baby he threw out with the Catholic bath water.
I answered, in a phrase, that my conversion had been triggered by "les papes and les saints," the popes and the saints. Then I explained for 10 minutes, again not evangelizing as such but simply sharing my experiences. He listened. I asked if I had explained clearly. He said yes, but said no more on the subject. When we checked into our hostel, where we have beds across from one another, I noticed that he made a long journal entry before taking a nap. Did he write about his faith, or about his encounter with an American Catholic this morning? I'll never ask. I'll never know.
But I do know that tomorrow the Camino is likely to offer me another opportunity to talk with someone who says they're here for one reason, but has a deeper hunger burning in their hearts. And I will talk with them.
American Catholics: it's the Camino calling. Pick up the phone.