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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97 (Suppl.), April 2005 


European Pilgrimage 

to Santiago de Compostela

 (April 2004) 


Rev. Msgr. Noël TREANOR

Secretary General, COMECE

Bruxelles, Belgium


As President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), Bishop Josef Homeyer, Hildesheim, Germany, often spoke of mobilising Christians from several European countries to go on pilgrimage as Europeans. His idea was that as citizens imbued by faith, they would thus express visibly and symbolically the link between Europe and its Christian roots and pray that the evolution of the European project would continue to be inspired by Christian anthropology. It was a powerful idea; only the kairos was needed. Then the year 2004 appeared on the horizon. Some two years earlier, the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, Don Julián Barrio Barrio, enquired if the COMECE could not imagine an event with a European dimension in Santiago in the course of the Holy Year 2004. A providential, indeed a prophet’s question, for 2004 in COMECE’s calendar would see the culmination of much of its work in recent years with the institutions of the European Union: the long-awaited and historic enlargement of the European Union would occur on May Day 2004 and the adoption and signature of the European Constitution would be achieved by the year’s end. With the coincidence of these three events – a Holy Year in Santiago, an historic enlargement, undoing Yalta, one of the last remnants of the Second World War, and a European Constitution, a milestone for the future – the moment was ripe to realise an idea mentioned from time to time by a visionary President and to respond to a call by the Archbishop of Santiago.  


The formal Appeal[1]to announce the event, signed by the Bishop members of COMECE, and co-signed by Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, Pat Cox, then President of the European Parliament, and Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach/Prime Minister of Ireland and President-in-office of the European Council (January-June 2004), hailed Santiago de Compostela, with its network of routes stretching across Europe, as the perfect symbol of European unity. Recalling the European tradition of the Camino, the text set out the aim of this particular pilgrimage. Primarily the event was an act of thanksgiving for the evolution of the European project, particularly for enlargement to central and eastern Europe. Aware of the complex challenges facing contemporary Europe and humanity, pilgrims would also pray in empathy with those who are concerned about the unknown quality the new Europe represents. In short this pilgrimage aimed to posit a religious action on the part of Christian citizens, expressing through liturgy, prayer, shared witness and physical effort a common Christian civic and political commitment to the European project at a nodal point in its history. It would constitute a timespan of five days when representatives from Europe’s nations, both within and beyond the EU borders, would put Europe at the heart of their prayers. Interestingly the Appeal also noted that "with the political unification of Europe approaching, ecumenical challenges become even more perceptible", and therefore it also expresses the "wish for representatives of other confessions to accompany us" since the political union of Europe "calls for ever closer companionship of its spiritual and religious forces". 

Giving shape to an idea

Ensuring a representative group of pilgrims was a priority, which was happily achieved. The episcopal conferences were invited to nominate a national delegation. The size of each delegation varied according to a key that also sought to reflect the mosaic of the ecclesial community in each country. Likewise religious orders and congregations, Catholic organisations, the new movements were invited to nominate representatives. Politicians at national and European level were invited, as were civil servants. In order to give the pilgrimage an ecumenical quality, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) was invited to send representatives. And so, on 17 April a motley group of Europeans from Scandinavia, including Norway, through Albania to Malta and from Ireland to Poland assembled in Madrid. A fellow pilgrim, Right Rev. John Crowley, Bishop of Middlesborough (England) and delegate of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to COMECE, deftly catches the variety of the delegations thus: (they were) “... of varying sizes, containing wonderfully varied cross sections of women and men, EU civil servants, journalists, teachers, Taizé and other monks, parliamentarians, academics, deacons, priests, bishops, religious sisters and brothers, justice and peace activists, youth workers, lay and clerical theologians, and lay movements. There were representatives from across the ecumenical spectrum, including a Lutheran bishop from Finland, a Greek Orthodox bishop and the Protestant bishop from Madrid. Movingly there was also an entire Spanish family – parents, grandparents, and two young children who accompanied us throughout the pilgrimage, a constant visual aid of family life across the generations”.[2]

Moving three hundred pilgrims along the Camino, providing for their various needs in towns and villages where stops would be made to pray, to eat a sandwich, or to overnight, required intense preparations by the COMECE secretariat. To this end meetings were held in the course of the year beforehand with ecclesiastical and local civic authorities on the route, as with those of Santiago de Compostela. In all the preparatory encounters, whether local parish priest, bishop, police chief, cultural attaché, or mayor of small town or city, the spirit of hospitality, of solidarity with the pilgrim proved ever a dependable constant.  

Planning the 12 km stretches to be walked each day was undertaken in September 2003. To check distances and terrain, a colleague, Stefan Lunte, jogged most of the terrain to be trodden. Hostels, halting points, churches were visited to announce the event and ensure they could cope with the expected numbers. 

And then there remained the liturgy. Each day’s programme began with the Eucharist, included a meditation around midday and ended with Evening Prayer. To uplift us on our pilgrim way and to raise our spirits in liturgical worship in the cathedrals and churches in Silos, Burgos, Leon, Villafranca, Ponferrada and Santiago, Fr. André Gouzes, o.p., composed music and animated a choir of pilgrims from eight different countries. 

On the Camino, 17-21 April 2004

Saturday morning April 17th saw pilgrims arrive in Madrid from all corners of Europe and converge on the offices of the secretariat of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, which graciously offered its premises as a venue for gathering, registration and distribution of documentation. With luggage, banners, documents, texts in various languages and pilgrims safely loaded on board six buses, the convoy set out for the Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, where the choir had been rehearsing under the direction of Fr. Gouzes for some days. There in its beautiful cloister, in front of the famous bas relief sculpture of the Emmaus scene, where Jesus is represented as a medieval pilgrim, Bishop Adrianus van Luyn, Vice President of COMECE, launched the pilgrimage. He called the assembled pilgrims to repeat in the next few days the “spiritual adventure of the disciples on the Walk to Emmaus”.[3]His closing words, “may our hearts burn within us so that on leaving Compostela – our Emmaus in these few days – we may turn with new courage towards the Jerusalem of the Christian communities of our dioceses, to testify in our continent to Jesus Christ alive in his Church, source of hope for Europe”,[4]marked this pilgrimage as a response to the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa. After Vespers, presided by the Abbot, the first walk took pilgrims to a venue, a short distance from the abbey, where they watched a video message from R. Prodi, President of the European Commission and were addressed by Mr. Iñigo Mendez de Vigo, member of the European Parliament, who was also a member of the Presidium of the Convention on the future of Europe. Both politicians stressed the contribution of Christianity to Europe and the importance of citizenship inspired by Christian faith for the future of European society. 

Then it was onwards to Burgos for a night’s rest. The morrow, Sunday, began with concelebrated Mass in the splendid chapel of Santa Tecla in Burgos cathedral presided by Archbishop Manuel Monteiro de Castro, Apostolic Nuncio in Spain, who together with Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz, Apostolic Nuncio to the European Communities, participated in the pilgrimage as representatives of His Holiness Pope John Paul II. At the beginning of Mass, transmitted live by Le Jour de Seigneur, the congregation of pilgrims was addressed by the local Archbishop, Francisco Gil Hellín. After Mass the buses were regained in sweeping rain and they made forthwith for Castrojeriz. Once fortified by a picnic lunch, pilgrims ascended from Castrojeriz on foot to the Meseta plateau and then walked against a strong wind and in heavenly sunshine to Itero del Castillo. There Sr. Madeleine Fredell, o.p., from Sweden led us in prayer and reflection. The waiting buses then took us to León for Evening Prayer in the Real Colegiata Basίlica de San Isidoro, presided by the Finnish Lutheran Bishop Erik Vikström. Afterwards a memorable address was delivered by Minister of State Mary Hanafin, T. D., on behalf of the Irish Presidency of the European Union. 

On Monday morning Bishop Julián López Martín presided over the concelebrated Mass in the cathedral´s ethereal light filtered by the imposing walls of stained-glass windows. Snow and freezing conditions on the heights of Cruz de Ferro dictated a rapid change of route to Astorga, where Bishop Camilo Lorenzo Iglesias received us in the cathedral for midday prayer led by Baroness Hilde Kieboom, St. Egidio, Belgium. Here too Bishop Antons Justs, of the diocese of Jelgava, Latvia, gave a striking testimony, telling of the trials and suffering under Communism. It reminded us that this era – with its betrayal of nations by other nations, its crushing of human freedom and its martyrs – remains an indelible part of a common European heritage. After a picnic lunch in the local seminary, the pilgrims took again to the Camino; as always on these days, some praying as they walked, some saying the Rosary, beads, others sharing experiences and thoughts, others walking alone in silence. Later in the evening the buses took us to Ponferrada, where in the Basilica of Santa Maria de la Encina, the director of the Representation of the Greek Orthodox Church to the European Union, Bishop Athanasios of Achaia, presided Evening Prayer and preached. Pilgrims then walked through the narrow streets, crossed the pleasant Plaza Mayor to the Bergidum Theatre to hear an address, a testimony, by Mr. Alojz Peterle, then an observer to the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Slovenia and representative of the acceding countries of central and eastern Europe in the Presidium of the European Convention. 

The fourth day, Tuesday, 20 April, followed the same structure: concelebrated Mass, presided by Bishop Amédée Grab (Chur, Switzerland and President of CCEE) in Villafranca del Bierzo, midday prayer led by Sr. Barbara Manasterka, Poland, in the Church at Cebreiro, walking a stretch of the Camino and then by bus to our destination, Santiago. Once lodged, pilgrims made their way to the Cathedral, where they were led through the Holy Door by Archbishop Barrio Barrio, Bishop Homeyer and Archbishop F. Sainz Muñoz to join in Evening Prayer led by a fellow pilgrim, Bishop López Lozano, Anglican Bishop of Madrid. As on previous evenings a reception was offered by the local authorities, in this case by President Manuel Fraga and the Xunta of Galicia. President Fraga addressed the pilgrims in the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos and emphasised how the Christian heritage had shaped Europe. Thanking him, Bishop Homeyer spoke inter alia of how the pilgrim figure fused mobility, a facet of contemporary existence, with quest for meaning. Next morning the pilgrims walked the final paces to the Cathedral for the Eucharist, presided by the local Archbishop, which would celebrate arrival at the Apostle’s tomb and dismissal to serve the kingdom of God in Europe, its countries, dioceses and parishes. Having worshipped for a final time together and stood in awe of the incensing botafumeiro, pilgrims made their way to the local seminary for a last lunch, before setting their sights for their homelands.

A time of grace

The very idea of this pilgrimage fired interest from the outset. As ever, Santiago spoke to all; its call crossed all frontiers of nationality, language, social class, profession and confession. Throughout the preparatory stages, encouragement was given by the President and members of the COMECE. As mentioned the Presidents of the European Commission, of the European Parliament and of the European Council readily encouraged the project. Throughout the long preparatory process the local Churches, the civil authorities of the cities, towns and villages through which we would pass, the regional government of Galicia and the Ayuntamento of Santiago were ever helpful. The tradition of St. James and the service of pilgrims facilitated contact between organisers and locals, otherwise strangers to each other. Indeed it acted as an organic connection, a factor of collaborative interaction, between state and Church, between the secular and sacred orders. The potential of pilgrimage in regard to such co-operation between Church and state and even with the private sector would seem to justify further reflection.    

Whilst they came from some twenty nine countries[5]and varied in age, background, educational and professional profile, some monolingual, others polyglot, pilgrims quickly generated an esprit de corps which deepened as we prayed, worshipped, and lived together on the Camino. New friends were made. When all had returned home, many wrote messages of thanks describing these days as a time of profound spiritual experience. The liturgies, the times of prayer and meditation, the physical effort of the programme and the walking, moments of personal encounter, the aesthetic experience generated by the landscape and the architecture of the Cathedrals and Churches: these and other experiential and personal elements combined to make of these April days a liminal experience not just for each pilgrim as an individual, but also for each one as a European, a Christian citizen involved in an historical European political and societal project, rooted in Christian anthropology and still responding, admittedly imperfectly, to a noble vision of society. 

Thus the abiding challenge to the Christian to engage with the European project was a leitmotif of the pilgrimage. It was articulated by the politicians who addressed us in the evenings, by the homilists and most strikingly by many of the pilgrims from numerous countries who gave short personal testimonies during the evening receptions. The Camino summoned us to think once again in 2004 how Christians should be the soul of society[6]in Europe.  

To act as that soul in the sense of the Letter to Diognetus, Christians must also heed Christ’s call to "be one". The presence therefore of the Bishops and representatives of the other Christian Churches, their participation and contributions, testified to the quest for that unity and manifested in prayer and worship the co-operation between the Churches that had been so evident in the Churches´ input to the work of the Convention on the future of Europe, resulting in the article I-52 of the constitutional treaty, important for both Church and society in tomorrow’s Europe. 

As happens on the Camino, other pilgrims caught up with us, as we walked and betimes fell into a conversation with some of our number. On hearing of the composition of the group and the aim of the pilgrimage, a self-declared agnostic pilgrim, moved by the idea of making the pilgrimage to give thanks and pray for the European project, asked if he might attend the prayer service in the Church at Itero del Castillo. Placing his rucksack in the side-aisle, he took his seat in our midst. 

As Mass ended on the morning of April 21 and the recessional procession made its way through the incense-filled Cathedral, pilgrims smiled their farewells to one another. A spiritual energy had been generated over these days, stored forever in the consciousness of the pilgrims, which will enrich Europe through their life stories as citizens and Christian believers.

[1]On the Route to Santiago de Compostela, Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), 9 May 2003. 
[2]Bishop John Crowley, Pilgrims on the Way of Hope, in Briefing, May 2004, 34, 3, p. 34-37; cf. also Santiago, on the way of hope, Europe Infos, no. 61, June 2004, p. 6-7. 
[3]Message of the Second Synod of Bishops for Europe, no. 2, October 1999.
[4] Bishop Adrianus van Luyn, Opening Meditation, 17.04.2004, Santo Domingo de Silos, forthcoming in the Acta of the pilgrimage.
[5]The pilgrims came from the following countries/states: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Slovak Republic, Spain, the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), Switzerland, and the Holy See.
[6]Letter to Diognetus, no. 2, cf. Early Christian Writings, The Apostolic Fathers, Penguin Classics, London, 1987.