The Way - a New-found Interest in an Old Tradition
A new movie called The Way, has called attention to an ancient practice known as a pilgrimage, which according to the Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices is “the practice of traveling to a holy place to obtain some spiritual benefit. ” Christians have been making pilgrimages for centuries, some to places that Christ was known to have visited, and others to shrines or other holy places associated with the Blessed Mother or the saints. One of the most famous pilgrimages which has been memorialized for all time in The Canterbury Tales is the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in England.
The conduct of pilgrims on some of these pilgrimages was not always what you would expect for people on a holy mission, and Church leaders noted that “a pilgrimage might become an end in itself; the journey and the religious exercises a substitute for inner conversion, “ and some of them discouraged the practice. That did not stop the fervor for these journeys, however, and during the middle ages a network of highways to important shrines was forged by pilgrims who moved slowly on foot across the countryside to their destinations. Some were fulfilling the penances imposed by a priest in confession, while others were seeking favors or going to give thanks for favors answered.
In the ninth century the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela (St. James the Greater) became a favorite destination of pilgrims from all over Europe. The remains of St. James are believed to be buried there, and pilgrims carried a scallop shell taken from the sea as proof of their pilgrimage. That scallop shell, which is the symbol of St. James, is now the emblem of this pilgrimage.
It is on this pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela that The Way is set. This is a modern-day story of conversion. The reasons these characters are on pilgrimage in many ways epitomize the concerns of Church leaders of the past that “a pilgrimage might become an end in itself; the journey and the religious exercises a substitute for inner conversion. “ There are elements in The Way that will disturb faithful Catholics, such as the scattering of human ashes by the main character. However, he is a lapsed Catholic and is not likely to know that this practice is forbidden. The movie is not billed as a Catholic movie, nor should one assume that it is. But intertwined throughout are Catholic themes. The Church leaders in Spain were concerned that the film-makers would not treat the subject with due respect, but their fears were put to rest when they saw the film. This was the only time they have allowed Hollywood film-makers into the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, and they were not disappointed.
People make the pilgrimage today for a variety of reasons, secular, health and religious. All of these elements are seen in The Way, and the conclusion may surprise the viewers. To learn more about this pilgrimage, you can read of the experiences of a Catholic priest in Discovering the Camino de Santiago, A Priest's Journey to the Tomb of St. James. In this book, Fr. Markey gives practical advise for making the long pilgrimage, often referred to as the Camino, and he relates the spiritual benefits to be gained by one whose heart is ready for such a journey. In yet another book, Hiking the Camino, Fr. Pivonka, T.O.R., relates his experiences on this pilgrimage. Through the trials of the pilgrimage, he shows how it is a metaphor for life.
For anybody who is interested in the idea of pilgrimage, whether or not it be to Santiago de Compostela, there are many resources available. Not all people choose to stay in the hostels which dot the pilgrimage routes, and choose instead to stay in convents or monasteries. And while some may wander far afield, even to the Holy Land as related in Elizabeth, A Holy Land Pilgrimage, some will choose to stay closer to home and make a pilgrimage to an American shrine. Since pilgrimages are part of our Catholic heritage, check out the pilgrimage resources available on our website.