"The Catholics—not enough Catholics. All respect for the church is—” he swayed his hand up to the sky and made an angry, whooshing noise. “All gone! Gone. You know what I mean?” The energy at the table shifted.
Cameron, a grad student from Australia who studied peaceful mediation, tried to reason with him. They broke into a side conversation about the history of the Camino as I shot a panicked “what do I say?” look to my hiking buddy across the table. She shrugged, equally perplexed.
"I get sad,” the Man from Poland went on, gesturing sadness with his face to bridge the language barrier. “No sacred pilgrimage anymore. No respect with all these people.” His English was stable, but he searched for English words to express his thoughts, often switching them out for ones in Polish.
I made a suggestion, “But isn’t it great that pilgrimage is coming back? This one almost totally died out in the 70s. All these people around the world are seeking to grow in some way, that’s gotta be a good sign for humanity, right? Catholic or not?
His face scrunched, considering my idea. “But it’s all for the money now. Before—you stay in churches for free. You’re here to pray, not to party and go on vacation."
I am one of the people he worried about—a non-believer walking an ancient Catholic pilgrimage. When I steered away from the Catholic church in my mid-teens, I left my spirituality behind with the judgmental group of Bible-thumping soccer moms that shunned my family’s non-traditional past. My house didn’t fit the mold of those deemed worthy to follow their Jesus.
Good Riddance, I’d thought at the time—the church had never felt sacred to me up until that point anyway. It felt obligatory, a way to gain a Girl Scout badge of honor for being a good person. Instead, I spent my twenties wandering down the inevitable path of Buddhism until finally realizing one day that my beliefs didn’t really fit anywhere. My spiritual loneliness turned to cynicism, my cynicism to sadness. At the time, I believed religion in our country was set aside for the wealthy, for the polished families with peaceful homes and A-plus students.
I became a lifelong pilgrim because of a college scheduling fluke. I took a class on the 9th-century Catholic pilgrimage because the other study-abroad options didn’t fit into my semester. Devotees believe the body of St. James the Greater lays buried beneath the behemoth Cathedral in the center of the ancient city. Nowadays, people from all beliefs walk The Way. Books, movies and blogs have spread the word once again and sedentary lifestyles send people looking for the journey they know they’re missing but can’t seem to find