By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
During his 1,100-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain, John Conway walked with people from all over the world and had the privilege of attending Mass in centuries-old churches. Conway, a farmer and member of St. Joseph Parish in Wellman, thought the pilgrimage would be a once in a lifetime experience. Nine months after completing the faith-filled journey, he’s determined to do it again someday.
Conway shares the story of his Camino with audiences on a regular basis. Last month, he gave a presentation during a Lenten potluck at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, which his former pastor, Father Rich Adam, now leads.
The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, has captivated pilgrims for about 1,000 years. Legend holds that its ending point, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, contains the burial site of the apostle St. James the Greater.
While Conway contemplated a pilgrimage for years, he vowed to do it after watching “The Way.” In that movie a father walks the Camino de Santiago on which his son died. The route popularized in the film begins at Spain’s border with France, and spans 550 miles.
“Your personal Camino starts wherever you want it to start,” explained Conway, 67, who hopes his talks inspire others to make their own pilgrimage. “My choice was to start my Camino farther back into France. I wanted to see more than the Spanish part of the Camino.”
Walking an average of 15 to 16 miles a day, he began his 2013 pilgrimage May 15 and finished July 23, with two days to spare before the July 25th feast day of St. James the Greater. “That’s a big day in Santiago,” Conway said.
Rain fell 15 of the 70 days on his walk, but that didn’t discourage the former Marine. Each day he replenished his back pack, which weighed about 26 pounds. “You carry what you’ll eat
for lunch in the morning and eat it along the trail.” Evenings were spent in communal lodgings (aubergues) tailored for pilgrims. The scenery enthralled him — mountains and streams, castles, and bridges built by hand more than 1,000 years ago — and his fellow pilgrims fascinated him. “Your Camino friends become your Camino family.” Among them were three priests.
Each evening the pilgrims arrived in a town where they planned to spend the night. Often, they had the privilege of attending Mass. “You’re with your friends; that’s the way Mass started, in the beginning,” observed Conway.
In an excerpt from his July 20, 2013, blog, he wrote: “The local priest was wonderful and very warm and spent a good amount of time welcoming his concelebrant pilgrim priests. There were many, many locals in attendance who all sang beautifully with no accompaniment and we enjoyed wonderful Spanish music throughout the Mass. It has also been a nice gesture that many of our close Protestant friends have often come to Mass with us and last night was no exception. At the end of Mass we were all invited up front for not only a blessing but a nice conversation with the priest who was sure to find out where each and every one of us hailed from. It was a wonderful experience!”
Conway’s wife, Cathy, and their middle daughter, Kelley, joined him for part of the Camino. Cathy completed 100 kilometers, earning a “compostela” (certificate) for having finished.
“It was great to see him after he had been gone so long,” Cathy said. “I enjoyed meeting all the friends he’d made along the way, quite a few it seemed like. Someone was hollering at him, ‘Farmer John! Farmer John!’ (his nickname). The weather was lovely; the countryside was absolutely beautiful.” She savored the sight of blue hydrangeas, which grew wild there.
But most importantly, “we were really interested in getting to the cathedral and going to Mass there with the other pilgrims,” Cathy said. A horrific train accident in Santiago de Compostela the day before the Feast of St. James the Greater devastated the community. Festivities were cancelled because of the tragedy.
Cathy said she would consider doing a future Camino of 100 kilometers, but perhaps along a different path. “John’s talking about going back with the grandkids when they graduate from high school,” she added.
“There were many, many 70-year-olds and even 80-year-olds, which gave me great hope for my plans to do this again,” her husband added.
During his talk at Sacred Heart Cathedral, someone asked Conway why the French were not enumerated among the groups of pilgrims. He believes that France has lost its faith. As an example, he said that the churches where he attended Mass were often almost empty. He believes Europe in general is no longer taking the lead on promoting Christianity and that it’s up to the U.S. to take on this role.
Another individual asked how the pilgrimage affected Conway’s faith. He responded that he is very thankful to have his faith; that’s why he was especially grateful for the blessing he received from Bishop Martin Amos prior to embarking on the Camino de Santiago.
Readers interested in making their own Camino should visit the Camino de Santiago Forum (http://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/forums/camino-frances.12/). “On the forum literally every question you could think of asking has been asked and will be asked again.”