By Fr. Rudolph Juarez
I first heard about the Camino de Santiago from my former fifth-grade teacher. She and her husband walked the Camino and she said their lives were changed by the experience. So, when my good friend Monsignor J. Brian Rejsek of the Peoria (Ill.) Diocese died on July 15, 2017, I made a vow to walk the Camino in his memory and to see if my life would be changed.
My friend Chris, 30 years my junior (and an Ironman by the way), said he would come with me. I think he secretly was worried that this “sixty-something” priest would be in need of medical and moral support. He was absolutely right! Four days into the walk I had blisters the likes of which I had never experienced.
That Saturday night I was nearly in tears and feeling dejected. I prayed to God: “Please, Lord, I’ve got to finish this!” and “Brian, send some help from heaven!” I told Chris that I would taxi to the bigger town of Sarria which was 30 miles away and meet him in two days. My plan was to go to Mass there and throw myself at the mercy of the local priest. Certainly he would know a doctor… or so I thought.
Sarria is some 100 kilometers away from Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the Apostle St. James the Greater, for whom the Camino is named. In order to get the “Compostela” — the certificate of completing the pilgrimage successfully — 100 kilometers is the minimum you need to walk. With determination and God’s help I would do that.
So, on Pentecost Sunday I was sitting in the pew of a church I had never been in before, listening to a homily that could have used the assistance of the Holy Spirit. After Mass, while cordial, the priest “sent” me to the emergency room at the local hospital. “Thanks,” I thought, and off I went alone.
The attendant at the emergency room said: “Your medical card please.” “I’m a stranger in a strange land,” I thought … no medical card. The fellow settled for my passport and told me to sit in the waiting room. At 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon with nobody else in sight I was helped immediately.
The medical personnel couldn’t have been nicer. “Marta” and “José,” the physician assistants, snipped off the bad skin (and toe nail), sprayed antibiotic on my blistered toes and bandaged me up. “Ready,” said Marta. “You’re good,” said José, “nothing that a bit of Rioja and a day’s rest won’t cure.”
So off I went to the intake desk to assess the financial blisters. “I can pay you with my MasterCard because I don’t have enough Euros,” I said. But with a wave of his hand, “Pepe” said: “It’s nothing … that’s how we do healthcare in Spain, have a good day.” “Wow!” I thought. That would have cost me an easy $700 in the states!
I went back to my hotel, ate half a pizza at a restaurant next door and thanked God for my blessings. “I had cash. I had a credit card. I had a room. I had a cell phone, I had a friend, and I had connections in case of an emergency.” What about those who don’t?
In the lobby, as I stood with my pizza box in hand, a Canadian woman by the name of “Sharon” walked in and said in English: “Pizza! I love pizza!” “Please, have some,” I said, but she was embarrassed and passed on the offer.
To my surprise, Chris walked the 30 miles to Sarria that same day! “It was the Holy Spirit, who helped me,” he said. I believe him. That evening while we were sitting at a restaurant ready for dinner, who should walk by but Sharon the Canadian. We invited her to join us for dinner. This time she accepted the invitation. Over good food and delicious wine we broke bread together and shared the stories of our lives and the struggles and adventures of walking the Camino.
What a blessing to help those in need, to share our lives, to experience community and to break bread together on the road of life. In these simple human rituals God is present. So it was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus when Jesus was “… made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”Luke: 24:35.
With determination and God’s help, I made it to Compostela. And along the Camino there were other friends made, with other stories to tell. And, I can certainly say this: my life is constantly changing.
(Fr. Juárez walked the Camino May16-26, 2018. He is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City.)