Father Tom Lilly is somewhere along an ancient pilgrimage path, hiking the narrow footpaths, farm trails, cobbled streets and byways of Spain. The pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Anchorage is on his way to the historic cathedral that houses the relics of Saint James the Apostle. Known as Santiago de Compostela, the church has been a prominent place of Catholic pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, along with Rome and Jerusalem.
According to church tradition, Saint James’ relics were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried in Santiago de Compostela. During the Middle Ages, the route was heavily traveled, but plagues, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By 1985 only 680 pilgrims were recorded as arriving at the cathedral after completing the pilgrimage.
But in recent years the trek has seen an enormous resurgence with approximately 200,000 pilgrims annually.
Today professional tour companies take travelers by bike, boat and automobile. Some go to explore the cuisine or take winery tours. Others hike for exercise or to explore the history of the Middle Ages. But many still embrace the historic purpose of the trail — to reflect upon God and progress to a deeper spiritual life.
There was no single route to Santiago, as the historic trek first began in the Middle Ages with pilgrims walking out their front doorstep. But as travelers approached Spain many converged on a handful of several popular routes now known as the Caminos de Santiago or “Ways of Saint James.”
By far the most popular route, and the one popularized by the recent film, “The Way,” is the Camino Frances.
Father Lilly is taking the “Northern Caminos” — the Camino del Norte and the Camino Primitivo, which pass through the Spanish regions of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. This way spans about 520 miles.
“Each individual plans their own ‘camino,’ and travels it accordingly,” Father Lilly wrote on the blog he maintains while on the trail. “I plan to take my time and complete the journey in about 70 days, averaging no more than eight miles per day.” At that rate he should finish in mid-July.
“I plan to stay in a combination of small guest houses and my tent,” Father Lilly explained.
The route he chose is reputed to be the “most challenging of the caminos,” Father Lilly noted.
“However, with lots of time to rest each day, I’m confident I’m up to the task,” he added.
Throughout the pilgrimage, Father Lilly is posting photos and a few lines of text so friends and parishioners back home can follow along.
His posts provide a glimpse into how each day unfolds.
“A wonderful day of wandering amidst farmland, chatting with curious animals, greeting farmers and meeting the occasional pilgrim, all in the midst of beautiful coastline and marvelous weather,” he wrote in an earlier post. “The history of the church here is fascinating, with deep Catholic roots. I’ve discovered that, although the churches in these little villages are locked and usually only have Mass on Sundays, there is usually someone nearby who will happily give you a key if you want to have a look inside. What treasures await!”
If possible, Father Lilly has made a practice of stopping for morning and evening prayers in any number of historic churches along the way. On one particular night he stopped at the Church of Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of pilgrims, which was built in the 15th century.
“Inside was a beautiful carved image on the wall of the famous meeting between Saint Martin and the beggar,” Father Lilly wrote. “Here was this ornate carving, hundreds of years old, and just there on the wall, unattended. So many surprises around each corner.”
“I welcome your comments and will respond as I can,” he wrote in a recent post. “May God bless you! — Fr. Tom.”
Father Lilly will return to Alaska in November.