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Sunday, 12 January 2020 10:58

Father Bergbower recalls ‘fullness and peace’ of Camino de Santiago pilgrimage

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While many of us have been contemplating and beginning to carry out our New Year’s resolutions for 2020, Father Daniel Bergbower spent several weeks in 2018 and 2019 fulfilling his own personal pilgrimage resolution by completing the Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James.

The pilgrimage is an epic journey of 500 miles, leading pilgrims to the Shrine of the Apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where the remains of St. James are buried.

“Years ago, I had heard about the Camino and from that time on I wanted to go,” says Father Bergbower, who was named pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Springfield in July. “Like so many, I too find the Creator God in his creation and find my center and peace therein. Once the opportunity presented itself, namely doing this in two parts — because of the timing thing — it was a no-brainer. We did the first part of the Camino in August of 2018 … and the second part was completed this past summer, in August of 2019.”

Father Bergbower and his group took the walk of the many middle age pilgrimages, called the French Way. “This began in France at the Pyrenees Mountains, which forms the border, crossing into Spain,” he says. “We chose this because it is the most classic way as well as the most well-traveled and thus provides for the many needs of pilgrims.”

Hiking hundreds of miles over various kinds of terrain may not be for everyone, but for Father Bergbower completing the Camino de Santiago was both a privilege and the fulfillment of an important spiritual journey. On the pilgrimage, he was the spiritual director with about two dozen pilgrims. Together they had daily Mass and followed the signs through the mountains.

{gallery}Father Bergbower Camino de Santiago pilgrimage{/gallery}

The pilgrims who traveled with Father Bergbower were led by Gus Lloyd, a radio personality on the Catholic channel, 129 Sirius XM. “His daily program is called Seize the Day,” says Father Bergbower. “He would interview a variety of pilgrims and record it for broadcast on his daily show.”

Father Bergbower’s group averaged hiking about 15 miles a day. “This was accomplished at each individual’s pace,” he says. “Our group stayed in pre-arranged motels along the route and was supported by our tour bus that would meet us at various times during the day. We only needed to carry a day pack with water and some snacks and a light jacket.” Every day members of the group passed through many small towns that catered to pilgrims, so dining was readily available.

Because the August days are typically in the 40s or 50s in the early morning with the temperatures climbing rapidly to the mid-90s by early afternoon, most pilgrims tried to walk early to avoid the heat and sun of the day. Blisters and cramping can be a challenge, so pilgrims were advised to walk daily in the weeks prior to prepare for the big trek and to wear well broken-in shoes or boots and the correct socks.

“Physically speaking, if people walk their own pace, hiking correctly, then almost anyone can accomplish this pilgrimage,” says Father Bergbower, who recently turned 60. “Our group had Catholics with ages ranging from 22 to many in the 40s to 60s and several in the 70s. We also had pilgrims who were physicians, so we all helped out with each other and any other pilgrim in need of assistance.”

The routes of the Camino are very well marked and documented in many books and guides. The markers vary from yellow painted arrows to metal signs to a medallion in the pavement to concrete markers. “The terrain is variable,” he says. “The hike over the Pyrenees is a bit rugged and there are also many undulating landscapes to behold, with some being shaded and forested and others never-ending wheat and sunflower fields with little or no shade. Some paths are paved, gravel, dirt, mud, etc., and some follow on the edge of roads and through the heart of little towns and large cities. Cell phone coverage is actually quite good. We communicated readily through the ‘What’s App’ to stay in contact with our group spread out through the daily walk.”

As with any pilgrimage, some moments stood out as both spiritual and special. “Our first day after hiking — not climbing — over the Pyrenees, we celebrated Mass with people from over 40 nations and we happily worshipped the same God with generosity and great interest in our sisters and brothers from other countries,” he says. “The different languages were very little problem. It was a great way to get to know about others and many people helped out trying to communicate.

“You know, encounters were always with a smile and laugh and most times with a goodbye handshake or hug,” he remembers, noting the plethora of introductions were refreshing — restoring and enhancing the belief in the goodness of humanity. “Of course, many people were religious though not necessarily Catholic and used this pilgrimage to reconnect with God and self.

“Others we encountered didn’t even know the sacred roots and had never even heard of the pilgrimage. Young people in their teens, 20s and 30s were abundant and were searching, perhaps with a relationship breakup or overcoming addictions, you name it,” he says. “They just wanted a safe place and the anonymity the Camino provided. You can easily be extremely open with a stranger and be very vulnerable or forthcoming with little or no adverse ramifications or judgements.”

Father Bergbower says “God Moments” were plentiful. “’The Camino will give you what you need’ is an often-repeated phrase,” he says. “Also, the long days provided a refuge of solitude. The quiet allows pilgrims to listen to their own souls and find God working within their lives.”

The spiritual director of his group, Father Bergbower celebrated or concelebrated Mass every day. “I also celebrated reconciliation for any of all pilgrims that desired to receive God’s forgiveness. This was accomplished while actually walking through the day. Each morning Gus Lloyd led the group in the rosary. We prayed before meals, also. Many of us would pray chaplets and novenas in addition, either individually or with others,” he says. “Visiting many churches each day also gave us multiple more opportunities for prayer.

“As a priest spiritual director I had the honor and privilege of assisting many pilgrims in navigating the ‘potholes’ of life, always with God’s guidance and searching not for answers as much as the right questions — mostly just listening and caring about others and their stories,” he says. “The luxury of just having someone to listen and to care is a beautiful event. For many this is the heart of the pilgrimage.

“Pilgrims, all people, need to have people who care enough to really listen. Thus, the destination is really the journey itself. For many celebrating Mass at the Church of St. James (Santiago) is a cathartic spiritual experience,” he says. “Yet, it is not necessarily an end in and of itself. It is more of a stop-over. The true destination lies within the pilgrim, in the insights and peace gained during this time on the walk.”

Thus, the real destination of the pilgrimage is a fullness and peace and “oneness with our God.” Father Bergbower explains that the Camino is a splendid glimpse of that inner and final peace we all yearn and long for, making it personal for each pilgrim.

“It is probably more of a space within as opposed to a building without,” he says. “Self-forgiveness, the letting go of hurts and shame, self-acceptance, greater interior space, acceptance of brokenness and a broken world, etc. These are the unspoken destinations that we truly seek if we only had the time and space the Camino allows us.”