Faith Formation

Following footsteps of an apostle on ‘The Way’

Waverly couple completes ‘Camino’

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

WAVERLY — Deacon Phil and Julie Paladino of St. Mary Parish in Waverly recently challenged their souls and their bodies by completing a 500-mile walk that traces part of James the Apostle’s journey from the Holy Land to his final burial place in Compostela, Spain.

The world famous pilgrimage, known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), has drawn thousands of faithful Christians over the centuries. Believers travel alongside nonreligious folks or spiritual seekers of all types along several popular routes.

“We kind of jokingly refer to it as a 30- day Marriage Encounter,” said Deacon Phil. “We were always doing the same thing at the same time. It wasn’t like a typical work day. We didn’t have that time where you weren’t together. It caused us to know and appreciate one other in a deeper way.”

The Iowa couple both wanted to grow closer to God through the trek, which began for them in April in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and ended May 27 at the Cathedral of St. James. They also prayed for different individual blessings — Julie, 57, was hoping to “pray without ceasing” and to  see “God in the everyday.” Deacon Phil, 59, was hoping to find “joy.” At different times and in different ways, they discovered what they were looking for, not always in ways they expected.

“There are times you need help,” recalled Julie. “You’re going up a high mountain and prayer to God, to Mary to all the saints, that’s what you’ve got.”

The inspiration to go on the trip came from Julie several years ago after the couple watched a movie called “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. It tells the story of a father completing the pilgrimage after his son’s death. Julie said she was “mesmerized,” wanting to go immediately. Her husband needed some convincing.

“I was the one who was driven to do it,” said Julie. “He didn’t think I could do it. I persisted and said it’s not like climbing Mt. Everest or doing a marathon. You’re simply walking.”

Deacon Phil eventually came on board, and the couple, now semi-retired, was able to block out the time to do the trek. To prepare themselves physically, they learned to carry heavy packs while completing practice hikes. To prepare their souls, they prayed together and separately. The deacon mentioned the pilgrimage in several homilies so their parish knew of their trip. The couple also received the community’s blessing before setting off.

A plane, train and bus ride took them to their starting point. After that, the travel was all on foot, sometimes over steep terrain, for days on end.

“On the Camino itself, we said the rosary aloud every day, and the aloud part was a little scary at first because you’re out in public; all the other pilgrims are around you,” said Julie. “They’re not all doing it for spiritual reasons, but you don’t take a long trip to get there and not have some sort of emotional or spiritual outcome or quest.  There were a lot of people who were in their 20s or 30s who are seeking to find their meaning in life perhaps. Then there were a lot of people like us in their early retirement years.”

Averaging about 15 miles a day, the couple carried everything they had with them. They were disconnected from their loved ones and technology. The Paladinos had one cellphone to make bookings at simple hostels called “albuergues,” where they rested in sleeping bags on top of mattresses and were served basic meals. Some were run by religious orders, others lay people.

“Everybody you ran into didn’t seem like they were doing a job. It was like it was their mission to serve the pilgrims as they came,” said Deacon Phil.

The fellowship with other pilgrims and the staff at the hostels was one of the highlights for the couple. People overcame language barriers with pointing or gestures. Sometimes they’d have long discussions on faith and other matters. One night, a group of Augustinian sisters running an albuergue sang to their guests and had everyone introduce themselves. One day, Julie fell on the trail, sustaining a painful, but relatively minor injury. Patrons at a local café brought her a chair, and a passing bicyclist provided a bandage and other care.

“Helping other people and them helping you is part of the lessons you learn,” said Julie. “I was up walking the next day, but at the moment … my pants were torn;  seeing the blood on my knee, it was really quite powerful when others came forth.”

All routes end at the cathedral in Compostela. Travelers may do a route all at once like the Paladinos did, or break it up into smaller portions at different times. Deacon Phil described the experience in terms of life before and after the “Camino,” explaining that it is not what we might refer to as a vacation. He recalled a sign the couple saw at one albuergue that read: “A tourist says what can you do for me, a pilgrim says thank you.”

“Pilgrims accept whatever they’re given — a place to stay, food,” said the deacon. “Rather than our typically American attitude of what we should have, even if it was simple, it was OK. It was enough. We did the whole month with what we could carry. It was not so much going without as a sacrifice as it is living more simply. You get all of that stuff out of the way, and it’s a little easier to focus on your relationship with God.”


Photo: Julie Paladino walks El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). She and her husband, Deacon Phil Paladino of St. Mary Parish in Waverly, trekked several hundred miles through France and Spain over about a month’s time. (Photo courtesy of Deacon Phil and Julie Paladino)