By William T. Clew | The Catholic Free Press
He walked from the French-Spanish border across northern Spain to the Atlantic Ocean.
He walked up mountains, into valleys, across roads and fields, through snow and rain, on hot days and cold.
He walked for 33 days on the pilgrimage and four more days to complete the trip. He covered 657 miles
And he did it, not because someone told him to, but because he wanted to.
Father William C. Konicki, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Hopedale, took a three-month sabbatical last spring to travel one of several routes in Spain known as El Camino de Santiago or, in English, the Way of St. James.
According to legend, St. James the Elder, an Apostle of Christ, who is said to have preached in Spain, was martyred in Jerusalem and his remains brought to Santiago de Compostela in Spain for burial. A cathedral marks the site of his grave.
According to various histories, El Camino de Santiago was one of the most important and highly traveled pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. It declined in popularity during the Black Death plague, the Reformation and political unrest in Europe. Recently, interest has begun to increase and it is becoming more popular.
The journey is said to start at the pilgrim’s home and he or she can follow any one of a number of routes to reach Santiago de Compostela. The route Father Konicki followed is said to be one of the more popular ones. It starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France, at the foot of the Pyrenees.
He flew from the United States on April 12 and landed in Madrid the next day. He then traveled to Lourdes in France for a few days before beginning his pilgrimage to visit the shrine and get over any jet lag, he said.
Father Konicki said he is a member of an Emmaus group. At Lourdes he was plunged four times into the water from the spring discovered by St. Bernadette, once each for the other members of the group and once for himself. He said he also went to confession there. Confessions are heard in several languages, and his confessor was a priest from the United States. He also received a special blessing for his pilgrimage.
Then he took a train west from Lourdes to the French coastal city of Bayonne and on to St. Jean Pied de Port and the start of his journey. That first day’s hike was up into the Pyrenees, onto a snow-covered path and to Roncesvalles. There he and other pilgrims stayed at an albergue, a hostel. They also attended Mass at the local church. Father Konicki said that at each stop Mass was celebrated in the evening. The pilgrims in his group depended on him to find out the time of Mass, he said.
That first day’s hike covered 23 miles. And, he said, he had no blisters. In fact, he didn’t have a problem with blisters throughout the pilgrimage because he had prepared. He said that, for two years before the pilgrimage, he tried to walk 10 miles each day. For the last six weeks of those two years he also carried a 16-pound backpack. Those walks got him in shape and also broke in his hiking boots.
On the pilgrimage, he said, there were some young people who started with new boots. They thought the boots would be broken in as they walked. What happened, he said, was that the boots broke their feet in, painfully.
He said he and his fellow pilgrims bonded as they shared the rigors of each day-long walk. His group included Marta from Croatia, Udo and Andre, both from Germany and Dyllen from Singapore, among others. They all spoke English. Father Konicki found that English was common among the pilgrims, no matter where they hailed from, and from people they dealt with in the albergues, restaurants and other places.
He learned that, to his surprise and the amusement of his companions, when he wanted to quench his thirst at a bar and coffee shop. He said he had memorized and practiced a phrase in Spanish that translates to, “I would like to have a beer, please.”
The bartender apparently picked up on the fact that he didn’t sound especially Spanish, because he replied, “large or small?” in English. Father Konicki said that for the rest of the journey, from time to time fellow pilgrims would call out “large or small?”
Father Konicki said that he found that he had his own informal chaplaincy. Pilgrims would join him and say, “I understand you’re a priest, can I talk to you?” He said he even heard some pilgrims’ confessions along the way.
There was camaraderie on the journey, but also time alone for prayer and contemplation, he said, time to think about his direction in life as priest and pastor, what might be coming his way, what God wants him to do.
The hikes between alberges varied in distance, he said. The shortest was about 14 miles. The longest turned out to be about 30 miles because the albergue where they were supposed to stop was full when they got there and they had to continue on to the next one.
He said he carried two liters of water each day so he could stay hydrated. One day he ran out of water with about five kilometers – or three miles – to go. He said he panicked a little and began to walk faster. Another hiker stopped him, said, “you look like you ran out of water,” and gave him some of his own. He said people helped each other all along the way.
When he and his fellow pilgrims reached Santiago de Compostela they attended Mass at noon. They then visited the crypt under the altar where the remains of St. James are interred, then visited the saint’s statue above the altar. He said they hugged the statue, a traditional act of thanksgiving for those who complete the pilgrimage safely.
But that wasn’t the end of Father Konicki’s journey. He hiked for three more days to Finisterre and one more day to Muxia. That completed the trip – 37 days total and 657 miles.
And he had still more to do. He said he went to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in nearby Portugal, then went to Lisbon, where he spent four days. After that he flew to Rome, where he met Msgr. Francis D. Kelly, a priest of the Diocese of Worcester, who is a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica. The canons devote their ministry to prayer in the basilica.
Msgr. Kelly had arranged for Father Konicki to join other priests in a three-day retreat with Pope Francis. Father Konicki also concelebrated Mass at St. Peter’s Square with the Pope. But it wasn’t just him and Pope Francis. He said there were about 7,000 priests concelebrating. He said the Mass was celebrated on an upper level looking out on St. Peter’s Square, which was filled with visitors.
Then it was on to Paris for 12 days. There he visited the Basilica of Sacré Cœur de Montmartre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where he went through the Holy Doors.
“This is a Holy Year and I wanted to visit every Holy Door I could,” Father Konicki said.
Finally he came back to the United States and to Hopedale and the work of Sacred Heart Parish. He said the inside of the church was painted and new flooring is being installed.
He also relieved Msgr. John F. Doran, who replaced him while he was gone. He had received a blessing from Msgr. Doran before he left on sabbatical. While he was at Sacred Heart, Msgr. Doran celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest.
Pam Chaplin, ministry coordinator at Sacred Heart, put together the color pictures and stories of the pilgrimage that he sent back from Spain in a hard-cover book of more than 100 pages, Father Konicki said.