Seminarians reflect while on pilgrimage

Father Michael M. Romano, director of Vocations for the Diocese of Camden, celebrates Mass in Spain.

On May 23 many of the seminarians of the Diocese of Camden, along with Fathers Michael Romano, vocations director, and Adam Cichoski, departed for a three week pilgrimage to work in Lourdes, France, and walk a part of the Camino de Santiago.

Below are selections from their reflections.

June 1, 4:09 p.m.

Another fruitful day in Lourdes has come and gone. Though we have been here for over a week now, it seems just like yesterday that we arrived. Sadly, tomorrow will be our last day of service here in Lourdes. This morning a group of us were assigned to serve at the grotto, and we were blessed with a beautiful day.

From the early hours of the morning until the afternoon, there are multiple groups that gather for the holy sacrifice of the Mass at the grotto. I was moved by seeing the universality of the church right before my eyes. We saw groups from the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Meanwhile thousands of pilgrims pass by the grotto varying in age and nationality. It is beautiful to see the church alive! This experience reminded me of World Youth Day in Poland during the summer of 2016.

— Henry Laigaie

June 2, 1:38 p.m.

This being my first time in Lourdes, I can say I have never experienced anything like it. In the beginning of the week, we had a formation day where we learned how to do the many service tasks here at Lourdes. This included learning how to lift and carry the elderly and sick, greet people with a warm embrace, become familiar with the sanctuary to direct pilgrims, etc. We have had some fantastic directors to help teach us these skills. But the people who have taught me the most I would have to say are the sick and elderly. The malades, as they are called, are so humble and loving, they are always greeting us with huge smiles on their faces and willing to do whatever it is we ask of them. They have complete trust in us that we will get them to their next destination safely and not put them into danger. The malades have taught me great humility, total trust in my brothers and sisters, and how to find joy and love in the little things in life.

— George Creel

June 3, 12:53 p.m.

Greetings and blessings from Lourdes. Today is our 11th day here and our time of service as volunteers is at an end. Seven seminarians in our group, myself included, were blessed to have served at the international Mass today for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This day has special meaning in Lourdes this year because in 1858 this same solemnity was on this exact date, June 3. That was the year Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette in February. On June 3, 1858 Bernadette received her first holy Communion.

Bishop Robert says, when speaking of this solemnity, that “Jesus presents, offers, bears and passes on … his very self.” In the Gospel today Jesus breaks the bread and says “Take it; this is my body.” Jesus indeed passes on his very self to us as food but he also wants us to see his broken body. This is what I have seen during my time in Lourdes. The Body of Christ is present here in people from every nation. They are here in the pilgrim who comes to see the place where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette but also in those who are in need of healing. During my time working in the baths I have seen people come to the waters and allow volunteers to see them in their vulnerability in order to facilitate their encounter with Jesus and Our Lady.

Another service I was involved in was assisting people in wheelchairs board their planes for their flight home from Lourdes. One of the passengers was an elderly woman who had muscle control problems. I helped wheel her down the plane aisle and then lift her into her seat. She could not speak and seemed a bit embarrassed by the whole process. I helped her into her seat and put her seatbelt on her. She smiled at me to say thank you. There is such joy that comes from helping people and letting them know that they truly have dignity. It is what we are called to do as members of the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ.

— Steven Bertonazzi

June 4, 1:56 p.m.

Today at Lourdes we are having a silent day of reflection and prayer. We began the day with Mass and then stations of the cross. I have been meditating on the Gospel of Mark from today’s Mass and Saint Thomas More. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gives the parable of the master who plants a vineyard and leaves it in the care of tenants. I reflect on this description of the vineyard and the tenants as a symbol of God as the master who plants the vineyard of creation and gives it to us as the tenants. Jesus later says in the parable, though, that the master sends his servants to collect some of the fruit but the tenants reject the servants by rebuking and beating some, while others they kill. The master even sends his beloved son to the tenants so as to collect some of the fruit the master has given them, but the beloved son as well is killed by the tenants. I reflect on this part of the parable as Jesus explaining his own death for our rejection of him through sin and the rejection of his faithful servants the saints. Saint Thomas More, like many other saints, was rejected and put to death for the Master’s sake and mission. I ask myself, do I truly give to God as Saint Thomas More did in all his works or like Our Lady? Do I say to God, “I am fully your servant, let it be done unto me according to your will”? Saint Thomas More still loved those who persecuted him and even jokingly said to his executioner that he would appreciate help up to the scaffold but that he would see himself down. His final words before being beheaded was that he was the king’s good servant, but God’s first.

— James Sprenger

The group takes a break from ministering to the sick in Lourdes, France, to pose for a photo.

June 5 2:03 p.m.

After a grace filled time in Lourdes, it is time to transition into the second part of our pilgrimage in Spain. Knowing how much the experience in Lourdes touched each of us, it was appropriate that we stopped in Loyola to visit Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s family home and to celebrate Mass in the room where he had his conversion.

Like Saint Ignatius, many of the people we worked with over the past week, and yes even we, have traveled distances with uncertainties and struggles. But each of us have come to encounter Christ in subtle but profound ways.

As we begin the second phase of our pilgrimage, may God continue to guide us to surrender all we have to him as Saint Ignatius did.

— Carlo Santa Teresa

June 7, 6:31 a.m.

Today, we visited two of the major cities along the Camino: Burgos and León. In Burgos, we had a tour of the city with a guide who kept us all entertained with his constant barrage of witty jokes. We then visited their gothic cathedral, which was unbelievably beautiful.

After a few hours on the bus, we then toured the city of León, which was originally founded to house a Roman legion as they prepared to go into battle. We celebrated Mass in one of the side chapels of the cathedral and then continued on to the city of Sarria. Tomorrow we will finally begin to walk the Camino.

One of the things that really stood out to me today was the sad state of the church here in Spain. There are magnificent churches every way you turn, yet no one to fill them. Our tour guide in Burgos explained to us how only a small percentage of the population goes to Mass on Sundays, and how the number of weddings has drastically decreased. These incredible cathedrals, opulently decorated for the glory of God, are now visited as if they were merely museums. While we were in León, the cathedral was closed for the majority of the day so that they could film an episode of MasterChef in the main square.

Somewhat depressed after our day of touring, the Lord showed me exactly what I needed to hear on the bus while I was reading from Pope Francis’ exhortation Gaudete et Exultate. The decrease in the practice of the faith is not an excuse to wallow in sorrow, but rather a call to action. At one point he says, “Let us ask for the apostolic courage to share the Gospel with others and to stop trying to make our Christian life a museum of memories.” This is a call to action. Jesus Christ is alive and real, and he is calling out to us each and every day.

During our time in Lourdes, we all experienced firsthand that the faith is alive and well. The Lord continues to work through his beloved sons and daughters. We were able to live the Gospel by serving our sick brothers and sisters. I look forward to the upcoming days on the Camino where we can reflect on how the Lord has manifested himself to us on our pilgrimage so far, and how we can share those graces with others.

— Stephen Robbins

From Lourdes to walking the Camino

Seminarians walk a part of the Camino de Santiago.

June 8, 6:13 a.m.

As we began walking the Camino today, I noticed several pilgrims saying “el camino” after passing us. I was very confused, because the saying didn’t make sense to me. I decided to ask Father Romano if it was a tradition to pass pilgrims and say “el camino.” He told me they are saying “buen camino” which means “good way.”

I started to reflect on the meaning “buen camino” during our 15-mile walk, and I thought it was a nice gesture that my fellow pilgrims were wishing me a safe and fruitful journey to Santiago. This opened my eyes to the fact that I am not alone on this pilgrimage. Each person who wished me a good journey gave me the energy to keep going even though I was tired.

The purpose of this pilgrimage is to deepen my relationship with Jesus Christ. This should be the ultimate goal of each one of us as Catholics. This is also the goal of the Camino de Santiago. Not all the pilgrims on the Camino are Catholics. Some are Protestants and atheists and some are lost sheep who are searching for the Good Shepherd. They all have one common goal, however, and that is to discover Christ. I would say that we are all on a camino in our own way. Each one of us is on a journey to find Christ and fall in love with him. Granted, there will be struggles (much like the rocks we had to climb down during our camino), but we will always have someone to wish us a “buen camino” to persevere through the Camino of Life.

The first one to wish us a buen camino is our Blessed Mother. Then comes the Communion of Saints. We must wish each other a buen camino during our time in this life by prayer and service. As a seminarian and a young Catholic, I hope I can offer a buen camino to those whom I encounter in life and give them the energy to keep on growing closer to Christ. Continue to pray for us during this pilgrimage and wish us a buen camino as we will do so for you.

— Tommy Piro

June 9, 6:30 a.m. 

The Road to Santiago.

On a rainy and gray day, we began our journey to Santiago de Compostela. I have been reflecting on the days that I was blessed to volunteer at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. These were days where one could see Christ alive in the sick, both physically and spiritually. These have been days of joy in the denying of oneself for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. Lourdes is a place where it is evident that there is a need for God in all aspects of everyday life.

I am on my way to Santiago! The rainy, gray days could cause a temptation to think and feel a little down. It is not always easy to see the graces during dark days, but I know that although it rains and one cannot see the sun, I am certain that the sun is there. On many occasions it is easy to get carried away by difficult circumstances and it is too easy to become lost when we do not see the light. Faith, on the contrary, fills us with hope and leads us to enjoy all of the circumstances that the Lord gives us and his Light allows us to see clearly and brightly the truth in even the smallest of happenings. In faith we realize more and more that Divine Providence leaves nothing to chance.

Every step toward Santiago is a step of grace. We may fear the unknown and wonder “Can I do this? My feet hurt, I am tired and hungry.” We are always looking for security. This is where faith shows us that even without being able to see the sun, we know that it is there and this reminds us that is the same with God. After all, it is God himself who has given us a rainy and gray day. Regardless of the conditions in which we find ourselves in daily life, we can choose between seeing everything gray, rainy and without hope or we can search for holiness in all the rainy, gray days of our lives.

We are alive thanks to the new life given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ in the living tree of the Holy Cross and in the Mystical Communion that he has left us in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, where our bodies are alive and on a pilgrimage that makes us part of that Mystical Body of Christ. Saint Teresa of Calcutta was once asked, “Mother, how do you do what you do?” Mother answered, “Mass and Holy Communion.” That is the secret to a full life.

— César Pirateque Serrano

June 10, 5:42 a.m.

Well, we sure had a lot of time today. We walked over 20 miles from Portomarín to Azura. Through the forest and the farm lands, which were reminiscent of parts of Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, we got to take in the sights and sounds while reflecting upon our volunteer work. Beaten, battered and all, we marched on to get closer and closer to Christ. The pain that we shared in was part of the pain that was suffered by the sick that we tended to in Lourdes.

We tell each other to “offer it up” when we get discouraged or go through the difficulties associated with the Camino. We do our best to “offer up” the pain, the drudgery and the inconvenience to our Lord in hopes of him helping us to get stronger and stronger and to have the grace to take the next step, either figuratively, or in this week’s case, literally.

So while our trip winds down, and we look forward to returning to our families and communities in the United States, we can truly say that we’ve experienced a fraction of the pain that the sick in Lourdes, and everywhere else, do. But we’ve also had the time to reflect on our own lives and see how the Lord has worked with us and through us. And that we need to take life one step at a time with him, even when it is painful.

— Logan NIlsen

June 11, 6 a.m.

I am especially grateful for the time I spent in Lourdes. One afternoon in particular stands out to me.

Before I started this trip, I hoped to gain a deeper relationship with our Blessed Mother. She answered that request in a wonderful way.

In the afternoons on some of our days in Lourdes, we would spend some afternoons in the baths. We would assist the sick on stretchers and wheelchairs into the baths. It is very rewarding work. It is also very taxing. One afternoon in particular, I could not find any motivation to work. I did not want to spend the rest of the day there. So I prayed a very deep prayer, not knowing what would happen, if I would find the motivation to work that day. I did not know if I would feel spiritually fulfilled at the end of the day. I simply said to Mary, “I choose to do this because I love you, and no other reason.”

The rest of the day went normally but at night our team assisted with the rosary procession. And something incredible happened! During the rosary procession in Lourdes, a statue of Mary is carried around the square. Usually pilgrims are asked to carry this statue, not those asked to work the procession. But on this night the pilgrims scheduled to carry the statue did not show up and I was one of the people asked to carry the statue. I felt so much joy. I believe in my heart that Mary responded to my prayer in the baths that day by giving me the privilege to carry her in procession.

How often do we find little motivation to do things we don’t want to do? How do we respond? Are we open with God?

— Christopher Myers