Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer
May 21, 2024 // Diocese

Diocesan Pilgrims Recount ‘Sacred Steps’ on the Camino de Santiago

Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer

Hundreds of pilgrims from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend have hiked or biked along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a network of pathways through France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain culminating at the Cathedral de Compostela in Santiago, Spain, where the apostle James is buried.

Various pilgrims from the diocese who have walked the camino (also known as the Way of St. James) call it “a life-changing experience,” “a good challenge and adventure,” “the experience of a lifetime,” “a powerful exercise of living in the present moment,” and “a deeply spiritual experience.”

Paul Sniadecki, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish in Granger, who is hiking the camino for a third time this spring – the trip is being led by a priest he met on his previous pilgrimage – told Today’s Catholic: “Pilgrims have been walking the camino for more than 1,200 years. You can take sacred steps there. The camino is a personal undertaking, and no two caminos are alike. It gave me the time to really sense how much I belong to God.”

The Camino de Santiago was so important to the Church that Rome sent Knights Templar to preserve the routes from the Moors when they controlled the rest of Spain. To the pilgrims who walk it today, it is still of great importance.

Joan Sniadecki, Paul’s wife, said she experienced a deep sense of community even though they didn’t stay with the same group the whole time. “Everyone is so accepting and supportive,” she said, adding that the camino can be “addictive.”

“You need to go back and be recharged,” Joan said. “I find that walking the camino quiets me so that I can better hear God’s whispering words of love.”

About half a million pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago every year, and that number is growing. There are several different routes that make up the camino, and one can spend different amounts of time doing it. According to the pilgrims who spoke to Today’s Catholic, there are also many different motivations for making the camino – not all of them religious.

Provided by Mary Rooney
Mary Rooney finished her first camino on her 62nd birthday. Now 84 years old, Rooney just finished her sixth trip, which she says will be her last.

‘It Keeps Drawing Me Back’

A two-page article on the camino in the South Bend Tribune riveted Mary Rooney’s attention so much that she cut it out and saved it for years, but she couldn’t commit to a six-week journey until she retired from her job as chaplain at Memorial Hospital in South Bend in 2001. At that time, she and a friend who retired with her had trouble finding any helpful information online or anyone local who had made the camino. Eventually, a woman Rooney knew who had cut short her camino suggested they order a guidebook from the Confraternity of St. James in London. Rooney and her friend made the pilgrimage in June and July, the hottest months of the year. It wasn’t planned that way, but Rooney walked into Santiago, Spain, on her 62nd birthday. Now 84, she’s just returned from her sixth camino, each trip lasting at least four or five weeks. Rooney, a parishioner at St. Thérèse, Little Flower Parish in South Bend, admits that her age made this one a farewell trip; she began walking 17 or 18 miles a day, but by the end of the month, her body had slowed down considerably. “This was my chance to express gratitude for my life and all the people I’ve known and loved,” she testifies.

“I just love the camino,” Rooney told Today’s Catholic. “It keeps drawing me back. … When I’m walking, I really feel the presence of the divine.” Rooney said she likes to begin each day by listening to Rita Connolly singing “The Deer’s Cry” (also known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate). The song begins with the lyrics, “I arise today through the strength of heaven / Light of sun, radiance of moon / Splendor of fire, speed of lightning / Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea / Stability of earth, firmness of rock / I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me / God’s eye to look before me / God’s wisdom to guide me / God’s way to lie before me / God’s shield to protect me.”

Walking the camino, Rooney said, “makes me feel like a citizen of the world. I counted this last time: I met and spoke with people from 24 different countries.” She still has monthly video chats with a German woman she met in 2016. “The spiritual life, what we talk about, runs deep.”

Along the trail, “you’re a witness to so many acts of kindness,” Rooney said. “Everyone is so helpful and caring.” As an example, she mentioned an older pilgrim whose backpack didn’t show up at the next albergue (public housing along the camino, like a hostel or an inn). It wasn’t long before other pilgrims had provided everything she needed. Stories such as this, Rooney said, “gives me hope for the whole world.”

The process of packing for a long pilgrimage has been an exercise in discerning what is truly necessary. Rooney carried a 20-pound pack the first time and only 11 pounds most recently. “The camino attitude must continue to live in us,” she said. “Every time I come home, I do more purging.”

Father-Daughter Trip

Dr. Jeff Niespodziany, a parishioner at Queen of Peace Parish in Osceola, recently celebrated his 65th birthday during a week on the camino with his daughter, Allison Steele, who lives in Nashville, Indiana. Niespodziany’s wife, Linda, was able to keep track of her pilgrims with her smartphone, and she slipped a cupcake, balloon, and candle into his luggage for the special occasion. Because Niespodziany is a podiatrist, he knew how to protect his feet on the trail. His daughter regularly hikes her family’s large acreage, lifts weights, and rides her Peloton bike, and her father has run marathons and kayaked and biked across Indiana and Michigan. Although April is a busy time of year for her freelance designer business, Steele told Today’s Catholic, “I immediately said yes, as I love a good challenge and adventure.”

Niespodziany had a specific prayer intention for each day. Since he had been on expeditions to Galapagos and Machu Pichu with his son and son-in-law, he was eager to take a trip with his daughter.

“This experience made me appreciate my relationship with my dad and the fact that we could spend so much time together and still have things to share and talk about.” She added: “I loved learning about the history of St. James and how it all came about. The cathedral was more amazing than anything I could have imagined. It has inspired me to travel more and see more of the world’s history.”

Today’s Catholic file photos
A group of young adults from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend walks along a trail on the camino in 2017.

‘There’s No Bad Camino’

Deacon Tom Labuzienski of St. Joseph Parish in South Bend said he loves praying the liturgy of the hours while he’s walking among the “mountains and hills, bless the Lord” (Dn 3:75).

He’s currently beginning three months in Europe in honor of St. James. Because there aren’t many permanent deacons in Spain, he’ll have a chance to serve at Mass every day, often reading the Gospel in English after the celebrant proclaims it in Spanish. He also spends time at the Official Pilgrims Office at the Santiago Cathedral, where he checks pilgrims’ “passport” stamps and presents graduation certificates entirely in Latin, even the pilgrim’s name. Tears aren’t at all unusual at that time, he said. Then Labuzienski invites everyone to Mass at the cathedral, and almost all take him up on the offer. He’s awed and humbled by the opportunity to invite 5,000 people to Mass, he said – some for the first time!

Deacon Tom Labuzienski, rear, and his sons Andrew, left, and Thomas pause beside the sign outside the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as they conclude their pilgrimage to the burial site of St. James.

Deacon Labuzienski first heard about the camino from European exchange students he helped place with host families in the South Bend area. They shared what a neat thing it was to do with their families. However, like most Americans who embark on the pilgrimage every year, his primary inspiration came from the 2010 movie “The Way,” which stars Martin Sheen as a father who decides to walk the pilgrimage after his son died on the camino. After he showed the film to his family around Thanksgiving in 2015, his 20-something sons, Andrew and Thomas, asked, “OK, Dad, when are we going to do it?” The three of them spent a month the following summer hiking and biking 500 miles. Deacon Labuzienski, who has been on the Way more than 10 times since 2016 – sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, also with his third son, Louis – credits St. James with his vocation to become a deacon.

It began two weeks after that 2016 camino when Deacon Labuzienski was at Sunday Mass asking what God wanted him to do next. That’s when he had the idea of teaching a course on the camino at Forever Learning Institute – a center in South Bend for those 50 and older to continue their education. He’s taught the class every fall semester since. With a maximum enrollment of 50, the class is always full.

He told Today’s Catholic, “There’s no bad camino.”

‘One Step at a Time’

Deacon Labuzienski tries to involve others in his class, even video chatting with M.J. Murray Vachon while she was on her 10-day camino.

The second night of her camino, Vachon, a parishioner at the Church of Our Lady of Loretto in South Bend, had dinner with 60 pilgrims who took turns sharing why they were walking. She found the variety of reasons striking – “I’m marking the death of a child”; “I like to walk”; “I’m trying to overcome an addiction”; “I love nature.” Not surprisingly, different people have different experiences depending on their expectations, she said.

“It’s boots on the ground, one step at a time, and it wasn’t as physically demanding as I feared,” Vachon said, “as long as you’re in decent shape. It’s a very opening experience, but you don’t need to be afraid it’s going to be too pietistic.” Vachon added that it’s also fun to meet people from all over the world, even though the first four she met happened to be from Indiana and have connections with people she knew!

‘Letting Go and Letting God’

There are eight pilgrim principles for those walking the camino. They are humility, simplicity, flexibility, responsibility, collaboration, candor, hospitality, and gratitude.

“You’re surrounded by nature, and you meet people from all over the world,” Deacon Labuzienski said. “The longer you’re away from your normal routine, the more impactful it is. You appreciate each day, your prayer life grows, and you’re filled with gratitude. When you’re hungry, you stop and eat. When you’re tired, there’s a place to stay.”

Labuzienski serves on the national board of the American Pilgrims on the Camino as well as the South Bend chapter of the American Pilgrims. Saint Mary’s College will again be the site for a national gathering of camino pilgrims in the summer of 2025. The meeting will take place around the feast of St. James (July 25) and feature participants and speakers from all over the world.

The pilgrims who spoke to Today’s Catholic said that, through the years, the camino has been commercialized, with companies organizing tours, buying up hostels, and providing buses to carry luggage and weary travelers, but Deacon Labuzienski recommends “letting go and letting God,” walking out the front door each morning and following the shell symbols toward Santiago.

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