Setauket pastor walks 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain

Father Bob Smith stops for a photo with a fellow pilgrim along “Camino de Santiago.”

SETAUKET — Just before Father Bob Smith came to St. James Church here as pastor in 2003, he heard a radio report on a famous Spanish pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage, “Camino de Santiago,” “The Way of St. James,” each year draws thousands of pilgrims to walk hundreds of miles to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where, according to legend, the bones of St. James the Great are buried.

This year, Father Smith became one of the thousands of pilgrims. He walked 500 miles from Feb. 11 to March 18, through varying weather that included eight inches of snow that fell in one day.

When he first heard the radio report, he was intrigued because his new parish was named after St. James the Great.

St. James the Great, brother of John and one of the Apostles, according to tradition preached in that region of Spain. A church and a town bearing his name grew up.

“It became the third leading pilgrimage site in the medieval world, behind Jerusalem and Rome,” Father Smith said. He began researching and planning. As a runner and dog owner who takes his dog for walks, he felt he was up for it.

He put off the trip due to practical considerations, such as being away from his parish so long, Father Smith explained. Last year, he decided he and the parish were ready.

About 20 parishioners and others made a less strenuous pilgrimage, flying to meet him at the end of his walk, continuing with him by bus to Lourdes.

Father Smith began his pilgrimage in France, near the Spanish-French border. ”Each morning,” he said, “the question on your mind is: ‘What is the next town?’” to spend the night. “It’s considered wise to shoot for at least an average of 17 miles a day.” Including breaks, he walked six to seven hours a day.

“The weather there was about two or three weeks ahead of the weather on Long Island. So there were many cold, clear days, some nice mild days, and some days of rain.”

“There were also some cold nights,” Father Smith said. He stayed in hostels, “dormitory-type accommodations,” with one large room and numerous beds. “Some of them had no heat.”

At times, the daily trek was wearying, Father Smith said, “but I found myself enjoying it.” A daily rhythm developed. One day he suffered from tendonitis “but it was very manageable.” He also grew a beard to avoid shaving each morning, “but I shaved it off as soon as I got back.”

Father Smith walked alone. “It was a wonderful experience of prayer and solitude. I was struck by the depth and quality. I prayed the rosary every day and frequently prayed the Psalms.”

One facet that struck him was “the warmth and welcome of the Spanish people. Along the way, there is a great sense of people rooting you along.” His interaction was hindered somewhat by his not speaking Spanish, “so learning Spanish is one thing that I want to do now.”

There was a special bond among pilgrims, he noted. Even though he walked alone, at the end of the day pilgrims mingled. “I don’t think I ever ate a meal alone.”

He met pilgrims from Japan, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, India, ”but only one other American,” Father Smith said. “People from all walks of life, all ages and there was no distinction about nationality or state of life. There was immediate affinity.”

He made it to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. “It is a beautiful cathedral.” He had a few days until his parishioners joined him. They also enjoyed Santiago before going back to France, including Lourdes, by bus. “It was good to ride and not have to carry my overloaded backpack.”

He is also looking forward to an upcoming movie, “The Way,” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, about the pilgrimage.

He brought home with him a greater appreciation of pilgrimage. “This is life. We are all on the journey.”