October 7, 2016
When Fr. Marvin Klemmer retired in 2011, he wanted to thank God for his 45 years as a priest. He chose to do it in a dramatic way, by reflecting on the blessing of his priesthood while walking the Camino de Santiago highway also known as “The Way of St. James.”
It is a spiritual journey of 500 miles across the Spanish countryside that pilgrims of all faiths have traversed since the early Middle Ages. The final destination is the Pilgrim Mass at noon each day in the Cathedral de Santiago in de Compostela, Spain, the reputed burial place of St. James the apostle.
“I had been thinking about doing it for two years as I was getting close to retirement,” Fr. Klemmer explained. “I thought, wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to start my retirement?”
The following May in 2012, at the age of 72, Fr. Klemmer began walking “The Way,” starting from the walled town of St. Jean Pied de Port, one of the most popular starting points. It crosses the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish-French border. The first section is considered to be the most challenging, taking pilgrims across the Pyrenees and into the city of Pamplona.
“The first day, I had climbed 4,050 feet and walked 13 and a half hours,” Fr. Klemmer explained, “but I had not brought the right equipment.” He only had two granola bars to eat and one bottle of water. The many fountains he had read about that would be along the way were not turned on yet, but he did eventually find a place to get more water.
Fr. Klemmer’s backpack was too small and poorly fitted for his back, giving him a backache, and his shoes were too small. Since he has diabetes, getting a sore on his foot could have easily turned into a serious infection. “I had walked as far as Pamplona—50 miles—and stayed a couple days with friends,” he said. “I wanted to continue, but realized I needed to terminate.”
He shed a lot of tears over the decision, but knew he would be back. “Once you think of the Camino, you just can’t let it go,” Fr. Klemmer said. “It’s a call, a pilgrimage.”
The following May, with both well-fitted shoes and backpack, Fr. Klemmer picked up where he had left off and completed the remaining 450 miles to St. James in a little over 30 days. On The Way, he said he had much time to reflect and in the evenings, there were usually Masses in the small towns that provided overnight accommodations for pilgrims.
According to Fr. Klemmer, most people walk the Camino for spiritual reasons. People pass by and walking alongside, they share their reasons for doing it. A man who Fr. Klemmer sat beside at dinner one evening in one of the pilgrim hostels was from Austria. “He had quit his job, had body piercings and tattoos, and smoked,” Fr. Klemmer said. He could not imagine having anything in common with the man. Father Klemmer thought, Lord, what are you trying to tell me?
Fr. Klemmer learned that the man had felt he was going nowhere and even contemplated suicide. But while on the Camino, the man decided he wanted to spend his life working for the poor. “So it turned out that we did have a lot in common,” Fr. Klemmer said, “We shared a desire to serve others.”
Pilgrims form an immediate bond with one another and everyone helps and cares for one another, Fr. Klemmer explained. “That is what the body of Christ is supposed to be like. We want to get to one place—the kingdom of heaven—and we should help each other along the way.”
His most profound experience came at the end during the noontime Pilgrim Mass at St. James. “Around 14 people I had met along the way came to my line for Communion,” Fr. Klemmer said. “It was profound. I had tears in my eyes and so did they as I gave them the Eucharist.”
Although it’s been three years, Fr. Klemmer said he thinks of the trip often and still offers daily prayer for those walking the Camino.