Last month forty seven pilgrims from Clongowes made their ways to the Basque Country in Northern Spain, there to embark on a pilgrimage that would lead them from the birthplace of St Ignatius in Loyola to one of the most important Ignatian sites in Manresa while also dipping their toes in the Camino de Santiago.
The forty boys and seven adults assembled in Dublin Airport on Saturday 7th May for an early flight to Bilbao, a city that has undergone considerable regeneration in the last twenty years. Its history as a medieval port is recognised in the iconic Guggenheim Museum, which is moored on the waterfront where it assumes the form of a galleon under full sail. The gallery plays host to an ever-changing series of art exhibitions that included some later Andy Warhol works on the day we visited and the boys were impressed by the structure and enthralled by the contents in equal measure.
Replete with culture we enjoyed the coach journey through the low rolling verdant hills that characterise this part of Spain and arrived in Loyola where we spent the night. Following an excellent meal we repaired to an upper room, where the Rector, Fr Michael Sheil – our Spiritual Guide for the pilgrimage – led us in the first of a series of reflections, that would be an important part of each day. Mr Declan O’Keeffe invited the boys to dedicate their pilgrimage to a cause of their own before an early night was had by all, as the following day would see us embark on the first of three days hiking in the footsteps of Ignatius and many other medieval pilgrims.
Sunday was dry and warm as our guides led us on the trail followed St Ignatius as he embarked on his life’s journey alone and foot. The path wound its way up through a green shady valley to Onati, the Shrine of Our Lady of Arantzazu, where we know Ignatius prayed for strength to overcome his temptations. There were few temptations to distract our young (and not so young) pilgrims as they made their ways steadily uphill, pausing only to visit one of the typical limestone caves that riddle the hills in the area.
Back in Loyola we had a tour of the impressive Counter-Reformation Basilica and also the Holy House, which contains the Chapel of the Conversion in the room where Ignatius decided to dedicate his life to God while he convalesced from a career altering injury in the Battle of Pamplona. There Fr Sheil celebrated an intimate Mass and invited the group to take stock of where they were and to be mindful of the journey they would undertake in the coming days.
Over the hills and far away
The coming days commenced with two stages of the ancient Way of St James or Camino de Santiago. To commence we drove over the border to the pretty town of St Jean Pied de Port in France, the formal starting point for the 800km long The French Way or Camino Francés that winds its way across the north of Spain to the cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela. The first day winds its way upwards for a considerable part of its 27km as it crosses the shoulder of the Pyrenees to the monastery town of Roncesvalles.
This proved to be character forming in the extreme, not so much for the hike – as all were capable of that – as for the deluge that descended for two hours in the afternoon (although it felt like forty days and forty nights). We soldiered on and it was heartening to see the boys encouraging one another on the trail and to observe the looks of achievement and satisfaction on their faces as the arrived at the end. The day had started out in glorious sunshine and that weather returned the next day for the relatively straightforward 22km into Pamplona (with the Headmaster, Mr Chris Lumb to the fore), and would remain set fair for the remainder of the week.
Sadly, time constraints curtailed our time in the capital city of Navarre as our trusty coach driver whisked us across the country to Catalonia and the small town of Manresa. It had taken Ignatius considerably longer when he walked there in 1522 to take up residence sleeping rough in a cave on the edge of the town. In the cave Fr Sheil told us how Ignatius had only intended to spend a few days in Manresa but remained for a significant eleven months, during which he composed the Book of the Spiritual Exercises, a guide towards the orientation of one’s life depending upon God, “in all things to serve and love.” He also mentioned that he had only been there once before, while a Rhetoric student in Clongowes one month and 60 years earlier…
From Manresa we took a trip to Montserrat where Ignatius prepared himself for his future life by passing a night in vigil before an altar of Our Lady. He observed all the formalities of the ceremony associated with the formation of knights, neither sitting nor lying down, but alternately standing and kneeling, and there he laid aside his worldly dignities to assume the arms of Christ. In a tiny chapel behind the main altar of the Basilica we shared an intimate Mass that was one of the highlights of the trip for staff and students alike.
From Aeterna to Caduca
The aeterna gave way to the caduca that afternoon as we paid our long awaited visit to PortAventura, a theme park just outside of Barcelona equipped with the very latest terrifying, heart-stopping, toe-curling white-knuckle rides, a waterpark and all-you-can-fit-in family entertainment. The boys were in their element while the adults kept a watching brief from the safety of the outdoor café with the occasional foray into the machinery by Messrs Paul McCormack, John O’Donoghue and Angus ‘Gus’ Reynolds, our antipodean assistant.
The following day was spent in and around sunny Barcelona, where we spent the morning on two wheels as we followed our leaders from Fat Tire Bike Tours on a rambling, picaresque route along the (many) cycle paths that adorn the city. Sadly we had no time to stop at Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia and were obliged to worship it from afar, but the latter part of the route along the impressive seafront proved some compensation. Hats off to Paddy White for an impressive piece of running repair on his own machine, when all seemed lost.
That afternoon saw us visit the Camp Nou, home to Barcelona FC with its comprehensive museum and impressive facilities putting stars in the eyes of some of the round ball devotees in our number. We returned to base for one last supper after which Fr Sheil led a very touching final reflection al fresco on the lawn outside the hotel and the trip began to draw to a close.
The only staff member not mentioned thus far is the redoubtable Ms Liz Griffin, without whose Trojan efforts the trip would – literally – not have taken place. Its success is in direct proportion to her preparations in the year preceding the trip and her organisational skills on the ground in Spain in addition to which she took a full role in all the activities. As we write, Liz is busy putting the starting touches to the next edition of a very successful project that will surely become a fixture in Transition Year Ethos Programme for many a year to come.
They say that the Camino always provides and in this instance it gave us experiences that will not be easily forgotten. Not everyone in Transition Year was able to come on the trip but – to paraphrase our Pastoral Co-Ordinator, Ms Anne Marie Dolan – everyone who was meant to be there was there. We were all there for a reason – perhaps for someone else – and it may be one that we will never know. The stories are legion, the memories many and the group formed a bond that will stand them in good stead throughout the remainder of their time in Clongowes and beyond.
Mr Declan O’Keeffe, Head of Communications
There are lots and lots of photographs here courtesy of Mr Paul McCormack