“The pilgrimage is based on St. Ignatius’s Autobiography and is intended to bring pilgrims to the places in which the significant events in his life occurred. So we stayed at Loyola for four nights, which gave plenty of time for prayer in the house where he was born and where he experienced a spiritual reawakening many years later. We visited the buildings he would have known in the nearby town of Azpeitia and even arranged a group photograph outside his mother’s birthplace in Azcoitia (ignoring the bemused gazes of a large crowd of Basque-speaking teenagers). We went to the Franciscan shrine at Arantzazu, high in the mountains, where Ignatius made his first pilgrimage.
Leaving the temperate Basque climate, we stopped in Pamplona, capital of Navarre, to pray in the cathedral (as Ignatius would have done) and to see the spot where he fell wounded in the siege of 1521, a wound that led to his conversion. The tiny basilica on the spot where he fell, is in the care of the Redemptorists and has recently become a chapel of perpetual adoration.
The sun beat down relentlessly when we arrived in Xavier, birthplace of St.Francis, the most famous of all Navarrese and one of the very few people whose family name became a baptismal name. The church there was dark, cool and welcoming. The restored Xavier Castle was fascinating.
We crossed most of northern Aragon (which is green and very pleasant, unlike the desertification to be seen along the southern route) and broke the journey overnight in the city of Huesca (where a dubbed Marx Brothers film was being shown to many families on a huge screen in the main square at midnight) before pressing on to Barcelona. En route, we had our most memorable meal: €13.50 for dinner, including wine, in a truckers’ restaurant. We found that the euro goes much further in Spain.
Our coach driver had satellite navigation, but didn’t trust it, so there was frequent hysteria in the front of the bus. He fed in the wrong information for our short journey to the great Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, so we spent an extra two hours on the motorways of Catalonia and missed the conventual Mass (some of us did hear a monk leading pilgrims in song at 1 p.m.). Ignatius had made a vigil at Montserrat in 1522. The place is much busier now: it’s the symbolic heart of Catalonia. The eighty-six monks who live there are never seen outside the basilica.
Satellite navigation has its advantages: our driver set his with the gravelly, sexy voice of a lady whom we named “Consuelo”. She sounded as if she had been up all night drinking whiskey and smoking too much, but had moved on to black coffee and had no intention of going to bed.
Manresa, where Ignatius spent nine months and had some of the most important spiritual insights of his life (including the realisation that he was loved unconditionally by God) was our destination the following day. We got there from Barcelona without any problems and got lost only twice as we sought the Jesuit shrine, the Cave, where Ignatius spent some time. The only cool spot in the whole town (it was now 34 Centigrade) was in the old church at the top of the hill, where Ignatius worshipped frequently. Mass in the Cave was a great experience. The walk on the banks of the Cardoner River was more demanding: hot, smelly, not the ideal setting for a mystical illumination such as Ignatius received at that very spot.
By this time, some of us had adjusted well to Spanish life and were quite happy dining until after midnight. Others found the heat was too much. We were, however, determined to end in fine style, so we organized the final morning as a visit to the oldest part of Barcelona, the Barrio Gothico, which was the city that Ignatius knew. Santa Maria del Mar, which was his parish church during the years he studied (as a very mature student) in Barcelona, was looking magnificent on a sunny Sunday morning; we put lots of candles in front of the statue of Ignatius, in the spot where he used to beg for alms. The Cathedral itself was crowded, with tourists taking photographs of everything (including the geese who live in the cloister) and with worshippers waiting for the next Mass.
We arrived at Barcelona Airport: our driver had a row with a traffic cop; we discovered that the Aer Lingus handling agent had opened only two of the three check-in desks, so check-in became a fraught experience. Then it was time for a flight from hot, sunny Barcelona to cool, wet Dublin.
We did not know what Ignatius would have made of our extraordinary mobility in the course of one week, but we all felt closer to him when it was over.”