In this time of Covid-19 virus restrictions and lockdowns, where religious and social gatherings have been curtailed or cancelled, it has been difficult for churches to maintain a “sense of community” that is so important to the well-being of parishioners and those they serve. At St. John’s Lutheran Church in Petawawa, Ontario, Pastor Albert Romkema recently invited parishioners, their friends and family to join him on a 774-kilometre Virtual Camino de Santiago walk.
Christian pilgrimages to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain have been taking place since the 1400’s and recently more than a quarter of a million walkers have made pilgrimages on various routes each year. The cathedral there is said to be the burial place of St. James, the disciple of Jesus and the patron Saint of Spain.
Pastor Albert and his wife, Anne, are veteran Camino walkers and it was on one of these walks in 2013 that Pastor Albert received his call to become a Lutheran pastor. Over the last few years, parishioners at St. John’s have heard about his experiences “walking the Camino” during his sermons.
The Virtual Camino is described as a “pandemic pilgrimage”, where you can walk a few kilometres anywhere and record the distance travelled on your Camino journey map on your phone, computer or tablet. The “French Way” has been chosen as the virtual route, the same as Pastor Albert’s 2013 journey. The starting point is St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, 774 km from Santiago de Compostela.
There are 27 members and friends walking in the St. John’s group, ranging in age from seven to 87 years–clearly a multi-generational event. The group even has a three-generation family participating. Everyone travels at their own pace. Walking is not the only way to progress along the virtual Camino. There are a multitude of activities that can be converted to a distance travelled—skiing, yoga, skating, yard work, dancing, etc. Given that we started our journeys in January, snowshoeing is a popular method of racking up kilometres. One couple who usually spend their winters in Florida were given snowshoes by their children who knew travel restrictions would keep their parents home this winter.
Progress along the route map is recorded and followed on the walker’s smartphone, tablet or computer. The locations of the other members of the St. John’s group can be seen, along with what activities they are doing. Pictures are posted and comments and messages of support can be sent from and received by members of the group. The StreetView function on the map can be used to see the surroundings in Spain through which you are virtually travelling. While some may think that the virtual nature of this Camino is a poor substitute for the real thing, several of our participants have remarked that there would be no way for them to participate in the real thing and they feel happy to participate virtually. No air fares or hotel bills were seen as a big advantage. A veteran Camino walker has remarked how much the virtual Camino resembles the actual pilgrimage in Spain. There is a sharing of each participant’s walk for the day, similar to conversations at rest stops, dinner or accommodations at the day’s end and talk of sore muscles and blisters.
And, while the physical exercise is important in this time of Covid-19, there is much value garnered in emotional and spiritual aspects of group participation. There is a wonderful feeling of belonging, being part of a community and a part of something bigger than oneself. There is nothing like a quiet walk on a path through the woods to lift your spirits. Indeed, it has been said by some of our older walkers that they are truly thankful to be able to enjoy the outdoors at their age and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. More importantly, it also provides a time for personal reflection without distraction. Many are using their walk to pray for those on the St. John’s prayer list. One young mother uses her walks to think of ways to do more for others; to bring joy or peace. She makes a plan to reach out to a friend or family member and thinks about ways to encourage her children to show their love for others. As Christians, any opportunity that encourages us to spend more time communing with God and opening ourselves to hear his direction so we can better do his will in the world is time well spent.
When participants complete the walk, they will receive a certificate and medal acknowledging their achievement. In addition, Pastor Albert hopes to celebrate this achievement with a “medalling ceremony” later in the year. As of March 1, 2021, St. John’s is about six weeks in on the Virtual Camino and Pastor Albert has received inquiries from other local churches who are considering starting Camino events for their own congregations. One young couple in our group has decided to repeat the walk along the real route in Spain when the pandemic is over.
For more information on the Virtual Camino go to: