Dr. Jose Pereira
Exhausted from his busy schedule as a palliative care doctor in Ottawa, Dr. Jose Pereira arranged to walk the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, last September.
Disillusioned with religion, over the previous 15 years Pereira had drifted away from the Church and stopped attending Mass. So, when he got his passport to walk the Camino, he paused when the volunteer asked why he was making the pilgrimage.
His companion for the first four of what was to be a 30-day pilgrimage, Dr. Carlos Centeno, another palliative care doctor who was a member of Opus Dei, had no doubts – he was doing it for religious reasons, he said joyously.
But Pereira was not so sure. He rejected the four standard reasons for the pilgrimage and said, "I came to lose weight."
"I needed space and time to reflect, refocus, realign, reconnect and rediscover who I really was and where I was going," he told a May 10 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.
Pereira gave the witness talk at the last Nothing More Beautiful session for 2011-12, while Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington gave the catechesis on the theme for the evening, Our Eternal Destiny.
The Camino gave Pereira what he needed – time to think away from a life of pagers, emails, beepers and urgent phone calls.
During their four days together, Pereira and Centeno spoke openly and candidly about faith and religion. "Carlos asked me questions that made me go inwards and shared with me his own thoughts."
A man of deep faith, "Carlos does not impose it on anyone," said Pereira. "He exudes love and joy in everything he does. He is a wonderful, compassionate physician."
The two men, who had trained together in Edmonton in 1995, talked while walking, while resting along the trail and in some of the many pubs for the weary walkers. They talked about caring for the dying; they talked about suffering and celebration, pain and dignity.
After Centeno left, Pereira walked with a 74-year-old man and began writing letters to people who, over the years, he had disappointed. "At times, my nine-kilogram backpack seemed heavier as my thoughts took me to the parts of my life that I have been less proud of."
WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Archbishop Richard Smith enters St. Joseph's Basilica for the Evening Prayer service that was part of the May 10 session of Nothing More Beautiful.
He started attending Mass during his Camino. It was at a Mass, on the 15th day, he heard the priest say, "God does not ask you to be perfect and the best; he simply asks you to keep trying to be the best."
That counsel resonated in Pereira. "At that moment, so much of the guilt that I had been carrying over the years, my own disappointments in myself, my failings, left me.
"The next day my backpack seemed half its weight. My pains were still there but they seemed less menacing. I still often think of that – 'God simply wants you to keep trying.' How human and how enlightening, I thought."
Nine days later, he listened as another priest said the Camino is not a bubble isolated from the rest of life.
"By the time I had arrived in Santiago, I had come to the realization that life is the Camino. It is our everyday lives.
"The Camino de Santiago is an allegory of our lives. It provides an opportunity to step out of our lives, our real Camino, to reflect and become re-energized and refocused."
When, at the end of the pilgrimage, another volunteer asked him why he had walked the Camino, he said it was for all the reasons given, "but above all for religious reasons.
"I'd become proud of my faith."
Wuerl, in his presentation, told of attending a World Youth Day led by Blessed John Paul II. Reading from his text, the pope told the half a million youth in attendance, "Never be ashamed of your faith."
"He stopped and let the paper fall to his side. He said, 'That's not what I wanted to say. "Be proud, be proud of your faith."'
"Shouldn't we be proud of our faith? Shouldn't we be proud of our calling?" the cardinal asked. "Someday we will walk through those doors into everlasting light and love. Shouldn't we be proud of that?"
The cardinal urged the congregation to read the Bible every day and to reflect on its meaning under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. "Studying and praying from the Bible should be the lifelong project of every Christian."
He repeated the encouragement of Pope Benedict who urges Catholics to re-propose the Gospel to those who have drifted away from the faith.
That is the meaning of the New Evangelization, Wuerl said – to offer the Catholic faith to those living in "the secularism that is now rapidly enveloping our society and our Western culture."
Already, there is "an awakening of the Spirit in the hearts of many people," a growing awareness "that the pretensions of the secular order are not able to satisfy the longings of the human heart.
"We can profess with pride and conviction the Gospel message (that) continues to be the answer to our needs and longings today."