The Finish Line • After hiking the Camino, the Princeton University pilgrims pose for a photo in front of the Cathedral de Santiago. Photo courtesy of Father David Swantek

The Finish Line • After hiking the Camino, the Princeton University pilgrims pose for a photo in front of the Cathedral de Santiago. Photo courtesy of Father David Swantek

By David Karas |  Correspondent

While their classmates and peers might have been studying, relaxing or even partying, a group of 13 students who are part of Princeton University’s Aquinas Institute spent their recent spring break devoting themselves to prayer, reflection and sacrifice.

Together with their chaplain, Father David Swantek, the 13 students and two other chaperones embarked upon a journey to hike the Camino de Santiago, an ancient thoroughfare that winds its way through some 500 miles of France and Spain. Given the time constraints of their spring break, the cohort took the English route historically traversed by pilgrims from England, Ireland and Wales – a roughly 118-kilometer journey.

“The trip was amazing,” said Father Swantek. “It was physically, personally and spiritually rewarding.”

The group left on March 14 and started hiking two days later, reaching their final destination in Santiago on March 20. Along the way they prayed in various churches, attended Mass, while Father Swantek concelebrated, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and parishes along the route, and met other pilgrims along the way.

“I think the students were all edified and inspired,” said Father Swantek. “We each carried a pyx with names and intentions of classmates, alumni, relatives, (and) people of our Diocese in them.  They served as a physical, tangible reminder of how, when on pilgrimage, we carry others with us and offer up our suffering and prayers on their behalf.”

Known for centuries simply as “The Way,” recalling Jesus’ teaching that he, himself is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” the Camino played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the people of the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages.

Today, it remains a testimony to the power of the Catholic faith among people of all social classes from Europe and beyond. It has also been the subject of numerous books, studies and television shows, as well as a recent film.

Daniel Rounds, a freshman planning to major in Spanish and study in the pre-med program at Princeton, is a Pennsylvania resident, though he grew up in Tinton Falls. While he was first drawn to the opportunity because of the travel involved, he quickly came to appreciate the deeper meaning of the experience.

“I had always wanted to travel to Spain, so that fact alone caught my attention,” he said. “As soon as I researched the Camino more thoroughly I realized what an amazing opportunity the trip was. The history behind it is fascinating and more importantly, I felt that the trip would give me an opportunity to grow spiritually.”

Reflecting back on the experience, Rounds said that the experience provided great opportunities for bonding and reflection.

“The most rewarding part was definitely the spiritual growth I experienced with the faith community at Princeton. It is easy to get caught up in schoolwork and extracurriculars, and it was so nice to put all of that aside and focus on the Catholic faith,” he said. “Experiencing the Camino with other Princeton students really helped build on the idea of a faith community on campus.”

The trip, he says, has had a lasting impact on his personal faith.

“The Camino was truly amazing, a once in a lifetime experience. At times, it was both physically and spiritually challenging,” he said. “Ultimately, I feel that I emerged a much stronger Catholic.”

One of his peers, junior economics major and Atlanta native Daniel Arias, shared many of the same thoughts.

“I wanted to spend time and pray with some of my amazing and faithful peers, and with Father Dave,” he said. “Catholics are all brought together in the Eucharist through space and time, which I think is incredibly beautiful, and I thought this trip might in a similar way connect me with Catholics who walk with me and have walked before me.”

He also noted the physical rigors of the pilgrimage.

“I suffered a stress fracture in my lower back from overexertion and a high ankle sprain from an accident, both pole vaulting, in high school,” he said. “These injuries came back to haunt me in a big way around mile 50.”

The overall experience, he shares, has exposed him to a new means for prayer and reflection.

“I learned how to pray in a way that I had never experienced before. Having grown up in a ‘Mass every Sunday’ kind of family, I have prayed my entire life,” he said. “However, this trip was the first time that I simply spoke to God like I would a friend or counselor. I simply told him about my worries and my joys without trying to put on a filter. It got much more personal than I’d ever known.”

For Colorado native and Princeton University sophomore Alex Cuadrado, who is studying Italian literature, one experience in particular stands out from the pilgrimage.

“On our second day, we came to a detour, and some of the members of the group took the trail up to an old Romanesque church called San Miguel de Breamo. We took a quick water break there, and laid down on the grass behind the church,” Cuadrado shared. “The smell of the grass, the distant singing of the birds, and the surreally picturesque scene led to some of us telling Father Dave, ‘You know Father, if this is what heaven is, then that’s fine by me.”