July 15, 2022

‘Band of brothers’ grow closer in faith during Spain pilgrimage

Dr. David Weigel, left, and his son Dr. Eric Weigel, members of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, pose on July 20, 2021, by a milestone on the Camino pilgrimage path in Spain. They joined men from across the archdiocese in journeying to the historic shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. (Submitted photo)

Dr. David Weigel, left, and his son Dr. Eric Weigel, members of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, pose on July 20, 2021, by a milestone on the Camino pilgrimage path in Spain. They joined men from across the archdiocese in journeying to the historic shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

A group of men walk together along a historic pilgrimage path in northern Spain.

Many of them don’t know each other, coming in small groups from different archdiocesan parishes.

They think the only things that link them together is their Catholic faith and their common relationship with the priest who joined them on the pilgrimage, Father John Meyer, who has ministered at each of their parishes.

But as they walk along this path trod by saints and sinners for more than 1,000 years, many discover that something else binds them together—a shared experience of profound loss in their lives and the healing that comes from their relationship with Christ and the Church.

So, as they walk along the “Camino,” the way of St. James the Apostle that leads to the shrine named for him in Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain, they grow by God’s grace into a community of shared support and faith.

‘Anything is possible with God’

Father Meyer, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, went against his own inclinations when he organized the pilgrimage that took place about a year ago.

“I’m not a walker or a hiker,” he said. “I like to jet ski and to snow ski. My feet pounding the ground wasn’t for me.”

But after learning about the Camino and the positive spiritual transformation it can work in pilgrims’ lives, Father Meyer was open to it—at least to a relatively short version of it.

He and the men he invited to join him—most of them from archdiocesan parishes he’s ministered at from the early 1980s to the present—walked about 70 miles during five days to Santiago de Compostela. The trip overall was 10 days.

“Doing something that I’ve never enjoyed and doing something that I thought I never could achieve really reminds me that anything is possible with God,” said Father Meyer.

He knew that fact not just from himself completing the pilgrimage, but from seeing the men around him do the same.

“The guys on the trip worked diligently,” Father Meyer said. “They give it their all physically, emotionally and mentally.”

One of the pilgrims was Dr. Eric Weigel, 36, an optometrist and member of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg. He said he wasn’t daunted by the prospect of walking at least 15 miles per day.

“I thought I was in pretty decent shape,” he recalled. “But you definitely felt muscles you never knew you had before. You had aches and pains that you had never really thought of.”

‘A band of brothers’

The pilgrims also discovered that walking along the Camino worked, in a sense, spiritual muscles in ways that were new to them.

“With a heavy backpack on, there were times when I wondered how Jesus carried his cross to Calvary,” said Eric. “I was only carrying my backpack because I chose to.”

His exploration of his faith was deepened on the pilgrimage because he did it with his father, Dr. David Weigel, also an optometrist and St. Mary parishioner. The father and son work together in the same practice.

“It was a blessing to do that with him,” said Eric. “I love seeing him every day at work and with my family. I guess I’ve taken him for granted because he’s always there.

“So, it was nice to see our vulnerabilities and work together to reach our common goal. We talked about things we’ve never talked about before, about life, him being a dad to me and me being a dad to my kids.”

The time was meaningful for David as well.

“We shared some of our deeper feelings, and I let him know how much I respected him, how great of a young man he is,” said David. “Sometimes in everyday life in working or on weekends when the kids are around, you can’t have too deep of a conversation. There we had all the time we needed.”

Deep conversations between a father and son might be expected on a pilgrimage like this. They also took place among pilgrims who didn’t know each other before setting off on it.

Pilgrim Brian Wenning, a member of St. Mary Parish and a firefighter in the Greensburg Fire Department, didn’t know any of his fellow pilgrims from the other parishes that Father Meyer had ministered at. But it didn’t take him long to build a strong bond with them.

“The depth you can have through week or 10 days of staying together is amazing,” he said. “We got to share a lot with each other. We got to know each other. After that 10 days was up, I felt like those guys were lifelong friends.

“We were like a band of brothers. I get to enjoy that in some ways at the firehouse. I felt a bond within 10 days of shared misery, pain, spiritual moments. It was a fantastic connection that all of us experienced.”

Finding joy in the challenges

That bond gave strength and renewed hope to many of the pilgrims who had experienced losses in their lives.

Two of Father Meyer’s brothers died when they were in the prime of their lives, and his parents have both died, too.

Wenning’s wife Patti died of breast cancer in 2018 after they had been married for 30 years.

Eric Weigel at the time of the pilgrimage was struggling after he and his wife Emily had experienced three miscarriages in seven months from late 2020 into early 2021.

When Father Meyer invited Eric to take part in the pilgrimage in the spring of 2021, Eric didn’t think he could do it because Emily was pregnant at the time.

Then she came home from a doctor’s appointment and told him that he could go because she had learned that she was no longer pregnant, that they had lost a child in yet another miscarriage.

“I was really mad and didn’t want to go because of the miscarriage,” Eric said. “I was mad at God for providing me the opportunity to go on the pilgrimage.”

Eventually, though, he changed his mind, knowing that Emily wanted him to go and that she had support there from family members.

“Thankfully, I just decided to go, and I’m happy now that I did,” Eric said.

Wenning had worked through much of his grief at losing Patti by the time the pilgrimage took place. But he found that the Camino only deepened his faith that helped him cope with her death.

“Whatever you’re working through in your life, … it’s going to be hard,” Wenning said. “The Camino was challenging. But I choose to find joy in the challenge. I choose to find the good in those hard times.

“My focus in life is to choose joy, to choose the good times and memories, all the good things that I got to share with Patti.”

Father Meyer also knew that sorrow had marked the lives of so many men on the trail with him.

“Every hurt, ache or blister—sometimes every step—I would be reminded not to complain or whine, but instead to offer it up for those who had been through worse,” he reflected. “I included them in my prayers, in our Mass prayers.”

Father Meyer aided the healing also by hearing his fellow pilgrims’ confessions as they walked along the Camino.

“We were on a path and he was there helping us along and guiding us along the right way,” said David Weigel.

“It began as a conversation,” said Eric. “That broke down any concern or worry. It was a wonderful experience.”

A ‘sense of calm and relief’

The pilgrims journeying with Father Meyer were on the trail with others who had come to Spain from around the world.

“We met people who were definitely on a spiritual journey,” Wenning said. “We met people who were doing it for fun in a group. It was no spiritual journey at all for them. As our ways intersected, we shared our faith with them.”

As the pilgrims with Father Meyer and others on the Camino arrived at their goal, the shrine in Santiago de Compostela, joy overflowed in them.

“It was very overwhelming,” said David. “There were thousands of people in the square around the church. It was just beautiful.”

The chance for Eric to be hit by emotions came when he arrived home in Greensburg to learn that Emily had another unborn baby growing within her.

“It was exciting,” he said. “But there was also guarded optimism, too, because we had lost so many. We didn’t tell anyone for a long time. There was doubt at the back of my mind.

“But there was also this sense of calm and relief that God got me through the pilgrimage. There were reasons behind the pilgrimage and behind her being pregnant then.”

Emily gave birth to Gabriel Weigel in March. Both mother and baby are doing well.

Eric said that while the pilgrimage didn’t increase his appreciation of Gabriel’s birth, it did help him see that “God is in control and has a plan regardless of how much we may think that we are in control.” †

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