Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pilgrim’s Progress, according to Fr. Bienvenido Nebres

Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J.

Earlier I wrote about the changing of the guard at the Ateneo University last Thursday, Sept. 8, as Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, a Ph.D. in mathematics and its president for 18 years, the longest tenure in its 152 years, turned over the mace to Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin, an astronomical scientist and its youngest president at age 51. Fr. Nebres continues to be involved in higher education and linking up the Ateneo U with the public school system through the Ateneo Center for Educational Development.


But there’s another story just as fascinating about Fr. Nebres and that’s the 37-day pilgrimage he made to Santiago de Compostela, the revered traditional pilgrimage site in northwestern Spain, that he began right after his university term. His solo "peregrinacion" took him on foot through sun and rain, heat and cold, over flatlands, mountains (some as steep as his 700 meters straight-up climb  over 6 kms., after having walked 24 kms. already in the last stage!) and down spectacular valleys that are at times quite slippery, forests as well as isolated trails---a total walk of 800 kms. from June 1 to July 7, 2011.


What was truly remarkable about Nebres' pilgrimage was that he had turned 71 years old last March, so that such a long arduous journey that involved walking anywhere from 22 kms. up to over 30 kms. DAILY, except for the one day of rest he allowed himself each week, was really physically punishing. Yet he managed not only to get to the finish line, the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but he was able to either attend mass daily in various churches and chapels along the route, or even concelebrate it, and attend benedictions and pilgrims' rosary recitations as well. 

 In fact, at the end of his pilgrimage Nebres was fit enough to fly to the UK to be commencement speaker at the Liverpool Hope University and receive an honorary doctorate degree from it. At last week’s investiture for his successor, Nebres, looking quite trim and tanned, raved about being able to see some very old and beautiful churches, with parts dating from the 9th century, along the pilgrim route.
Liverpool Hope University


I am familiar with the Compostela pilgrimage route as my husband, daughter Christine and I had followed it in a reverse manner in August, 1999---but by car. We drove along the coast of Portugal and arrived at Santiago de Compostela in time to attend the famous noon mass at the imposing Cathedral, and witness the unforgettable ritual of the swinging of the world’s greatest dispenser of incense, the botafumeiro, across the immense length of the transept. 

From Santiago we took the coastal route in northern Spain, passing by historic cities such as Burgos (birthplace of its national hero, El Cid Campeador) and Leon with their magnificent Spanish-Gothic cathedrals, and Pamplona of the running of the bulls fame (and Ernest Hemingway’s setting for one of his novels) in Navarra, and down the Pyrenees to Lourdes, the shrine of Our Lady. From Lourdes we worked our way up the Pyrenees again and headed to Madrid via Logrono, Zaragoza, etc.. Along the way we met many people travelling on foot in their brown pilgrim’s garb and sandals, with the typical hat, wooden staff and scallop-shaped shell symbol  that doubles up as water scoop in mountain streams.


St. James the Moor-slayer
I had been reading about Santiago de Compostela over the years as part of my unadulterated love for Europe and had always wanted to visit it. Over the mist of centuries the popular belief is that its great cathedral houses the remains of the Apostle St. James, often referred to as "St. James the Greater," who was the brother of St. John the Apostle and the first bishop of Jerusalem.  According to legend, St. James' remains were transported to Spain by his disciples after his beheading in Jerusalem, but over time he was forgotten until his tomb was discovered in the early 800s. 

In later centuries of battles with the Moors, Santiago was credited with a lot of victories for Spain, so that he came to be known as "Santiago Matamoro" (St. James the Moor-Slayer). This prompted the beginning of pilgrimages along the ancient camino and the resulting commerce caused Santiago de Compostela to grow in prestige and importance from the 1100s.

In centuries of internecine wars among Spanish lords, the pilgrimage to Santiago suffered a decline. But it has seen a revival in recent times---a mixture of religious piety and fervor, history, fun and challenge and adventure. For pilgrims the high point is the mass at the Cathedral, followed by the visit behind the high altar to kiss the bronze statue of Santiago and venerate his remains beneath it.


King Ferdinand & Queen Isabela of Spain
In 1999 we toured this ancient city and were totally enthralled by its great baroque cathedral especially at night, when it’s bathed in purple and gold, and the hospital next door that Los Reyes Catolicos, Ferdinand and Isabela, had built supposedly with some of the loot from Granada, to shelter the poor and infirmed. In recent times it was converted into a beautiful but pricey "parador," as they call Spain's historic sites converted into government-run hotels. But all those travels through northern Spain we did by car, whereas Fr. Nebres went on foot.

He started from the opposite side, the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port, the traditional meeting place at the foot of the Pyrenees for pilgrims from all over Europe, who cross that great mountain range along the “Camino Frances” and on to the Spanish Camino. Thanks to his enormous self-discipline, Nebres was able to chronicle his daily progress in his Ipod and send it nightly from the pensions or Jesuit houses where he’d stay, to Rona Valenzuela, his former assistant in the Ateneo. She would then forward them to two other former staffers, Joy Fernandez and Vina Relucio, to put into proper shape and post to avid followers of his blog. 


To be able to undertake such a rigorous schedule Fr. Nebres obviously had to be super-fit; but as his friends point out, he has been jogging for at least 40 years in whatever city he’d find himself in---Quezon City or Beijing, Shanghai, Rome, etc.  To prepare for this pilgrimage he did time on Mt. Sto. Tomas in Baguio and became a familiar jogging figure around the Ateneo campus, where on rainy days he’d jog on the second floor of the Moro Lorenzo Sports Complex. As Vina told me, Nebres himself planned the trip and did all the coordination with Jesuit houses in that part of Spain where he would stay for the night, as well as with pensions and hotels along the Camino. So organized was he that his Ipod contained his whole breviary and mass readings for the whole year.

As he had to walk from 22 to 32 kms. daily, he had to minimize the baggage he carried to 4 kilos, which includes his  water supply and the bocadillo (sandwich), so as not to aggravate the osteoarthritis in his neck (he would send his  other personal effects, including his  Ipod, to his next stops through an efficient local transport company). He wore out two extra pairs of shoes and by the time he returned to Manila he was 10 lbs. lighter and his belt two notches deeper.


Nebres’ account of his pilgrimage makes charming reading as it detailed not only regional cuisines (such as an adobo-like cooking of the pulpo or octopus) but also the spirit of oneness of pilgrims from all over the world, many of them young people, or young couples pushing baby prams on ancient isolated trails. Most of the pilgrims were determined to get their credenciales that certified that they had reached the end-goal (Santiago de Compostela) as attested by the sello (stamp) at every stop. His entries spoke of that welcome breather in some roadside bar---the precious cafĂ© con leche to drive away sleepiness, or a cold soft drink for a parched throat---and the "menu del peregrino" that all of them looked forward to in the pensiones as the long days wore on into nights.

Sta. Teresa De Avila
Nebres' daily accounts give thumbnail descriptions of the quaint places he crossed, such as Burgos, where Sta. Teresa de Avila founded her last Carmelite monastery before she died, and Terradillos de los Templarios, the half-way mark at 387.5 km.; and some spectacular sceneries and the legends that went with them. 

Emperor Charlemagne
His mention of Roncesvalles stirred memories of readings of my youth. That was the valley in the Pyrenees where Roland, nephew of Emperor  Charlemagne, met his death valiantly  defending the narrow pass from Saracen invaders, while awaiting reinforcements from his uncle who could hear---quite helplessly---the boy's plaintive plea for help from his horn as it wafted over the mountains. Roland's gallant last stand was the subject of the epic 12th century poem dear to every French pupil’s heart---the "Song of Roland" (“Chanson de Roland”).

I couldn’t put down Fr. Nebres’ account once I got started.  My one regret was that my husband, Christine and I should have walked the pilgrim’s way instead of driving in 1999.

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