The “caminata” – the youth pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Saint Teresa of the Andes was one of the first dates I was given when I arrived in Chile. With young people and youth ministry groups from Santiago and across the country, the pilgrimage starts at Chacabuco and treks 30km into the Andes to the “Santuario” – the shrine where Saint Teresa’s body now rests.
Our group from San Columbano parish (where I lived my first 3 months in Chile) along with thousands of other pilgrims were dropped off at the side of the motorway as the coaches with the other parishioners joined the queuing traffic on the road to drive on. At 5.40 a.m. at the first of the 11 stations, we stopped as part of a group of several hundred of us together for prayer, a blessing, and an invitation by the seminary students animating from the stage to pray for peace, especially in Gaza (following the events of the previous week). On our journey we kept an eye out for other groups from ‘region sur’ (the southern deanery of Santiago) and others from the city and further afield. We later found out that the group from San Matias, Puente Alto (another Columban parish) arrived about 10 minutes after us, but we didn’t see them at all on the day. As the sun rose we started to walk uphill. While only a small group of Columbans we were noticed; Pancho (one of the youth leaders and SIM volunteer a couple of months earlier) was playing the guitar and leading singing with an admittedly mixed response from those who we found walking with us.
As the day progressed sun cream and hats replaced the hoodies and ponchos needed pre-dawn in the Andes, and around 11 am we reached the cross at the top of the hill (the mid-way point, and as we heard several group leaders telling their young people – “it’s all downhill from here”). In the afternoon we continued; the water trucks at each rest station moving from ‘filling bottles’ to ‘spraying pilgrims’. The last section on the pilgrimage is the hardest – Liberator’s highway (the main route between Santiago and Mendoza, Argentina) is reduced to 1 lane each way for traffic as we walk down the road to the Santuario. Upon arrival, we were met by the parishioners we’d left on the couch 9 hours earlier – with a shelter set up, more water, and empanadas. Pilgrimage completed!