What distinguishes Augustin Peña Gago from many others making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, sanctuary of St. James the Apostle in northwest Spain, is not only the means he will use and distance he will travel, but his motive for going.
Gago, concluding his third year as a civil guard to the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in Rome, will be practicing his other profession this summer, professional cycling, to ride from Rome to Santiago. Pedaling more than 2,200 miles (2204, Gago will travel three historic pilgrim routes, passing through five countries.
Though his motivations are multiple, Gago’s principal inspiration is his grandparents, both born in Santiago and close to St. James, whose feast day is July 25. Both have passed away, and Gago is making the pilgrimage in their memory. He spoke with the Register about his work and his passion for cycling before he departed on his journey in mid-July.
Why are you making this pilgrimage, and what were your motivations behind it?
More or less, at this time last year, I began to consider going on a bike pilgrimage from Rome. Initially, I thought Rome to Santiago — 2,000 kilometers. Then I discovered this was the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Keeping it in mind, I decided to change my course, initially taking the Via Aurelia all the way to France, to go to Assisi for St. Francis.
The motivation for Santiago is my grandparents, who were both born [there] and lived there for many years. My father was also born there. Thus my connection is very strong, and I still have family there. My grandmother was a strong believer and loved St. James. After they moved away to the region near where I was born, Austurias, my grandmother went on pilgrimage every year to Santiago to pray in the cathedral.
Hence, Rome to Santiago is the clear motivation. Then I added St. Francis of Assisi for the 800th anniversary.
Tell me more about the route you will be taking.
Continuing on the Via Francigena [the first pilgrim route, from Rome into France], I move west toward Pavia, for the tomb of St. Augustine. I got married last year, Oct. 26, at St. Anne’s in the Vatican. Before getting married, my confessor advised me to start reading St. Augustine, which I did, and I have been close to him since.
I will follow the Via Francigena until Turin, since, from Turin to Santiago, I must go through France. I began seeking religious motivations for my stops, as this is the principle motive for this whole pilgrimage.
In the Alps, it was not easy, but I found an unknown sanctuary called St. Etienne-Le-Laus, Sanctuary of the Sinners.
The day after, I arrive in Avignon for St. Catherine of Siena, to pay homage to her story of protagonism, as mediator between the diverse popes in the 14th century. We are speaking of a historical moment in which there were three different popes in different places, an internal division to overcome. I want to remember it as something magnificent by visiting there.
For the next step, Narbonne, there was no sanctuary, but it has a strong link to St. Sebastian, his birthplace.
From there, I go to Andorra, having lived on its borders for four years [serving as civil guard], for the Sanctuary de Meritxell. It will be a challenging ride in the mountains, but there I begin the Ruta Amaria [the second route], to complete five sanctuaries in the Pyrenees.
Then I descend towards Monserrat, for the Madonna of Catalonia. From Monserrat, I go to Torreciudad, a sanctuary linked to St. Josemaría Escrivá. The last book I read, being the The Way by St. Josemaría, drew me there. From there, I go to the Sanctuary in Zaragoza, Basilica del Pilar, for the Madonna of the Civil Guards’ 170th anniversary.
Next will be a very difficult step: from Zaragoza to the Sanctuary of Lourdes, a 250-kilometer ascent, concluding the five sanctuaries in the Pyrenees. Many ask why I choose to do it; it will be hard and difficult, they say. To me, if it were easy, it would be senseless and defeat the purpose to do it.
What were some other motivations?
Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, whose canonizations I had the opportunity to serve just months ago, have a connection to Covadonga. John XXIII visited 60 years ago in 1954, when still the cardinal of Venice, then on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
In 1989, John Paul XII came as the first pope to visit, also pilgrimaging to Santiago. I was just 10, but remember this incredible moment well, watching the celebration of the Mass at my grandparents’ [house].
Next, I go to Gijon, the city where I was born, which will be my shortest step, only 82 kilometers; from there to Ponferrada, a city inhabited by the Roman Empire for many years.
My last step, 217 kilometers, is from Ponferrada to Santiago, hoping I arrive with the help of God, to pay homage to my dearest grandparents at one of the most important sanctuaries in the world.
Is there anything that you would like to add, a message you would like to share?
Sport can transmit countless values, that, unfortunately in 2014, are lost, or nearly so. By cycling I learned sacrifice, I learned how to set goals, I learned fatigue and many other positive things. To me, “easy” is a word that should not exist in sport.
Above all, my message is this: Sport, not only cycling, but all sport, is a school of life. There are countless values one can learn, which, after, can be applied and help in life.
A longer version of this story appears at NCRegister.com.
writes from Rome.