by Ella Jung
“Too many blessings to count,” said Gerry Malnar of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park about his journey on the Camino.
Malnar set out to do what many might think is impossible — hike nearly 500 miles over the course of about 30 days.
Called the Camino de Santiago, this epic pilgrimage takes those brave enough to trek it through the beautiful vistas of Europe, ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Along the way, pilgrims are greeted by villages, churches, other religious sites and people from all over the world.
Hiking the Camino is a physically demanding feat that many may need to train for. While the majority of the trail is flat terrain, walking around 12 miles per day can be difficult.
Malnar didn’t specifically train for the Camino but prepared by adapting activities he already pursued.
“I exercise every day, but I had never walked with a pack on,” he said. “So, I ended up using a 20-pound weighted vest that my wife had and I would walk on my treadmill on a 15- percent incline.”
Although Malnar was the one doing the 500-mile trek, he did so with a substantial support system.
Support from afar
His wife Terry, as well as other friends and family members, supported Malnar from thousands of miles away. He involved his circle of people on his trip from afar, emailing pictures when he could, which allowed them to feel as though they were hiking the Camino with him.
“There were just so many things that I saw that I didn’t want to experience just by myself,” he said
Although Malnar was accompanied physically by a friend of his, having additional support back home was encouraging.
A friend, Theresa Walters, made a prayer pouch for Malnar to carry along, filled with the prayer requests friends had asked him to carry to the Cathedral of Santiago, the traditional burial place of the apostle James.
Having a family member travel across the world to hike an unfamiliar area would be nerve-wracking for a lot of people. Terry, however, had no hesitation.
“As the planning process transpired, I was excited that he was committing to such a huge spiritual endeavor,” she said. “I was never nervous about him going.”
Rather than being nervous, Terry did wonder if the war in Ukraine would impede upon her husband’s ability to make the trip.
“I knew that nothing would happen that God didn’t will or allow,” she said.
Traveling the Camino was certainly more about spiritual and personal growth rather than a lavish vacation for Malnar.
“We weren’t calling up places to reserve a room,” said Malnar. “You reserved a bed, not a room, and a lot of times you were sleeping in community rooms.”
Hiking with a single backpack, one change of clothes and sleeping in community rooms may not be many peoples’ idea of a fun time. But for Malnar, it was more about his growth.
“The way that I was approaching it is, you know, this is purely a pilgrimage,” he explained.
While Malnar started the Camino with only a walking partner, he ended up meeting fellow pilgrims on his journey.
“At a certain point in the Camino, we developed relationships with other pilgrims along the way,” he said, including a priest from Iowa who said Mass for Malnar and other pilgrims.
Pilgrims hike the Camino for a myriad of reasons — among them, to grow closer to God; strengthen personal relationships and gain a stronger sense of self; and spiritual growth.
For Malnar, his main purpose was to grow closer to God, but he unexpectedly grew closer to someone else.
“I reached out to Terry about 15 days into the trip and I said, ‘I think I’m growing closer to Mary through this experience,’” he said.
Terry suggested that her husband redo Father Michael Gaitley’s consecration to Mary, which is 33 days long. By doubling up on some days, Malnar was able to finish the consecration on the day that he arrived in Santiago.
Throughout his pilgrimage, Malnar saw many churches, villages and other beautiful sights.
“You would come into these villages,” he said, “and oftentimes you would encounter a crucifix in the public square. That was the first thing you would encounter.”
He was also able to attend Masses for the Triduum while on his pilgrimage.
Malnar’s spiritual and personal growth was not only evident to himself but also to the people around him.
In Terry’s eyes, “He seems to have a deeper devotion and relationship to Mary. Eight years ago, he had done the consecration, but this time, he seems much more focused in his devotion to Mary and going to daily Mass on her feast days.”
Jeff Wall, a colleague of Malnar, mentioned how Malnar seemed different upon his arrival from the Camino.
“Besides looking fit and trim, he seemed more relaxed and in the moment,” said Wall. “Only Gerry can tell us if it was life-changing, but I cannot see how it wasn’t.”