Rome, April 1

The “Way of St. James” to Santiago, Spain is one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimage routes in Christendom. Of the many routes of varying length to Santiago, “The French Way” is one of the most popular. (The Spanish for “way” is “camino.”)

And in the latest shock in a papacy of many shocks, Pope Francis announced this morning that he will walk the final 36.5 kilometers (c. 22 miles) of “The French Way” from Arzúa to Santiago during this Easter season as a pilgrim on foot.

The announcement was made Monday morning at a hastily called Mass at St. Martha’s Guesthouse to which Pope Francis invited members of the Waldensian community in Rome. The Waldensians are a heretical group against whom St. Francis of Assisi preached in the 12th century.

At the Mass, Pope Francis did not issue an invitation to Communion to members of the breakaway sect. But it raised eyebrows when he freely offered Communion to those who came forward, the majority by far of the congregation of approximately 50 people. He made the shock announcement after Communion.

It seems that the 76-year-old pope made his decision to go on pilgrimage entirely spontaneously, without prior consultation of Vatican security forces or officials in the tourist industry or police force in Spain. Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi admitted that he had not known of the Holy Father’s plans before Mass, but he stressed that the decision had been made “in a spirit of serenity and with due consideration of its various aspects.”

Early reactions to the announcement varied.

“It’s simply wonderful,” said social justice advocate Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on a Bus” fame, tearing up as she spoke. “Brother Francis is walking at our side as our equal. For this, the nuns will get off the bus and walk right with him.”

Liturgists were cautiously supportive of the Pope’s move. “I don’t necessarily see this as a return to the devotionalism of John Paul II,” said  Fr. Mark Wedig of the Catholic Academy for Liturgy. “The eucharistic celebration, the paschal mystery, will loom larger than the saint’s bones.” Citing the work of Fr. Ed Foley, Wedig underscored that the eucharist is a verb, not a noun. “Francis knows that, and that’s why he doesn’t genuflect in the eucharistic prayer.”

“There are several things to watch for in this developing story,” observed Vatican commentator John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “Will Francis comport himself in quiet prayer, or will he speak out to a national church roiled by controversies about same-sex marriage and other social issues? Which curial cardinals will accompany him, either on foot or being transported by limousine to each of his stops? Is this a one-time thing, or will it become a regular hallmark of this papacy, like World Youth Day for JP2 or ever more antiquated liturgical vestments for B16?” Allen cautioned against reading too much into a story that may prove to be, on balance, rather uneventful.

Popular conservative blogger Fr. Z sees more at play. “This pilgrimage will be really bad news for liberals,” he predicted. “Pope Francis will experience real old-time Catholic piety up close on the camino, and it will change him. We’re talking rosaries, frequent confession, that sort of thing. The people who go on pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine aren’t the kind of people pushing for women priestettes and approval of gay pervert shenanigans. I know this region very well – it’s not that far from Velletri-Segni. People will look back on the Supreme Pontiff’s time with real Catholics in southern Europe as a game-changer for this papacy.”

But Jeffrey Tucker, advocate of traditional sacred music at the Chant Café, downplayed the announcement. “There’s no story here,” he said. “None. If the media would stop playing up this story, if the public would stop being interested in this story, it would evaporate. Look, a pope does 25 or 30 unprecedented things in a few days, and everyone jumps up and down like it’s a rupture or something. It’s not.” Kathy Pluth agreed, stating “Benedict!” and then adding more softly, “Benedict… Benedict…”

Fr. Anthony Ruff of St. John’s Abbey said that he sees no connection to the new English missal in the pope’s announcement, and consequently he could find no comment to make about it.

The pope is expected to wear comfortable walking shoes on the camino, but it is not yet known whether these will be black or brown. Pray Tell will comment on this, as well as the amount of lace worn by acolytes at every liturgical event, while of course avoiding placing undue emphasis on superficial or secondary aspects of the spiritual event.

It has not yet been announced when the Pope will set out on foot as a pilgrim. Easter season extends through Pentecost Sunday, which falls on May 19 this year.