By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

Alone in his thoughts, aching muscles voicing their displeasure, a world apart from Maringouin, Father Chris Decker was startled by the voice of God.  

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Father Chris Decker spent more than 30 days walking the El Camino De Santiago. Father Decker called the experience “incredibly healing.”  Photos provided by Father Decker  

 

Walking in an area far removed from cell phones, electricity and wifi, God simply asked Father Decker, “Ok, now it’s just you and me. Can we talk?”  

“Essentially, I’m thinking this is strange,” Father Decker, pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Maringouin, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church in Livonia and St. Joseph Church in Grosse Tete, said, explaining that he talks to the Lord every day.  

“And it was at this point that he kind of placed upon my heart all of the blessings of my past ministry and the diocese, and then all of the difficulties as well. And he says, ‘would you let me heal you of (your) baggage?’ ”  

Father Decker’s encounter with God came while walking the El Camino De Santiago, a route that traverses the footsteps of St. James, beginning in France and ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The classic route is 500 miles, originating in St.-Jean-Pied-du-Port, France, but many pilgrims begin the walk at various jumping off points, depending on a number of factors.  

“(The conversation with God) was one of the most beautiful parts of the Camino,” Father Decker said. “The Camino (experience) was incredibly healing. And interestingly enough, it’s almost as if the Lord provided a little oasis that I needed.” 

The fact that he was on the trip itself and alone at the time when God came to him speaks to what many believe is divine intervention that is often experienced on any pilgrimage.  

Father Decker said he was aware of the Camino because of previous conversations with Father Vincent Dufresne, pastor at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Gramercy, St. Joseph Church in Paulina and St. Michel the Archangel Church in Convent, but the idea was tucked away somewhere in the back of his mind.  

But shortly after returning from a pilgrimage to Fatima and Lourdes, his awareness of the Camino was heightened. He added that his current assignment is the second with a cluster setup, which, admittedly, can be a bit difficult because of ministering to three parishes.  

During this time, he also spoke with Father Cary Bani, pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in St. Francisville, about a sabattical, and came away impacted by Father Bani’s spiritual renewal and rejuvenation.  

“I was feeling very much spiritually rundown and couldn’t quite figure out why because I was doing all of the things that priests are supposed to do,” Father Decker said. “I mean there’s never a day from here through eternity that I won’t be a priest, but felt myself rundown. I was just tired.” 

It so happened at the same time his classmate from seminary, Father Ryan Humphries of Alexandria, was experiencing similar feelings, so through several conversations they settled on walking the Camino, jumping off at Pamplona, approximately 430 miles in distance.  

But when a blister sidelined Father Humphries a week into the walk, Father Decker found himself alone.  

“And that’s where it becomes the work of the Lord,” said Father Decker, who admitted he originally packed too much and had to shed some clothing and even box up some items to be shipped to the end of the route to lighten his load.  

After the departure of Father Humphries, Father Decker, who admitted to being exhausted after that first week, said he considered stopping as well but “in prayer the Holy Spirit said, ‘Nope, not for you. You don’t get to stop walking. You are supposed to keep walking.’ And I said, ‘Ok, well, I guess so.’  

“It was about allowing the Lord to work, and there really was a very real prayer.”  

Through that prayer, through enduring his own set of blisters that finally healed only recently, Father Decker said he returned as a better priest and even a better person. He said he was walking the Camino at the same time the latest round of clergy sexual abuse stories were breaking in the United States.  

Father Decker admitted that as a priest he became a lightning rod for other pilgrims, especially those from Europe, once they found out he was a member of the clergy. He said the Lord explained that it was his way of showing Father Decker how he has been a lightning rod for other people in his ministry and diocesan life.   

“He allowed me to hear the frustrations of the people in the church in Europe and South America,” he said. “It was strange but the difference is the renewal that took place in my priesthood.  

“I was able to hear them because in diocesan ministry, at least with clustered ministries, at some point when the complaints come it becomes a temptation to just not hear them or listen to them.  

“And so I think part of it is the Lord saying he can heal me from some of the spiritual wounds that have come from circumstances that happen amidst the difficulties of ministry.  

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to carry the cross as a priest,” he quickly added. “The difference was that I was able to hear probably for the first time in a long time where the frustration was coming from.”  

He said that when a priest really stops listening to what’s going on, it becomes “simply damage control.”  

“So one of the ways a priest can do that is before somebody comes to us we can say stop,” Father Decker said. “And I wouldn’t say I did that all the time but it had become more often than not.  

“Well the cumulative damage is that you push people away and that’s what I realized that perhaps I was doing.”  

But the Camino “was a real fascinating way in which the Lord provides healing but also teaches you how to take up the yoke of the cross.  

“And so to be able to say ‘Lord I’m sorry for the way that I misrepresented you to my parishioners,’ which is never the priest’s intent. It’s to be able say ‘Lord how can I represent you better?’ ”  

Father Decker said the Camino also allowed him to let the Lord refashion his priesthood, adding that he is much more renewed and very much at peace.  

From a personal side, Father Decker admitted laughter is more abundant in his life, but he has also come to understand that joy comes from within. He said inner joy is “a gift, a fruit of the Spirit. But whenever you’re weighed down by your own stuff, joy is hard to come by.”  

Father Decker said the joy he feels now is similar to that of when he was first ordained, a joy he thought he would never experience again.  

“I think the Lord simply renewed what was already there,” he said, adding that the pain of his blisters opened the way to the healing of his heart. 

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Father Chris Decker was alone in his thoughts as he walked the El Camino. It was during that time of solitary that God reached to Father Decker.