In Ignatius’ Footsteps

Loyola students and scholastic reflect on pilgrimage and trip to World Youth Day in Madrid

By Courtney Jolley  |  Photos courtesy of

In 1522 St. Ignatius of Loyola journeyed from his family’s home in Spain to Montserrat, where he made a general confession, renounced his life as a soldier, and laid down his sword.

Heading to Jerusalem, he stopped at a cave in Manresa, where he remained for 10 months and where his Spiritual Exercises first took shape.

Students below St. Ignatius statue

This past summer, six Loyola University Maryland students and a Jesuit scholastic journeyed on foot between both of these landmarks, as well as the birthplace of St. Peter Claver, S.J., in Verdu, before traveling to Madrid to join more than a million young Catholics from around the world at World Youth Day, an encounter with the Pope held every three years.

“We followed the same path Ignatius took in an attempt to become closer to God and to reflect on what Ignatius reflected on when he undertook this same pilgrimage,” said Stephen Fleishcher, ’14, a finance major from New York, N.Y. “It was an experience that I had never undertaken before and I had a desire to go for that reason alone. Who are we if not a culmination of our experiences? And if we fill ourselves up with an eclectic range of experiences, I expect we will only get closer to the Jesuit idea of the whole person.”

The trip came together last academic year under the leadership of Sam Sawyer, a Jesuit scholastic who was completing a two-year assignment as a visiting professor of philosophy at Loyola. “A good Jesuit friend of mine was the U.S. point person for the Magis program, which allowed pilgrims to gather at Loyola (in Spain), travel together to experience different spiritual, cultural, and historical sites in Spain and Portugal, and finally gather in Madrid for World Youth Day,” said Sawyer, who is now at Boston College, finishing his theology studies in advance of his ordination. “I had some conversations with students who were interested in participating. I thought it would be a great way to end my time at Loyola, interacting closely with students.”

Magis works to place participants in diverse groups. The Loyola contingent traveled with a group of about 25 other students and chaperones from Nigeria, Slovakia, and Romania—most of whom spoke English. “It was wonderful for me to see the students make connections across cultural boundaries,” said Sawyer. “We continued to spend a lot of time together in Madrid.”

The accommodations were spartan, and the experience was a great deal more physical than Sawyer or the students first anticipated.

The group covered 71.5 miles on foot in five days, most of it off-road. At Loyola, they slept in the hallways of a basilica. At other stops, they stayed on the floors of recreation centers, gymnasiums, and a large high school in Madrid. The only time they had actual beds was in Montserrat.

“The journey became a physical metaphor for prayer,” said Sawyer. “You need to get past the external layers to get to the real core. I was blessed to have this be my final memory of my time at Loyola, the University. This was my first time in these places as well, and I realized we were going to get to Montserrat on the fifth anniversary of my first vows, which was very meaningful to me. I was blessed and graced to see the places at the heart of Ignatius’ story, to see where he grew up, to ask what happened to him there.”

Not all of Sawyer’s fellow travelers shared his enthusiasm for the physical aspects of the journey. “The separation from the outside world, the beauty of Spain, and the knowledge that we were walking down a holy path were, for some of us, all that was needed to fall into a special and needed reflective state,” said Fleishcher. “For others, like me, the beauty of the path we walked and the cities we stopped in was unquestionable, but the walking seemed to make things more difficult and tire us out from accomplishing other endeavors. What I found meaningful was the World Youth Day experience in Madrid, when we received a powerful talk from Cardinal George Pell of Australia on the reasonableness of our faith. I think I understand that in some situations, particularly theological and spiritual ones, there are more questions than answers. This experience has taught me some humility, has shown me what a tiny speck in the world I am in the grand scheme. But it has also shown me that great things can be accomplished by tiny specks like me.”

For others, the high point of the journey was the opportunity to build a stronger relationship with God, and with each other.

“Before leaving for Spain I purchased green rubber bracelets. They say ‘FROG’ on one side and ‘Fully Rely On God’ on the other in gold letters,” said Kate Velcamp, ’14, a pre-med chemistry major from Rumson, N.J. “It took me until our last day of pilgrimage to realize how perfect the bracelets turned out to be. I was walking with one of the pilgrims from Slovakia, Zuzanna, who I had become close to during the days of pilgrimage. I told her about the bracelet in one of our small Magis circle meetings. She pointed to the bracelet and said, ‘I think that you picked the perfect motto for our pilgrimage.’”

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