Anthony Lilles is a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver where he served as academic dean and associate professor of spiritual theology. He is the author of the book “Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer.” A native of California, Lilles is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville. He completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. After 22 years in the Denver Archdiocese, this month Lilles will begin a new job as academic dean for the seminaries of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The Denver Catholic Register spoke to him last week while he was on pilgrimage in Spain.
Q: While between your old job in Denver and your new job in Los Angeles, you are walking the pilgrimage route in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James of Compostela). Why are you on pilgrimage?
A: I wanted to thank God for all the graces, material and spiritual, that he’s lavished. It was such an honor to work in Denver during World Youth Day (1993), to be part of that “spiritual revolution”—that’s what (St. John Paul II) called it—and then to see it unfold and give birth to the seminaries (Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary and St. John Vianney Theological Seminary). The people at the seminaries in the archdiocese are extraordinary. I have a lot of pride in having played a little role in all that’s unfolded. Our priesthood has been remarkably built up by the men coming out of those two seminaries. I’m also asking God to intercede with graces for my new work in Los Angeles: it’s one of the most vital missions in the Church today, to build up the priesthood. Finally, and probably the most important reason, is to do penance for my sins. As you grow in the spiritual life you realize that the mystery of sin in our lives is great … but the mystery of mercy is greater. Walking a foot pilgrimage is one of the beautiful forms of penance we have in the Church.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve walked the Camino?
A: This is my first time on the Camino but pilgrimage has always been an important part of my life. (Years ago) I went to Rome for my studies but could not find a place to live. I was frustrated. One day I woke up after having fallen asleep at a street corner and saw a plaque. It said that St. Benedict Joseph Labre (a homeless pilgrim from the 18th century) used to sleep at the same corner. I knew then that God had called me not just to be a student but a pilgrim. Pilgrims make their journey into a pilgrimage by accepting all the hardships of the present as a beautiful part of God’s providence. The more they trust, the more their physical journey becomes a pilgrimage of faith. This is what the Lord invited me into while I lived in Rome and … it is a grace he has invited me to return to once again on the Camino.
Q: What is the experience of walking the Camino, particularly compared to other pilgrimages one might make?
A: Physically the Camino is more demanding than other pilgrimages I lead when we go by bus to different holy places. I just had the joy of leading one of these in France. Last year it was Poland. I have also led this kind of pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Those kinds of pilgrimages involve a whole community of fellow pilgrims who you get to know and learn to love. The Camino involves a lot more silence and prayer and solitude … even if you are meeting people and making friends along the way. There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. I am on a lesser traveled one, the via primitiva traveled by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola. It has a lot less conveniences, but this makes prayer easier. It also passes through beautiful wilderness.
Q: The Camino has been walked since the Middle Ages, why do you think it has remained a popular pilgrimage route?
A: Ancient Christians were connecting with St. James who in obedience to Christ brought the Gospel to the end of the known world. The need for penance and prayer moved St. Francis and, hundreds of years after him, St. Ignatius. There are still many pilgrims who take the Camino for this same reason. (My fellow pilgrim) Father Piotr Mozdyniewicz (pastor of Shrine of St. Anne Parish in Arvada) and I are in solidarity with them. Others feel drawn to the Camino for reasons they cannot or will not say. Whatever their reasons, God has his own. Perhaps the witness of St. James might occasion the gift of faith for them, just as it did for the ancient people when out of obedience to Christ, St. James dared to bring the Gospel of Christ on this same road for the first time.
Q: How can people stay in touch w/you?
A: The best way is through my blog, www.beginningtopray.com. There’s an email there and I’m on Facebook and Twitter: Anthony Lilles. So friend me on Facebook or send me a tweet! I look forward to hearing from any and all my friends in Denver.