The making of a pilgrimage movie: interview with the Jesuit director of Camino Ignacio

The Basque José Luis Iriberri SJ is the director of Camino Ignaciano. This summer he was the spiritual guide of four Hungarian young adults, whose 22 day pilgrimage in Spain was accompanied by a Hungarian filming crew. The three weeks were spent in extraordinary circumstances: how did he endure the heat, the restrictions due to the pandemic and the shooting itself? While the postproduction has already started, and the movie will have its world premiere at the beginning of Saint Ignatius Year in 2021, we asked the Jesuit about his experiences of the shooting. The production is directed by Ferenc Tolvaly and is based on his forthcoming book titled El Camino – Twenty Years After. The Hungarian Jesuit Lajos Kovács SJ also attended the filming. The documentary is sponsored by the Hungarian National Film Institute. 

What spiritual gifts did you receive during the journey and what gifts of God did you observe through the pilgrims?

Endurance. I think this is the word. Along the pilgrimage you are bound to live many kind of experiences high and low, and you know that you must keep walking, be faithful to the Way you are living. To be resistant is not always easy. All the pilgrims know that in one moment or another you will feel the temptation to give up, and endurance is the virtue that has to work in you. But to be strong and keep going is not something that comes from you: pilgrimage teaches us that we are not alone and if we keep walking it is because of the others, and most of all, because He is with us. So our capacity of endurance is a gift as well. We must put our best into the play, but we must not forget that we are strong in the Lord, not by ourselves.

The coronavirus pandemic also had its impact on the production. To what extent?

Pilgrims learned to be strong, to have the resilience to keep their faith and work through difficulties. It was very clear form the beginning that the pandemic would be a problem for us: closed places, less services, masks and not seeing the full faces of everyone… Sometimes you had to imagine what was going on guessing if the other was smiling or not. But we understood each other pretty well. Of course, for me Hungarian was not easy, but everyone was very kind and we communicated without problems.

What other gifts did you experience during the journey?

Another gift we got from the pilgrimage came through the liturgies we celebrated in different shrines and our prayers in the local churches. I feel that one mass in Fuentes de Ebro and another one in La Cova of Saint Ignatius were the most touching, going deep inside in our experience of God. The presence of Christ at the chapel of Verdú and again in Montserrat, were two important moments of prayer: one Christ asking for help, feeling dying on the Cross, and another one in His Resurrection, sending us to the world, following His mission. The sense of community was in Navarrete’s church in which we lighted our candles to Saint Francis Xavier SJ. One special gift for me was the deep presence of Mary, when the pilgrims started spontaneously to sing one Ave Maria in front of our Lady of Arantzazu, the same image that Ignatius saw in 1522. We were just us and three women, visitors, came in when they were singing. The women didn’t want to disturb, so they stayed a bit afar from us, but praying with us on that singing.

At the end I saw they were silently crying moved by the experience, like myself. That was truly impressive. These are the kinds of gifts that you receive all along the pilgrimage.

The gift of friendship that comes along the long days and moments shared together, even though many times we had to walk in silent meditation. We found our moments for sharing and talk about personal life, our worries, the way to understand God working in our lives, the experiences that Ignatius himself lived in so many places we went through… Personally it was a gift for me to share 22 days with the group of pilgrims, feeling that we were so close as brothers and sisters in the Lord, even though we didn’t know anything from each other before the day we met at the airport of Barcelona.

And, of course, it was a great gift that even though we walked along Spain, no one got infected by Covid 19. This was a miracle.

How would you rate the spiritual development of the pilgrims in general? If it is not indiscretion, could you also assess the spiritual development of each pilgrim?

Good question… but… I feel you have to ask God for that! Ha hahaha! I don’t feel that I’m competent to answer that. Only God knows. My job was to guide the group of pilgrims like Ignatius teaches us to do in his Spiritual Exercises. That means that I was an exterior witness of their inner walk, but I cannot know what was truly in their minds and hearts.

I saw struggle and combat, as Ignatius says when many motions are living inside our heart and mind. Some days the pilgrims were more silent, less talkative, and I knew that something was going on inside. Other days they were walking fast, like feeling they had wings, experimenting some kind of weight left behind, like being free. I saw tiredness some days, feeling worn out, but not giving out. I saw angriness in their eyes and in their way of opening one door. Human emotions, like in real life, because pilgrimage is about bringing your life and to walk with it for long distances, until you feel that you can love your life as it is, accept it as a gift and not just as a cross that you must carry on whatever happens.

We shared many moments of happiness, and even sometimes I had to ask the pilgrims to be serious and stop laughing.

Over the days I learned to understand the humor of Benjamin and Balázs: they sold me one image of very serious people, and when Julia and Katy told me that they weren’t, I couldn’t believe it, until I saw it by my own eyes. I felt that they learned to love each other and be worried about the ways that each of them were walking. I was happy that from time to time one pilgrim or another was approaching me to say, “Fr. Joseph, I feel you should talk to her/him”, because the bond was growing among them and they were trying to take care of each other.

For all of them, I think the spiritual path they walked was towards a deep faith in the Love of God that you can feel in the nature but that they found in their inner struggle to understand the place of God in their daily life, along the Way and at home. True peace and reconciliation, like Ignatius in Montserrat and Manresa, this is the difficult lesson to learn from the pilgrimage.

The pictures show the richness of Camino Ignaciano. How would you summarize the spiritual message of the way for those who will watch the film, but do not know Camino Ignaciano?

For those who cannot come to Spain to walk on the steps of Ignatius, I think the best recommendation is to follow the Autobiography that Ignatius dictated at the end of his life. You will find the message of the Ignatian Way in his words: change of life, accepting one call that changes everything in your heart and your mind; be ready to start a new way which you don’t know and the only guide is your faith in the Love of God; trust Jesus like if He was the only important thing to have in your life, and nothing else; believe that a simple life with Jesus is much better for you than a rich position in our modern society; don’t be afraid of the difficulties that you are certainly going to find on your way; and don’t walk alone: find your group of pilgrims and share the good and the bad with them. These are the spiritual messages that you will find in Camino Ignaciano. And, of course, you are going to discover that God is always walking with you, sometimes in front, sometimes on your back or at your side, but always with you.

As an experienced guide, what was the most surprising experience of this pilgrimage for you that you had not expected?

Ha haha! This is very easy: to shoot a film at the same time that you are walking a pilgrimage! This was truly surprising; I can tell you! Nothing like before! Yes, indeed, the challenge of doing two different things at the same time was overwhelming in many moments if not always. Every day we had to be ready for new changes and surprises, because we couldn’t know for sure if the weather would be good or not, the light to shoot with our cameras, the distances to walk and to stop…

The full organization of the production was just crazy!

I know how to manage a group of pilgrims, up to 25 people, no problem… 30 days, no problem… but to guide a group of pilgrims, technicians, cameramen, sound technician, directors and Fr. Lajos… all at the same time… well, that was really a surprising experience for my summer 2020!

For me that was the learning experience. Spiritually you must be ready for that: you must learn to be patient, to be flexible and ready for changes, not to keep in your own positions but open to talk and share a common ground. As Ignatius says in his Exercises, we must be ready to see the position of others as if it was ours. And ask always. It was a good training for me, spiritually. And I was very happy to have Fr. Lajos with me, in order to share our feelings from the point of view of two Jesuit companions.

Finally, I didn’t expect to feel so close to the four pilgrims: we didn’t have good skills in English, and my Hungarian was really bad, so communication was not easy some times. But despite this problem, I feel now that we truly built a beautiful connection and friendship.

Is there a message you would like to send to the readers?

Just to be grateful to the Hungarian Jesuit Province to have this wonderful initiative. Many of the journalists who came along the pilgrimage asking about what were we doing, wrote: Hungary had moved first in order to make Camino Ignaciano great, and Spain is still thinking about it! What a shame for us! I hope that this movie will bring many pilgrims from many different countries, to experience the transformation that Ignatius himself lived here in Loyola and mostly in Manresa.

Ferenc Tolvaly and Lajos Kovács SJ
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Frissítve: 2020. szeptember 17.