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Local pastor prepares for European pilgrimage

Mark LaRocca-Pitts, pastor of Bethelview United Methodist Church, is going on a journey.

But not just any journey to the beach or across the country. This summer, LaRocca-Pitts will set out on a pilgrimage, in the oldest and most traditional sense of the word, through France and Spain on the Camino de Santiago, a series of ancient footpaths to the holy city of Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

Over his month long trip, LaRocca-Pitts will hike 500 miles down ancient roman brick roads, and through the mountains of France on cattle paths, in a quest to find spiritual fulfillment in the community and solitude of travel.

 “I have been a pastor now for many years, and I’m 61. I’m just in need of spiritual renewal,” LaRocca-Pitts said prior to taking the trip.

LaRocca-Pitts, a Harvard-trained theologist, said that he first learned about the trail years ago after watching “The Way,” a movie starring Martin Sheen, and knew it was something that he wanted to do.

“I watched the movie like twice in a weekend, and it was funny because that next Sunday a friend did a presentation in Sunday school class on the Camino, about taking a group there to do the last 100 miles,” he said.

LaRocca-Pitts said that this coincidence was all the urging he needed to get started on his dream of hiking the Camino. He said that he and his wife joined up with a group to complete the last 100 miles of the Camino over a span of ten days in 2016.

“And, that really fired me up about wanting to do the whole thing,” he said.

He added that this time he means to finish the entire pilgrimage and will be taking the “French way” or Camino Francés of the Camino de Santiago. He said that this is the most traditional and well known route.

To train for this upcoming pilgrimage, LaRocca-Pitts walked 5 to 6 miles each day with his weighted pack and his walking shoes.

“You want to break in everything you are taking, before you get there. Especially your shoes and socks,” he said.

He explained that his goal is to carry less than 12 pounds on his back the whole trail. His pack will contain two complete changes of clothes, a good first aid kit, toiletries, a sleeping bag liner, a water bottle and rain gear.

According to him, this low weight and minimalist pack is possible because of how giving and fruitful communities along the Camino are.

 “There’s a saying that ‘the Camino provides’ and the idea is that everything you’ll need, you will find along the way,” he said.

He said that one specific and special item he will be carrying with him along the pilgrimage is a small brass hand held cross that will remind him every day of why he chose to take the journey.

“I’ll be carrying it to kind of remind me why I’m doing the walk. I’m doing it because I’m in search of deepening my spiritual life. Yes, there is the challenge and the fun, but I want to deepen my spiritual commitment,” he said.

A family friend of LaRocca-Pitts, Eric Norman, said that he and his wife Judy just returned from hiking the same trail that LaRocca-Pitts is about to embark on, and says he knows the pastor is going to do fine.

“He’s a driven kind of person,” Norman said.

He said that his advice to LaRocca-Pitts or anyone attempting a hike of the Camino de Santiago is to “be open  to whatever happens” and to not “apply too many expectations to what may happen.”

“Prepare your body and mind for something you haven’t ever experienced before and don’t try to control what is going to happen; it’s going to happen anyway,” he laughed.