One teen’s unbelievable pilgrimage is an inspiration for many

(OSV News) — In 2020, young Álvaro Calvente couldn’t contain his excitement. At 15, the disabled teen from Málaga, Spain, was ready to embark on a parish pilgrimage along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, the famed pilgrim’s path stretching over 60 miles that leads to the tomb of one of the Twelve Apostles, St. James the Great.

Álvaro Calvente kisses the tomb of St. James the Great at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain June 19, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Ildefonso Calvente)

Each year, he would look forward to the annual youth pilgrimages with his parents, Ildefonso and Raquel, who are members of the Neocatechumenal Way and among the adults accompanying young people from the parish.

By then, they had already gone on “four pilgrimages, and we always took Álvaro. All the young people from the parish care a lot about Álvaro, and he connects very well with them. And of course, Álvaro is very spiritual; he’s always ready and happy about anything related to the church,” his father told OSV News in a July 3 phone interview.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 gripped the world and put a hold on all travel plans. Dismayed but not disheartened, the teen wasn’t going to let a global pandemic stop him.

Álvaro’s unwavering determination

“One of Álvaro’s great abilities is that he has the memory of an elephant; he doesn’t forget anything,” Calvente said with a chuckle. “If you tell him something, you must fulfill it because he won’t forget it.”

The lockdown kept many confined to their home. However, Calvente was allowed to go on daily walks that he used to “train in the afternoons in case we could go (on a pilgrimage).”

With travel restrictions easing up later in the year, things were looking up, and pilgrimage plans resumed taking shape. However, “one by one, the young people from the parish started falling sick with COVID, and the pilgrimage was suspended again,” Calvente said.

Nevertheless, “Álvaro was already set on going; he was unstoppable,” he added.

Calvente spoke with a friend from his parish, Francisco (Paco) Millán, the bus driver for the then-suspended pilgrimage, and asked if he could accompany them to Santiago de Compostela.

“He said, ‘If it’s for Álvaro, I’ll go anywhere.’ So we went,” Calvente told OSV News.

Social media sensation

The day before they were set to leave, Calvente’s brother-in-law, Antonio Moreno, a journalist and spokesman for the Diocese of Málaga had an idea.

“And he told me, ‘Why don’t you post updates on Twitter for the parish youth? Since they can’t go, they can at least follow along,’” Calvente said. “I didn’t understand all that, but he said, ‘Well, I’ll do it for you.”

A greeting from Álvaro, as well as moments from a blessing they received from their parish priest, were posted to Twitter, and within two hours, the account racked up more than 700 followers.

“‘This is something!’” Calvente recalled his brother-in-law saying.

With that, Álvaro, Ildefonso and Paco started on their journey, not realizing that the pilgrimage was about to go viral on Catholic Twitter. “We offered the journey for the young people of the parish and the pandemic, which was happening at that moment,” Calvente said. “Everything was guided by God; we just provided the legs.”

That first pilgrimage started the ball rolling on social media, with thousands more following his account, “El Camino de Alvaro” (“Alvaro’s Way”) on X (formerly Twitter). As of July 4, his account boasted over 4,000 followers.

A prayer from Pope Francis

But nothing prepared them for the news regarding one of Álvaro’s most well-known followers: Pope Francis.

During that pilgrimage, Calvente recalled, Álvaro asked for pizza, and not long after, a phone call came through.

“We received a call from the Vatican (informing us) that the pope was following Álvaro; his personal secretary called us!” he said. Calvente said he had the secretary’s email and would often send the pope well-wishes on behalf of Álvaro and his family for Easter, his birthday, and Christmas. Little did he know that the secretary would show Pope Francis his messages.

“You can’t imagine what that meant to us,” he said.

An inspiration for others

That same year, Pope Francis sent a letter to Álvaro, which Calvente shared with the Diocese of Málaga and was subsequently published on the diocesan website.

“Thank you, Alvaro, for being inspired to walk and inviting many others to walk with you,” the pope wrote in the letter signed July 21, 2020. “Amid the pandemic we are experiencing, with your simplicity, joy, and humility, you were able to put into motion the hope of many of the people you met on the road or through social networks.”

“You went on pilgrimage and made many people go on pilgrimage, encouraging them not to be afraid and to recover their joy because, on the road, we never go alone. The Lord always walks beside us. Thank you for your testimony and prayers,” he wrote.

The letter, Calvente told OSV News, was framed and hung prominently in their home.

Cherished family tradition

For Álvaro’s father, the popularity of his son’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which has now become an annual tradition, is tiny compared to the joy of the journey and the time they spend together as father and son.

“He loves it. Apart from enjoying it, it’s a very spiritual journey for him. It also benefits him greatly; it gets him out of the house, and the time spent with Álvaro alone, apart from his siblings, is entirely different. You get to know Álvaro from a different perspective; you see your son in another way.”

Calvente told OSV News he is amazed at the attention the yearly pilgrimage receives, not just online but from people along the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Community support and heartfelt welcomes

Embarking on their fourth pilgrimage to the shrine, this time accompanied by his wife, Raquel, Calvente recalled that on the first day, they were joined by an ultramarathon runner who “wanted to meet Álvaro, and he accompanied us for the first 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), then ran back. Can you imagine that?”

“In every town we passed through,” he continued, “the bells would ring, the mayors would come out to greet us, and the whole town would be in the streets. I get goosebumps” thinking about “those people on the street greeting Álvaro.”

Álvaro Calvente meets with Archbishop Francisco José Prieto of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, June 20, 2024. Along with his father, Ildefonso, the 19-year-old teen with an intellectual disability has walked the over 60-mile trek to the famed shrine four times since 2020, receiving attention on social media and a letter from Pope Francis. (OSV News photo/courtesy Ildefonso Calvente)

On their first stop at the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Cáceres, Spain, the family was welcomed by Archbishop Francisco Cerro Chaves of Toledo.

Upon meeting the Spanish prelate, Calvente said, “Álvaro gave him a blessing which the archbishop allowed.”

“It was a ‘trending’ topic, or whatever you want to call it,” he said with a laugh.

Then, in Santiago, they were welcomed by Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio, retired archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, and his successor, Archbishop Francisco José Prieto Fernández.

“I must say we’re no one, nor are we important, yet God moves things for Álvaro. Even talking to an archbishop; it’s not like I call him and meet him. But (God) moves everything; it’s like: ‘Álvaro wants to see the archbishop. Well, come on, you go see the archbishop.’”

This year’s special intention: Married couples

Continuing the tradition from the first pilgrimage, their intention for this year’s journey was for married couples.

“We saw the need for prayer for married couples, especially among those close to us. So we decided, since my wife was coming, to offer this journey for married couples. We believe the sacrament of marriage is very important in this desacralized world, where the devil is acting openly everywhere. The family is the stronghold against the devil, and the foundation of the family is marriage, and the foundation of a marriage is Jesus Christ in the midst of them both,” Calvente said.

The family hopes to one day go on a pilgrimage to Rome and finally meet Pope Francis. Calvente told OSV News that a private meeting was scheduled for the spring. However, “it was postponed due to the war and other issues.”

“Well then, if God wants, we can do it next year. Let’s see what can be done,” he said.

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