Father José Ignacio, A Memory

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Father José Ignacio Díaz Pérez, right, with Pope Francis. Photo provided by Daniel De Kay.

Father José Ignacio, A Memory

by Daniel De Kay | Sebastopol, CA

He was a Boston Celtics fan. He was a huge teddy bear of a man. He was a friend to pilgrims. He was Father José Ignacio Díaz Pérez.

José Ignacio was a driving force in the founding of the modern hospitalero movement. He was the creator and original coordinator of Hospitaleros Voluntarios. He created courses for volunteers; he published Peregrino, the first pilgrim magazine. From his energy and love of pilgrims spread the idea, beginning in 1990, of opening donativo albergues to provide for all pilgrims, regardless of means.

I got to know José Ignacio when I was volunteering at Albergue San Juan Bautista in Grañón in 2004. He greeted me with a huge smile and a warm handshake. We had met earlier that year when he brought the first hospitalero training course to our Annual Gathering of Pilgrims in Santa Barbara, CA.

I learned from him what it meant to welcome pilgrims: a cool glass of water, a smile, a genuine “welcome, you are at home here.”

José Ignacio opened the doors of Albergue San Juan Bautista to all who traveled the Camino. His example and encouragement are what launched the current tradition of volunteer hospitaleros.

“We never close the doors to the albergue, except at night to keep the dogs out,” he told me. There was a small sign on the donation box in the albergue that said, “Leave what you can, take what you need. We don’t have a stamp here at Grañón; our welcome puts a stamp on the pilgrims’ hearts instead.”

Father José Ignacio’s open-hearted greeting extended to one and all. “They might arrive as a tourist, but leave as a pilgrim,” he’d say. When the albergue’s sleeping space was full, we’d open the choir loft, and then the sacristy, to accommodate pilgrims.

The evening spiritual sessions he offered in the choir loft of Grañón’s 15th-century church were open to all pilgrims. From the registry book, Father José Ignacio would read aloud the names of pilgrims who had passed through the albergue several weeks earlier and would now presumably be nearing Santiago. All who took part knew they, too, would later be prayed for, by name, as they arrived at the Tomb of the Apostle. After my first prayer session at Grañón, Father José Ignacio said to me, a non-Catholic, “from now on you will lead these.” I was terrified, but accepted. It was a tremendous honor to take his place during those evening sessions, and it is one of my fondest memories as an hospitalero.

Father José Ignacio eventually moved from Grañón to Logroño, where he opened another parish albergue, often staffed by American Pilgrims volunteers. His care for pilgrims and those in his pastoral care is exemplified by this quote: “a good shepherd knows his sheep by name.” He truly treated everyone as if they were his children. I am indebted to and thankful for his example, and for having known him. His spirit and example live on in the welcome that all volunteer hospitaleros provide for pilgrims along their Way.

Editor’s Note: Daniel De Kay shared this reflection after Father José Ignacio Díaz Pérez was posthumously recognized for his lifetime achievement by the Pentafinium Jacobeo, an awards program that honors five individuals or organizations that have contributed to disseminating and enriching Jacobean culture. The awards were presented at II Encuentro Mundial de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago, a global gathering of pilgrims held outside of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in October 2023. Steve Lytch, who represented American Pilgrims at the event, shared that Father José Ignacio’s award was met with a standing ovation and a rousing round of “Ultreia!.” Upon hearing the news of the award, Daniel De Kay said of José Ignacio: “He was a lion on the Camino; his legacy is what guides our hospitalero program.” Read more: PENTAFINIUM JACOBEO AWARDS 2023.

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