Fr. Tim Birney, former director of priestly vocations, will also make pilgrimage in thanksgiving for his own 25th anniversary
ALLEN PARK — When Fr. Tim Birney was vocations director for the Archdiocese of Detroit from 2007-16, twice he took men discerning the priesthood on pilgrimage along the famed Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Spain.
The idea was to take men out of their element, to spend time away from it all, and journey together along the route to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Basilica in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to connect with God and discern where the Lord was calling them.
“I kept finding and hearing from candidates who said they first started thinking about the priesthood when they were at World Youth Day or at a youth conference,” Fr. Birney told Detroit Catholic. “When they got away, they could hear God’s voice more clearly and see there is more to life than just the regular routine.”
A few vocations came from those two trips, which spanned the final six days — 78 miles — of the pilgrimage.
Now, as pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, Fr. Birney is planning a journey on the Camino once more — a personal pilgrimage, in which he will walk all 491 miles to mark the end of the Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as well as his own 25th ordination anniversary.
“My previous visits got me to want to do the whole pilgrimage — 500 miles,” said Fr. Birney, who plans to arrive in Spain on June 26 and begin his pilgrimage two days later.
But beyond the Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations and his own 25th jubilee, Fr. Birney has a more personal reason on his heart.
“Fr. Stephen Rooney, who attended as one of the priests who acted as a spiritual director, was due to retire at age 70 (which would have been Feb. 10, 2024)," Fr. Birney said. "For several years, we talked about journeying on the Camino together, doing the entire pilgrimage.”
Fr. Rooney, a longtime Detroit-area priest, died tragically in a boating accident in 2020, so Fr. Birney will be walking with a prayer of repose for the soul of his good friend.
“The closer I get, the more I prepare and think about it, I add extra motivations,” Fr. Birney said. “It started with commemorating my 25th, celebrating all the graces from my ministry, and being able to serve God and His people. Then, in memory of Fr. Rooney; he along with me, we planned to do it together. Then, this being the Year of Vocations, even though it’s coming to its conclusion, we spent the whole year in the Archdiocese of Detroit focusing on an increase in priestly vocations and prayer.”
Fr. Birney’s prior Caminos were filled with camaraderie; beginning the day with group prayer, walking and speaking with one another throughout the day, celebrating Mass, and ending the day with prayer.
The very nature of the Camino meant groups tended to stay together, so people began to recognize the men praying together simply as “Detroit.”
“By the end of the trip, we began to be identified with prayer,” Fr. Birney said. “People would see us praying together and ask, ‘How is Detroit doing?’ There was this great witness without intentionally trying. People began to associate men praying together, celebrating Mass together, and sharing our experience with the Lord as simply 'Detroit.' It was evangelization without words.”
This time, Fr. Birney will be traveling alone, staying in hostels, and enjoying the cuisine of the restaurants and cafes propped up along the Camino to cater to pilgrims. Beyond casual conversations with fellow pilgrims and being available to celebrate Mass at whatever checkpoint he is staying for the night, the trip will be a solitary one.
“It is very much like a retreat, focusing solely on your relationship with God,” Fr. Birney said. “Unlike the routine of a given day, when you are busy with one task to another, answering your phone or your texts, all the distractions aren’t present. Your only task is to get up and walk.”
Fr. Birney will complete anywhere from 12 to 18 miles in a day, walking through towns big and small, uphill, downhill, through fields and historic towns that might have been graced by St. James himself.
Rosaries, devotions to the Sacred Heart and audiobooks of St. Augustine’s Confessions and C.S. Lewis will take up most of his time. He is preparing by walking three to five miles a day around the St. Frances Cabrini campus in the evenings.
Fr. Birney will be traveling light, armed with two sets of clothes, a backpack, bed sheet, pillow, toiletries and a walking stick.
“A lot of time will be spent in prayer, which is a good chunk of the reason why I’m doing this,” Fr. Birney said. “That time alone, praying with my feet, so to speak, is something I’m not dreading, but anticipating. What is so unique about the Camino is you interact with people all over the world, have conversations with people who are on the same schedule.”
Fr. Birney hopes his presence on the Camino as a priest will be a witness to his vocation — much like how the discernment group praying on the trail was a witness — as he spends 30 days in northern Spain praying for vocations, in thanksgiving for his own priesthood, and for the soul of Fr. Rooney.
St. Frances Cabrini parishioners have written their own intentions on slips of paper, which Fr. Birney will photograph and bring with him in prayer once he reaches the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Basilica.
It’s all part of a priest’s journey, he said — a journey for which he's thankful to God each day.
“I’m quite certain the Fr. Tim Birney who started the walk will be different from the Fr. Tim Birney who finishes the walk,” Fr. Birney said. “Hopefully a few pounds lighter, with a new spirit, a new energy, following in the footsteps of the Lord. I’m going there to strengthen my friendship with God, and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity and space to do that.”
Vocations Personal witness