Pilar and Rosa Reminisce
The Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago is located on the first floor of 1 Rúa Vilar, next to the Cathedral. Here pilgrims show their pilgrim record to prove they have travelled the requisite distance and are presented with their Compostela.
Pilar and Rosa have both worked in the Pilgrims’ Office for 2 years. In that time they and their colleagues saw more than 200,000 pilgrims. They are both realists and know that with that number of people there will be those with joyful stories and those with sadness in their lives, pilgrims who are grateful and those who can be difficult and those who are downright...err unusual. This is a random collection of some of their memories of the last two years.
Pilar recounts an elderly French couple whose daughter had died. They had decided that when they finished their pilgrimage in her memory they would have a mass dedicated to her. Pilar dealt with them. They filled in the form and got their credencial stamped and having ascertained that they had walked for spiritual reasons she issued each with a Compostela. They then asked Pilar how arrange a Memorial Mass for their daughter.
The trouble was that they could only speak French and Pilar could only speak Spanish. Having made several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with words they reverted to sign language. It became increasingly funny and ended with the woman crying uncontrollably with laughter. They all gave up. No memorial mass had been arranged. In that very moment, Pilar reports, she decided to learn French and she set about going to lessons, always remembering the elderly couple who had inspired them.
One year later they returned. They didn´t recognise Pilar but she recognised them. Moreover she could talk to them. This time the Mass was arranged and they have all remained in touch ever since.There are also unusual people like the woman who wanted to be assured that having walked to Santiago she was in receipt of a plenary indulgence releasing her from all time she may have to spend in purgatory if she died. "If fact" she demanded, "If I die right now, can you categorically guarantee that I will go straight to heaven?" Rosa is very level headed and gave the diplomatic reply that she hoped and prayed that the woman would not die and that entry to heaven was a matter for God and not the Pilgrims´ Office. The woman lodged a formal complaint with the Cathedral Authorities because she hadn´t been given the guarantee.
Some encounters leave deep memories. One day a Dutch woman approached the desk. She appeared to be disabled, her movements were uncoordinated but she refused assistance from Pilar and slowly wrote her details holding the pen with both hands. She went on to explain that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was heading home to have surgery. He Camino had been her preparation for this. Pilar wished her well for the operation and for her future. What she didn´t disclose is that she hoped that the woman fared better than her own father who had died of a brain tumour 1 month before. She has often wondered how the woman fared...
But life in the pilgrims´ office is not all heartwarming stories or gentle chuckles at the eccentric. They get very difficult and at times nasty people too. With 100,000 people per year moving through the office how could it not be so? Pilgrims can be very opinionated perhaps because of the determination needed to complete the journey. For some that can be taken to extremes. Even whilst I was there a pilgrim who had been very pleasant when receiving the compostela came back to the Office to complain that on the banner outside which list countries with a welcome in different languages had Spain at the bottom of the list. "How can that be so when it is OUR pilgrimage?" he demanded. The ever patient Rosa quietly replied, "If you read it from the bottom up…Spain is first". He left quietly.
The Cathedral authorities take the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage very seriously. They believe they are the guardians of the tradition of the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James which has gone on for over 500 years. Therefore on arrival in the office pilgrims fill in a form with their name, age, point of departure, occupation etc. They are also asked to indicate whether their pilgrimage was inspired by purely spiritual motives, or a mixture of spiritual and other motives or non religious reasons. A tick in the box of the first two leads to the Compostela being issued. If someone says they have walked for non religious reasons another certificate is issued.
Some people take exception to the rules and the staff of the office have been spat at, had certificates and credenciales torn up and thrown at them and on one occasion a drunk pilgrim vaulted the counter and threatened to assault them. I´d have a policy of zero tolerance introduced in a jiffy with the police called at the first sign of trouble. But whilst the staff recognise that point of view, they sincerely want to give all pilgrims the benefit of the doubt...even the most difficult may still see the light.