For the two months of April and May I went to church every day. I can almost hear your gasps of surprise. I’ve written before about my ambivalence about religion and the Catholic Church in particular and my difficulties with the certainty of faith. But as you know, like most other pilgrims, I have also been profoundly affected by the spiritual power of the Camino. So at 9am every morning I have been going to the Cathedral and with an ancient key I have opened the heavy gates to a chapel where I have lit candles, turned on some soft music and I have just sat there. It has been one of the very best things I have done in my life.
Let me tell you more.
On the left hand side of the Cathedral as you enter from the Plaza Inmaculada the door to one of the side chapels has been open for the last 10 weeks. It will remain open until October. The chapel is open from 9am every morning until 7pm. It is a quiet place of prayer and reflection for pilgrims. It is the place where there is Mass in English at 10.30am every morning.
The priest begins, “Good morning and welcome. I’m Joe from Cork in Ireland. I’ve walked the Camino and I’m here for a month to talk to pilgrims and provide Mass and confession. Where are you from?” And so a beautiful pilgrims’ litany begins...”I’m Anne from Colorado, I walked from Sarria”, “We are Ivan and Irena from Russia, we walked from Saint Jean”, “I’m Alan from Australia, I walked from Ferrol”. There is huge laughter when someone says “I’m Tony from London, England, I walked here from my hotel” or “I’m Fiona from Florida, I came by cruise ship.” And even in these first few minutes of mass there are poignant moments, “I’m Mary from Ireland and I’m here to pray and wait for my daughter who finishes her Camino in the next few days”. “I’m Ian from South Africa I walked from Pamplona in memory of my wife who died last year”.
As the service proceeds there is a tangible feeling of solidarity when the priest makes reference to the Camino experience as both a physical and spiritual journey. He raises a smile when he mentions blisters and knowing looks when he mentions the moments of reflection every pilgrim is drawn to. Heads bow when he invites people to think of those they met, they kindnesses they experienced, the joy of arrival. Everyone knows the challenge which lies ahead is applying these lessons to the pilgrimage of life which is to come.
I sometimes think about how all of this began. Last year for the first time there was regular Mass in English in the cathedral for the first time when we organised three priests to come at their own expense for 6 weeks. It was an instant success. This year I wondered if we could do it for longer. Would we get priests? Could we also get religious sisters or brothers to also come and help. I wrote about it here on this blog. On Facebook. I put an advertisement in a religious magazine, “Priests and religious wanted to minister to pilgrims in Santiago. Give up your time. Pay your own way.” 20 pilgrim priests applied. 24 religious said they wanted to come. And so we have a new ministry and a Place of Prayer in the Cathedral for more than 6 months.
There is always someone in the chapel. One of the team. Sometimes pilgrims talk, sometimes they are upset. Finishing the Camino brings a mixture of emotions as we think of the journey past and the return to reality which lies ahead. Sometimes a decision has been taken to deal with something in their lives. To heal a broken relationship or to finally let it go. Opposite the chapel the priest who says Mass in English is also available for confession or just to talk.
Now another priest and two sisters are here. They open the chapel every day. I miss those hours of silence and being with the pilgrims. But there are volunteers to be organised and Compostelas to be written! When we close a final Mass will be said for all of the intentions of the pilgrims and then they will be burned. But the memories will linger for a long time to come.
Not every day is quite so dramatic. But every day the pilgrim saints come and write their prayers. They are folded pieces of paper and anonymous. But the other day I saw a scrap of paper under a chair and reaching down to lift it up amongst the other petitions I couldn’t help but read the childish handwriting: “for my Dad, help him kick cancers butt”.
Despite all of my doubts I cannot deny the power of these expressions of faith and of hope. Into that chapel the saints keep coming in. Trite as it may sound, I want to be in that number.