Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Behind the Green Door

I arrived in Santiago on the 3.30 flight yesterday. It will be a busy week. I’ll spend a few days working in the Pilgrims’ Office as I did a couple of weeks ago then later in the week one of my friends, fellow pilgrim and checker of my Guidebooks is arriving in Santiago. Joaquin has asked him sing at the Pilgrims’ Mass on the Feast of Santiago on 25 July. If that happens the lunch which follows should be splendid! We’ll see.

I’m also hoping to meet pilgrim and author Tracey Saunders as she finishes the Camino Portuguese and Iain from the Pilgrims’ Forum at the end of his Camino Frances. Apparently I owe him a glass of Johnnie Walker.

I’ve been reflecting on where the idea came from to do voluntary work in the Pilgrims’ Office. I think it stems from that first visit at the end of the Via de la Plata when I walked from Seville 3 years ago. I had arrived the night before. Exhausted. I stood in a queue and I remember it was my turn and someone behind the desk called me forward. I looked on as they turned leaf after leaf in my Credencial looking at the stamps which I had collected wherever I stopped. Dozens of them. Each able to unlock a fond memory. Then there was a slight nervousness as the girl checked the last few stamps in some detail. “You stopped in Ponte Ulla?” she enquired and after confirmation applied the last stamp from the Cathedral of Santiago. She asked me to fill in a form which involved ticking some boxes. When I had finished doing that she took a certificate from a shelf under the desk, wrote my name in Latin on it and gave me my first Compostela.

I remember the moment vividly. I took the Compostela in its cardboard tube to lunch and proudly sat it on the table, like a student after graduation.

I assumed that the young people behind the desks in the Pilgrims’ Office were all volunteers who were pilgrims themselves. In fact whilst one or two volunteers do work in the office most are paid employees on temporary 9 month contracts because of the nature of the funding which the Cathedral gets from the government. But volunteer I did, and after a week of training and orientation earlier in the year I’ve started going back for a week or two as often as I can. Next year I’d like to walk a route and then spend a total of three months or so in Santiago. I want to be there for the month of July to experience the celebrations around the feast day in the last Jubilee Year until 2021.

Working in the Office is proving to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. There is a team of around 12 young people, led by Mari and Eduardo (photo), the office supervisors, under the watchful eye of Don Genaro, the priest in charge. He calls in several times a day and when he is not there he is usually sitting in Confessional Number 2 in the Cathedral. Look out for him. He is the genial wee man with the warm smile.

The team is supplemented by some temporary staff during the busy months and this year a young student in his first year at University is working full time for the month of July. Then there’s me – the old guy and very part time volunteer.

A couple of weeks ago on my first morning there I knew it was going to be just a tad busier than when I had done my training in February. Before the cafeteria opened for breakfast at 8am I decided to take stroll around Santiago at 7.30am. That would give me plenty of time to have something to eat and be at the office for it opening at 9 am. The sun was shining but it was surprisingly cool. Council workers were washing the streets, exactly as they do in many towns and cities in Spain. There were very people around.
My route took me down by the Cathedral and to complete the circuit back to my hostal I turned to walk past the Pilgrims’ Office. There was a queue. Already! I counted 32 pilgrims standing around, some in a line. There were more rucksacks neatly laid in a line stretching from the closed green door.

The queue didn’t go down when the office opened at 9am. It got longer. That day 1,000 pilgrims were received. The next day 1100. The team in the office work in 2 shifts – 9am – 2pm and 2pm – 9pm. They rarely take breaks. Perhaps 10 mins to grab something eat. Each day someone goes out for coffee. We drink it at our desks. The wave of pilgrims is unrelenting.

In many ways the routine is simple. Pilgrims are asked to wait at the glass door into the office. This is exactly like waiting at the line on the ground at airport passport control. They are called forward one at a time. They are asked for their Credencial first and the route they have taken is checked, their starting point identified and close attention is given to the stamps they have obtained in the last 100 kms in the case of walkers and 200 in the case of cyclists or those who travelled on horseback.

Whilst this is going on, pilgrims are asked to fill in their details on a form. Name, country of origin, starting point, age, profession and then three boxes under the heading “Motivation”. These are Religious Reasons, Religious or other reasons, Non Religious.

The person behind the desk waits until the box is ticked. If the pilgrim has ticked the “Religious” or “Religious and Other” boxes then the stamp of the Cathedral is given and the Compostela prepared. If the “Non Religious” box is ticked an additional stamp of the Office of Pilgrims is applied and a Certificate of Completion is prepared – not the Compostela.

The reason for this procedure appears straightforward. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is very old and for centuries the motivation was religious – the forgiveness of sins or time off the period in purgatory people thought they would experience. The destination is the tomb of St James, one of Christ’s closest associates. The Compostela is the traditional certificate that the pilgrimage has been complete “in a pious cause” or plainly, “for religious reasons”. The roots of the Compostela go back to the 13th Century. The pilgrims’ office sees itself as the guardian of that tradition and hence the questions are asked.

For most people the reasons for their pilgrimage are straightforward and the vast majority of people tick the box for Religious or Religious and Other reasons. Some others confidently tick the Non Religious box. A few find the whole thing confusing,

My own view is that the category “Religious or Other” is ambiguous. What the Pilgrims’ Office means is “Religious or Spiritual reasons” but it is almost as if they feely they would be diluting the tradition by saying so.

A number of pilgrims have either rejected formal religion or are at odds with an established church. But they remain deeply spiritual and can have walked a great distance to get to Santiago. Some discover to their horror that having ticked the Non-religious box that they do not receive a Compostela. Either they ask about this or their disappointment is palpable. Last week one young woman was crying and her boyfriend was angry. Mari, the supervisor was called. She is both patient and multi lingual. The girl explained that she had ticked the Non religious box because she doesn’t go to Church. “Why did you do the pilgrimage?” Mari enquired. “To deepen my love for my boyfriend and to think everyday about my sister who recently died”. The certificate was withdrawn and the Compostela issued. But some clarity and guidance could have avoided the difficulty.

The case of the girl and the Compostela is the first of hundreds of stories from the Pilgrims’ Office. I’ll tell you some of them next time.

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