Sunday, 2 May 2010

We’re not the only pilgrims

What a week! It took me nearly a whole day to catch up on correspondence on my return from Santiago. This included a long letter of complaint to my service provider for cutting off my broadband and also a letter to Ryanair asking for a refund and modest compensation for a cancelled flight. The latter was written more in hope than expectation! I also got an e mail from friends in Santiago telling me that walking pilgrim numbers continue to increase steadily following the lull after Holy Week and that the old town remains full of visitors with long queues at times for the Holy Door and the Cathedral.

Certainly when I was there the Cathedral was full to capacity several times. Bus after bus load of visitors arrived and mounted the steps to the Cathedral like the regiments of an occupying army. So much so that crowd control measures have been set up outside and inside there is a strict one-way system and a division between the liturgical space and the area behind the High Altar with the Holy Door, the place where one can hug the Saint and the Tomb of the Apostle.

Here is how it works. Pilgrims wanting to visit the Holy Door form a queue in the Plaza de Quintana and on entering the Cathedral follow signs to the right to mount the steps behind the Statue of the Saint then proceed down to the tomb then back out through a side door which has been opened for this purpose which comes out onto the Plaza Quintana again slightly further up. There is a significant police presence all day long outside the Cathedral and inside security guards ensure that the traffic flow is kept in order.
Having gone through the Holy Door pilgrims then queue again at the entrance to the Cathedral in the Plaza Praterias. The traditional entrance from the main square up the double staircase and through the Portico de la Gloria is now the exit! Once in the Cathedral there is only one way out and that is strictly enforced. This departure from the traditional pilgrim entrance is proving universally unpopular and let’s hope it will be reviewed. However the impassive faces of the security people give nothing away. They have also set a limit on the number of people allowed into the cathedral. Everyone entering is counted and when that number reaches 1200 the entrance is closed. Twice in the week that happened at about 10 minutes to 12 0’clock.
It is clear that all of these measures have been put in place to cope with the huge numbers expected. They are already arriving. The Archbishop is committed to saying one of the four pilgrim Masses every day during the Holy Year and the diary is full of bookings for the Botafumeiro. At the best of times the 12 noon Pilgrims’ Mass can be very busy and often walking pilgrims can’t find a seat because they have all been taken by those who have arrived by bus. We call them, uncharitably,” tourigrinos”. Perhaps we need to revise our view.
One day it was standing room only and as I gazed down the transept where traditionally the pilgrims sit to see the Botafumeiro fly over their heads I couldn’t spot one walking pilgrim. You see rucksacks are not allowed and have to be left in a deposit next to the Pilgrims’ Office. Rather there was a sea of smartly dressed people wearing coloured neckerchiefs sitting in obvious groups. 100 blue neckerchiefs. A group of around 50 older people wearing yellow neckerchiefs and a huge group of very elegant Spanish women wearing scarlet neckerchiefs. I heard the hissing before I saw its source. “Ssssssssssssssssssss”. “Ssssssssssssssssssssssss” The chatter of the congregation fell silent as blue robed young men some with bright yellow scapulars moved through the Cathedral. They all had a slightly far away, intense look in their eyes and they clearly took their task very seriously. A man was told off with a wagging finger for using the flash on his camera. People were ushered aside to clear a corridor down the aisle, they clicked their fingers and pointed like mute traffic policemen in an attempt to maintain the one way system. These are members of the modestly titled Commanders of the Order of St Michael the Archangel. It turns out this is an Asociación Publico de los Fieles – an organisation for lay people permitted in the Law of the Church. I suppose much like the Knights of St Columba in other countries.
Being serious young men, they took to their task energetically and with much hissing and gesturing they achieved silence. There was an eerie moment where I didn’t feel comfortable to be honest and I was drawn back to my first memory of this place.
Four years ago I arrived in Santiago and went to my first Pilgrims’ Mass. Although entering the Cathedral I noticed all the usual “Don’t signs”, “Do Not enter”, “Do not speak” and so on I quickly felt at home as the pilgrims arrived. Some were shiny having arrived the day before and had washed clothes and bodies. Others still wore their rucksacks and frequently the tap of a pilgrims stick could be heard. As the Cathedral filled with pilgrims the noise levels rose. Pilgrims greeted each other the length of the transept. “We’re over here”. “You made it”. “Have you seen Antonio?” Pilgrims embraced and laughed and clapped each other. When the pews were full they sat on the floor around the altar rails. They took photographs of each other, the magnificent cathedral and of course the Botafumeiro if it was hanging there. They took over. This was their place. This was the Pilgrim Cathedral.
I loved all of this. I felt a sense of solidarity with my fellow pilgrims but I was also proud of a cathedral with very much a conservative tradition which was happy with people enjoying themselves. The stern looking Dean said hello to people as he made his way through the crowd. The nun smiled benignly when she had to call for silence a few times before she could rehearse the music. At the beginning of Mass the priest read out a long list of everyone who had arrived that day…I listened carefully for my country and departure point to be mentioned. Exciting.

I was startled from this reverie by a great clatter. Everyone turned around and the Commanders did not look pleased. A group of pilgrims had arrived and had placed their walking sticks against the wall. They had tumbled to the ground. Just as that happened the organ sounded the entrance song and the Archbishop appeared in procession carrying his own pilgrim staff. I smiled.

Mass started with a long list of the pilgrim groups who were present. 105 retired members of staff from a factory in Seville, 82 pilgrims from a Diocese in Portugal, 34 young people from a youth club in Cordoba, the list of walking pilgrims followed. Then for this Holy Year before Mass began two or three individuals stepped forward to a microphone and gave an “Invocation to Saint James” a declaration of their commitment and best wishes for the Holy Year. The Archbishop responded to each. Rest assured these will inevitably increase as the year progresses! Mass went on as normal and at Communion the Commanders leapt into action to try and maintain order. Finally the Botafumeiro was lowered and as the Archbishop filled it with incense and great song to the Apostle sounded on the organ the congregation could no longer contain their excitement. They stood on seats, jostled for position, cheered as it flew higher and higher and many hundreds of cameras flashed. As it was brought back to earth the Archbishop led the applause and the Commanders looked dazed.

The pilgrims felt at home again and one thing was clear to me. Whether we arrive by bus, on foot, train or bicycle in this year especially those with the walking shoes are not the only pilgrims. We better get used to that!

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