Monday, 12 July 2010

The pilgrims and the shepherd

I suppose I’ve always known about Gibraltar. However I confess knowing about the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary apes was about the extent of my knowledge. Then in the beginning of my encounter with the pilgrimage routes to Santiago I read Christabel Watson’s account of her journey. 
I was impressed by this adventure which took her 42 days to complete. It was only after I started walking myself that I realised that she must have been positively racing to cover the distance in this time. Then I found out a little more about Lady Christabel, racing driver and mountaineer and it was more understandable!
Then one day as I was ambling along the Via de la Plata I was overtaken by an older pilgrim who was walking at least 6 kms per hour. We caught up with each other at the albergue in Santa Marta de Terra. This was Hans, 67 years of age from Germany who had started walking in Gibraltar. He was a lovely, gentle soul who had always wanted to walk to Santiago and thought he would start on this southernmost tip of the peninsula. As our conversation progressed I discovered that his hobby was motor cycling. I wondered if all pilgrims who start in Gibraltar are high speed?
I never gave Gibraltar another thought until I started following the blog of Ana Maria and Robert who decided to walk from Gibraltar to Santiago and on to Finisterre in memory of Robert’s brother, William Gomez, who died of cancer in 2000. They set out in April of this year and having reached Santiago and then Finisterre decided to continue on to A Coruña. Theirs is an epic pilgrimage and they suffered serious physical problems and had to cope with a lot of inclement weather. However the cause was noble because as well as being a memorial to their brother, they were raising money for charity. The fact that they took 77 days to finish on 5 July was a pleasant antidote to my early concerns about Gibraltar being the starting blocks for high speed walking. Robert and Ana Maria’s website tells their story and it is an excellent source of information for other pilgrims.
Gibraltarian Robert and Argentinian Ana Maria planned and trained for their journey for a considerable period before they started in April. While they were preparing I got a telephone call which put Gibraltar right on the map for me.
As regular visitors to this column know I have been playing the organ in Clapham for a few years, latterly dividing my time between there, walking and Santiago. The parish priest for 7 of these years, Ralph Heskett, became a friend. A fellow hispanophile, he told me that he had been travelling to Gibraltar for close on 30 years, preaching and filling in for local priests when they were on holiday. Ralph knows my interest in the routes to Santiago and he was surprised that I had never visited Gibraltar. In fact I think at one point I said that I would visit Gibraltar if he walked with me to Santiago. His reply indicated that his idea of pilgrimage to Santiago was to go on an air-conditioned bus. He would simply continue to visit Gibraltar because “I love it” he said.
At the time of that conversation neither of us knew that some years later I would be speaking to him on the telephone minutes after the Vatican had announced that the Pope had appointed him the next Bishop of Gibraltar. The Pope, Bishop, his beloved Gibraltar…he was astonished to the point of being speechless. That was a strange phenomenon for one of the best preachers I have ever heard. The reaction of people who know Ralph was interesting. It was as if they couldn’t believe that someone with Ralph’s outstanding qualities could be appointed. I know that says more about people's feelings about the Vatican but “our Ralph” isn’t a politician, or a mover and shaker. He is a man from a humble background, who was attracted to the mission of the Redemptorist Order, and who has a real understanding of the issues and difficulties of ordinary people. Ralph is a man who I have never heard judge or condemn people. He is someone one you would turn to if you had problems. Ralph is easily moved. He is a man of considerable tenderness. A Bishop? Wow. There is hope.
So Ralph’s invitation for me to go to Gibraltar was at last fulfilled when I flew there last Friday to attend his “being Bishoped” on Saturday. The technical term is to be ordained a Bishop and there were lots of other Bishops in attendance to make sure it was done right. On Friday night I gathered with other friends from the UK for dinner with Ralph on this last night before he became Bishop of Gibraltar. It was a lovely event. People were glad to see him and he was delighted to be with us. The atmosphere was jolly. This was a celebration as it was the first time many had seen him since the Papal proclamation. Ralph sat at a table with the Archbishop who with other Bishops would ordain him the next day. He was surrounded by friends and smothered in good wishes. Tomorrow we would see him in the robes of a bishop, wearing a mitre and carrying a sparkling new staff. Tonight he was simply our friend. I looked over at one point and there midst the party atmosphere sat a man deeply reflective of the task which lies before him. The picture I sneakily took is how I see my friend and why he deserved the oil with which he was anointed and the rapturous welcoming applause of the Gibraltarian congregation the next morning in a gathering so big they had to use an aircraft hanger for the ceremony. Ralph will be a good Bishop for the people of Gibraltar. Of that I am sure.
They will now know his warmth and humour. He is a natural communicator and could easily have been an actor in another life. They will be moved by his insightful sermons. They will be touched by the character of the man.
Ralph lived in one room in the Redemptorist House in Clapham for nine years. He now lives in the Bishop’s House. At the end of the evening we looked out as the sun set on the Straights of Gibraltar. He was surrounded by friends. We won’t see him again for a while as he has a new life now. When pilgrims Ana Maria and Robert next return to Gibraltar they will have a new shepherd. I penned the following little message to him:

Twas the night of the Nativity Play and the boy who was to be the shepherd was worried. “I don’t want to do it,” he said. “But why not?” his friends asked. After a moment the boy replied, “I’ll give you three reasons. First, everyone will look at me when I get dressed up in those strange clothes. Second, I’m not sure people will like me, and third, there are many others who might have been better in this part.” His friends listened thoughtfully then replied,“You need to be the shepherd and we’ll give you three reasons. First, you’ve been selected for the part by the Director. Second, you’re the best person we know to look after the lambs. Third, if you ever get lonely as the only shepherd in the play we’ll always be here for you.”

Ralph, Priest, Bishop and dear friend we know you have the talent.
We pray that you are also given the grace to be the shepherd your people need.

1 comment:

  1. I know this is an older post, but it really moved me. And having been to Gibraltar, it sounds as if your Bishop friend will fit in nicely. I arrived there on a cruise ship and walked by myself to the ticket counter for the top or the Rock. I bought my ticket and a wonderful guide took me in to his group to tour the Tunnels and see the town. The generosity of spirit of this gentleman was amazing. He was a transplant from England. He said he crossed the border by motorbike every day he worked, as he lives in Spain. Gibraltar is special. Thanks for a wonderful post.