Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Saint, the King and the Pilgrims

Sunday 25th July 2010 – The Holy Year

At the appointed hour King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia appeared in the huge square in front of the Cathedral. A military band struck up the national anthem and they stood in solemn silence. Then cheered on by the people of Santiago who lined one side of the square they shook hands with the high echelons of the Galician social and political classes. The President of Galicia was first followed by the Mayor of Santiago, then came a long line of dignitaries. The men were dressed in formal morning suits and the ladies in long dresses, hair piled high to support the traditional Spanish mantilla. As the King was doing this the Archbishop with assembled priests and clerics processed from the side door of the Cathedral round to the square. In this religious precession the dress was even more flamboyant. The Archbishop was surrounded by 14 other bishops. 15 mitred-heads-a- walking. They were preceded by a long line of priests in the blood red vestments worn on the feast day of martyrs and senior church figures in garb strange to the modern eye. In this procession psalms were chanted and prayers recited as the mace bearer led them forward.
Synchronised by tradition the processions formed one line which slowly mounted the mighty steps of the cathedral. The organ sounded their entrance and the Mass of the Feast of Santiago began. The waiting congregation who had been arriving in the Cathedral from 6am heaved a collective sigh of relief but their enthusiasm rallied when they applauded the flying Botafumeiro before cheering the King and Queen out of the cathedral.
This was a weekend of ceremony. The day before Don Jenaro the Canon of Pilgrimages presided at the High Altar for the annual Mass of the Archicofradía which is responsible for the Pilgrims’ Office and the well being of the pilgrimage. Medals were placed over the heads of new members. Everyone was in their Sunday best.
Around Santiago in the plazas and streets a programme of street entertainment and concerts occupied every hour of the days leading up to the Feast. When is a street a street and when is it a concert hall? Or indeed, when is an aisle in the Cathedral and aisle and when is it an orchestra pit?
In the evenings neon lights hung across the narrow streets added to the party atmosphere as did the sounds of rock bands and gospel choirs entertaining into the small hours.

On the Saturday evening there was the final service in the series of nine held each day before the Feast. For each the Cathedral was packed to hear the Cathedral Choir sing anthems medieval and modern. After this last service people poured out of the Cathedral into the square which was already half full with people reserving their places to see the  fireworks display which would herald the Feast Day proper at midnight. At 11.30 the cathedral and square plunged into darkness and there began the most magnificent and deeply moving sound and light show imaginable. On the old walls of this medieval cathedral was projected the mystical history of pilgrimage. Images of stained glass from Cathedrals along the way were projected in full technicolour. Fish, fishermen, octopus, fishing boats and glorious Celtic symbols celebrated all that is Galician. The thundering music accompanied a fireworks display which they say is the best ever. The cathedral appeared to burn and the spires appeared to dance in the sky. Catherine wheels whirled and thousands whooped with delight. High on the roof of the cathedral spotlights picked out gaiteros playing their Galician bagpipes and had there been room everyone would have danced.

Almost poignant in contrast were the familiar scenes of pilgrimage which followed. A scallop shell and the crowd murmured approval. A gigantic yellow arrow and they applauded. When the biggest map of the routes imaginable appeared they cheered and when the entire cathedral became a credencial bedecked with sellos thousands of voices roared approval. The fireworks display had a magnificent finale which reached far into the sky. The sound and light exhibition with some fireworks is being repeated every evening for a week. St James is being celebrated in style.
At the end the massive crowd dispersed as celebrities like Paulo Coelho posed with pilgrims and the King and Queen retired to bed.
This was a weekend with everything. Pomp, music, crowds, fireworks, ceremony and lots of partying. However striking the sight of bishops and royals in all their finery was, the almighty roar of approval when the cathedral was covered in sellos said it all for me. Santiago is a pilgrim town and the Cathedral is the pilgrims’ church. For many of us the grand ritual and rich robes hold little attraction. Rather pilgrimage exposes us to a simpler way of life where our walking brings an intimacy with ourselves, others and the land around us that no other journey brings. It is as we walk we become open to new thoughts and perspectives, when kindness, and tenderness and love take on a new value. Pilgrims assess who and where they are in this life and often contemplate what might lie beyond. This experience is for me the heart of the matter more precious than any cathedral ceremony.
Sometimes you just have to look at pilgrims to see this truth. I caught sight of a group of five young pilgrims sitting at Mass. They had their newly written Compostelas laid carefully on the pew in front of them. They sat in silence, not uttering one word of the prayers. This may have been their first experience of Mass or indeed of church. They took photographs and gazed around them. They stood with everyone when the priest invited the congregation to say the Our Father and their lips moved a little at the words of the prayer perhaps learned long ago. But when they realized that everyone around them was shaking hands and embracing at the Sign of Peace which followed, their faces lit up. They hugged and kissed, greeted those around them, smiled at everyone. They crossed the aisle to hug other pilgrims. They sat back down with smiles on previously bored faces. At the end of Mass when the pious crushed forward to take pictures of the Botafumeiro I watched as they stood in almost stunned silence with eyes cast up following its flight. As they disappeared into the departing crowds I hoped that the lovingness of the Sign of Peace and the wonder of the Botafumeiro which connects us to pilgrims of the past had been as wonderful as the rest of their pilgrimage.
It was great to see the King. The people love him. I enjoyed seeing the Archbishop. He seems like a nice man. My lasting memories are of the sellos on the cathedral, the roar that went with them and the young people in the Cathedral. Pilgrims do it for me every time.


  1. Pilgrims do it for me every time.


    You see them in Santiago. I see them on their way, far far away still from the Saint, reaching Geneva, from Switzerland, Germany... Usually so Germanic looking...

    A lovely post. Thank you.

  2. I just knew you would craft a post that would transport me from Northern Canada to Santiago. I DID feel as if I were there. A gloriously descriptive post. Thanks John.

  3. Great post John!

    Let me know when you are back in town... :-)


  4. Exactly as Lynne said!! And all without having to buy a plane ticket this time around! Thanks so much.

  5. Many thanks for your evocative post.It helps all of us who could only be there in our minds see the celebrations!