Sunday, 12 September 2010

Time to say goodbye

For many years I worked in the nether world of Non Governmental Organisations. These are organisations formed by governments to do things that governments want done but want to do more effectively and cheaply than they themselves could do them. The funding of NGO’s comes from governments both local and national and inevitably is short term and is often given or stopped at the whim of politicians.
To all intents and purposes that’s the way the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago is funded. The Cathedral receives a specific grant from local and regional government to fund the work which is done receiving pilgrims in Santiago. Add the bureaucracy of government funding to the less- than- cutting- edge management skills of the Church and you’ll soon see where this story is going.
It is a feature of Spanish employment law that if those employed on temporary contracts are employed too long or too often they are given permanent status automatically with all of the rights that entails for them and the responsibilities it implies for employers. Therefore of the 20 or so staff in the Pilgrims’ Office around 90% of them are on temporary contracts and it is a condition of the funding which the Cathedral receives that they must not go beyond the limit of their temporary contracts.
Even though this is the Holy Year, even though the number of pilgrims has more than doubled, even though they have recently opened a brand new 175 albergue, even although the Pope is still to visit at the beginning of November when pilgrim numbers will again peak…in a magnificent demonstration of strategic forward planning almost the entire staff will leave by mid-September to be replaced by a completely new crew.
Some of the current staff have been associated with the office for some years having used gaps in employment as a way of coping with the temporary contract rules. Some have been there for shorter periods. Almost all are well qualified young people who want to stay in Galicia but because of the employment situation cannot easily find permanent employment in their chosen professions.
In the office they mostly get on very well together under the benign leadership of coordinators Maria and Eduardo who are themselves powerless against the bureaucratic rules. Don Jenaro the Canon in charge of Pilgrimages, the Boss and the link to the Cathedral adopts his most priestly, philosophical look. But there is also good news. Mari, a well known face from the Pilgrims’ Office is pregnant and will go off on maternity leave at the end of the year.
As a team they get on very well together. Paid little for their labours they turn up and day in and day out to deal with the lines of pilgrims. Most of us pilgrims are friendly, smiling and courteous. Others can be downright cantankerous. The staff do their best to maintain a warm welcome for each. This is challenging when every day they are looking at the same sellos and saying the same things, particularly “all the way walking?” The work is hard and relentless.

I think that they are a great bunch. They have been very helpful to me and I have seen how far they are prepared to go to help individual pilgrims in distress. They care about pilgrims. More than that, they care deeply about continuing the medieval traditions of welcome and issuing the Compostela. They hate cheats. They feel that someone who has got the bus or used a car is being very disrespectful to authentic pilgrims. Because they feel that sometimes their reaction can be a bit strong when someone arrives with few sellos or little evidence of a pilgrimage well made. Above all I am convinced that they have the well being of the pilgrimage at heart when they are issuing Compostelas or bed sheets in the recently opened albergue.

Soon they will all be gone. Some have left already as other jobs have appeared. So on behalf of all of us they have served over the last two or three years I thought we should say a collective Thank You.

In this little presentation which follows I apologise that I haven’t captured everyone. I’m aware that at least three are missing…Pili, Fernando and Katusha and probably others but there were limits to the amount of photostalking I could do whilst we were meant to be working. So fellow pilgrims if you have received your Compostela in the last few years join me in thanking some of the Pilgrims’ Office volunteers and staff of this Holy Year.


  1. Nice one John, I was just preaching on pilgrimage and gratitude this morning. And thanks from me to all the staff too (which of course includes you). Unfortunately it won't be until the end of October next year that Meenakshi and I will be walking to Santiago again.


  2. I never knew the lovely young woman who gave me my Compostela might have such a temporary work arrangement. Thanks for sharing this Johnnie. I have to say, I was moved to tears by it.... and I wish all the young workers well. They all very much had their hearts in their jobs when I had my brief visit to the Pilgrim Office.

  3. Oh Kiwi...thank you for saying you were moved to too! And John, a special thanks for the small advert you stuck in there!! You made me laugh at the end!! My philosophy perfectly....always try to leave 'em laughing! Such a shame that they don't stagger the starts and stops...must make for rough first weeks for each group. And as always thanks for the background story of the pilgrims office. I will so much more appreciate everything the next time! Gracias, Karin

  4. Thanks a lot for your nice words about all of us, John (Tha´s really very kind of you). I will miss all those nice guys (friends) I met in the office. It has been a real pleasure for me to work with them and I wish them all the best, specially to Mary and the baby.

  5. Thanks to you for writing so evocatively and to all the helpful staff at the Pilgrim office during these past years. Arriving at the office has always been an emotional experience upon completion of each my five Caminos. The kind words and smiles of all the gracious staff helped make it special.

  6. Thanks John for this. These wonderful folks have always made the end of my journey very special with their patience and welcoming smiles. This year must have been especially challenging!
    Thank you and best wishes to all.

  7. That - is - SO - BEAUTIFUL.

    Thankyou to you all at the Pilgrim office.

    John, do you really like making us cry ?? . . . . . so, so beautiful.

  8. What a beautiful tribute!