Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Letter to Santiago

For many pilgrims arriving in Santiago can be a bit of an anti-climax. Of course there is the excitement of reaching the final destination and the fascination with the pilgrim rituals of attending the Pilgrim Mass, hugging the Saint and visiting the tomb of St James. The old city is beautiful. It is typically medieval and the Cathedral and sprawling university buildings sit cheek by jowl. The narrow streets and lanes teem with students who fill the outdoor cafes to lazily watch the many street entertainers who busk around like the jesters of old. Often as I sit with them I see lone pilgrims, some still limping, making their way around the many museums and sights. To be honest at times some look forlorn. I’ve had that feeling myself.

On the Way each day brings new encounters. As we walk along local people frequently shout a greeting from the nearby fields where they are working. Farm workers near the trail take a well earned rest to engage in conversation. Pilgrims are always attracted to other pilgrims and when we meet each other the same questions are asked, “Where did you start?” “Where were you last night?” “Where are you going today?” “Is there fresh water nearby?” and so on. There something immediate about the bond between pilgrims and often a few hours of walking together on the route can lead to sustained friendships or more days of walking in each other’s company. People walk at different paces from each other. Or need to take a rest. That can lead to new found friends not seeing each other for hours or even days. But when friends are re-united at the side of the road or at an albergue or indeed in Santiago there is considerable joy. “It is like meeting an old school friend” is how one pilgrim described it, “although often it is hours you have spent together rather than years in the same classroom. The feeling is just the same”. On reaching Santiago these friendships are lost. People need to go home. Pilgrim friends come from different countries. Have different travel arrangements. Pilgrims on their own in Santiago can find this difficult.
Not so the group of 23 pilgrims from England who walked under the auspices of the Confraternity of St James from Oporto to Santiago by way of the coastal route. I’ve seen the pictures. The route is stunningly beautiful with hostal accommodation every 25 kms or so. There is definitely a new guide to be written!

8 of us met at Stansted Airport in London a couple of Monday’s ago to catch the early flight to Santiago to go and meet them. By the afternoon the welcome party was at their hotel to greet the arriving pilgrims.
Then they queued at the Pilgrims’ Office for their Compostelas. The staff was depleted with people leaving and so I helped for an hour or two until the Confraternity group passed through. They were delighted to have their certificates in their hands and everyone made for the Pilgrims’ Mass. There was a religious convention on in the town and there were 20 bishops and 100 priests, with organ and botafumeiro. Splendid. Then we made off for dinner which Santiago friends had helped me organise. The food came non-stop. Plate after plate. Fish, meat, croquets, shell fish, cold meats, more fish…and wine which seemed to be without end.
The next few days brought more meals together, visits around the town, a really excellent guided tour of the Cathedral and a beautiful and tranquil Eucharist held in the Church of Sar and led by Anglican Priests, Colin and Joan who had walked from Oporto.

Colin is the Chairman of the Confraternity and so it fell to him to give the Invocation. Many pilgrim groups do this. It is a greeting to St James proclaimed at the beginning of the Mass. Colin read the entire message (see below) in perfect Spanish.

Joaquin had been primed and the music transported to lo and behold the Mass ended with a fantastic rendition on the organ of that wonderful English hymn, Jerusalem. The pilgrims were delighted. All the more so when Joaquin invited them aloft to see the organ and visit the great galleries above where the medieval pilgrims slept. Joaquin demonstrated the organ but refused to let anyone leave before the entire group sang Jerusalem for him. To the sound of the great Cathedral organ the full throated voices sang: “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green… “
It was a great week together despite some travel arrangements being disrupted by the one day General Strike. I could tell that in this group deep friendships have been formed. Perhaps we will all walk together again one day?

Here is their letter to St James:

The Confraternity of Saint James
in the United Kingdom
Xacobeo 2010 ~ Invocation

Glorious Apostle Santiago,

We come from the Confraternity of St James in the United Kingdom to give honour to you and praise to Jesus Christ Our Lord in this Jubilee Year of 2010.

Just as you were among the first disciples to follow Jesus, many centuries later we were the first Confraternity in the English speaking world to promote and support the pilgrimage to your shrine here in this great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

We started from a small beginning. Six English people made the pilgrimage to your shrine in the Holy Year of 1982. They all shared a common desire to follow in the historic journey along the roads in England and France to come finally to your resting place in Santiago.

The Confraternity of Saint James was born in early 1983. Since that time it has worked ceaselessly to tell people in the English speaking world about the wonders of this great pilgrimage. Every year pilgrims are prepared carefully with practical advice and our well known Guide books and are helped to begin to understand the spiritual purpose of the journey.

We have been greatly blessed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the pilgrims who had the opportunity to experience the camino in the early days, when there were long stretches without albergues, without yellow arrows and other support. They gave their time, energy and money to write Guide books in English to the Camino Frances and the Le Puy route in France. Further Guides have been and are continuing to be published for many alternative routes in Spain, France and the rest of Europe.

The Confraternity is proud to have been first to develop close friendships with the local Spanish Amigos del Camino de Santiago de El Bierzo. Together we have developed the first joint refuge on the Camino frances, in the tiny village of Rabanal del Camino. Hospitaleros from all over the world have been offering Christian hospitality in the Refugio Gaucelmo for 21 years. This year we celebrated the arrivel of pilgrim number 110,000 at the refuge, which many pilgrims say is a ‘peaceful oasis’ on the busy camino.

In recent years the Camino Frances became so busy we decided to try to open a second albergue on the Camino del Norte. With the support of the Bishop in Lugo, and after raising sufficient funds by the personal efforts of many of our members, we were able to open the Refugio de Peregrinos de Miraz in that place in 2005. Five years later, in this Holy Year, we have worked with the Xestion do Plan Xacobeo to build a wonderful new extension to the refugio in order to be able to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims desiring to visit your shrine at this special time.

Over the last 25 years we have had contact with many thousands of pilgrims. We continue to see in them the powerful spiritual renewal which pilgrimage to this place can inspire.

In this Holy Year we thank the Archbishop, the priests of the Cathedral and diocese, the staff of the Pilgrims’ Office and everyone in Santiago who welcomes and supports pilgrims.

The Confraternity of St James in the United Kingdom has had a close association with the foundation and development of several other societies. We bring you greetings in their names also: The Bredereth Sen Jago, which traces and walks pilgrim routes along in south-west England. The Irish Society of Friends of St James: for 1000 years Irish pilgrims have travelled to this holy place. The American Pilgrims on the Camino who are providing information and support to pilgrims. The Canadian Company of Pilgrims, representing the Canadians outside Québec who have a bond and commitment to the Camino to Santiago. They have contributed to the new facilities at the albergue in Miraz. The Confraternity in South Africa who continue to expand and develop.

We thank them for their work, and on behalf of all of us and we salute you for your example of faithfulness to the Gospels and dedication to our Saviour, Jesus Christ in whose name we pledge our continuing support for the pilgrimage to this place in the days to come.

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