Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Message from Confessional Number 2

The confessionals line the walls of the great cathedral of Santiago. The very size of the building seems to make them small. Like confessional boxes in a doll's house if there were such things. The priests inside are no less diminutive, their heads glow like those of saints as the single light above shines on both bald and silver. These are the canons of the cathedral. The "canonigos" who make up the cathedral chapter led by the Dean who is appointed by the Archbishop. This way of  running cathedrals is universal in the church. The canons are the venerable, the experienced. Hence traditions are carried on. In Santiago the canons sing the 9.30 mass every morning starting with Laudes. Then on a rota they go to the confession boxes and sit like statues waiting for the faithful to kneel for the sacrament.

Every day the light goes on in confessional number 2 and the same priest as always takes his place. A pile of books on which he rests his arm gives a hint as to how quieter moments are spent. He is dressed in a long black cassock bearing the red sword of St James. Around his neck is the purple stole. The symbol of his priesthood first placed on him at his ordination. From a distance he looks austere but up close and in conversation his eyes twinkle with life and his face breaks into the broadest of smiles. When he isn't hearing a confession pilgrims and locals who know who he is stop to chat. They usually talk about the Camino because this modest, almost anonymous priest who sits here everyday is Don Jenaro Cebrian, canon delegate in charge of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. This man is the Chief Executive of the Pilgrims' Office which this year has broken all records and issued over 180,000 compostelas. He is the one who arranges the botafumeiro, special masses for pilgrimage groups and during the busy season single handedly runs a daily evening service for pilgrims who have arrived on foot, on horseback or by bicycle.

I learn later as we chat in his room in the Pilgrims' Office that the confessional in which he sits every day near to the tomb of  St James is only a few metres from the house in which he was born just off the Plaza Quintana. His early years were very happy and he enjoyed his primary education at the Colegio de los Remedios. In those early years he wasn't aware of pilgrims. There really weren't very many arriving in Santiago. But from as early as he can remember he was aware of St James. His older brother went off to seminary to train for the priesthood and at the age of 10 the young Jenaro wanted to follow him. His mother however wanted him to finish his education before considering seminary. Perhaps understandably she wanted to keep her youngest son at home for a while longer. This was not to be and the vocation of the youngster prevailed and off he went making the journey of 50 yards from his home to enter the Seminary at San Martin Pinario. Despite the proximity of his home, like the other boys, he lived in the seminary. These were happy days and he smiles as he relates the story. For one who hadn't travelled very much from home to cathedral and to seminary his favourite subject was geography.

He sighs as he describes how the church was different then. From his year alone 130 priests were ordained. He was ordained at the age of 21 with more than 20 others from his class. In his final year of studies he had been secretary to the assistant bishop of Santiago and after ordination he spent some time in the local parishes of San Benito and then Santa Maria del Carmen before becoming a member of staff in the cathedral. His first appointment there was in 1961 and his job was to organise two main services each day - Laudes in the morning and Vespers in the evening. He worked at this and various other administrative tasks for the next 27 years before being made a canon of the cathedral in 1988. In that role he taught religious studies in a school in Santiago and increasingly became involved in the education of young people.

Although he had been aware that the previous Director of the Pilgrims' Office, Don Jaime Garcia, had become ill he was genuinely astonished when on the fateful day of the terrorists attacks in Spain, the 11 March 2004, the Archbishop appointed him to be in charge of  pilgrimages and de facto CEO of the Pilgrims' Office.

"Why did the Archbishop pick you for this job above all of the other canons?" I asked. I could see him deciding how to answer the question when the moment was lost as his mobile phone rang with an incredibly jazzy ring tone which seemed strange emanating from the pocket of the priest. With a nod of apology he answered and conversed in a stream of Gallego, the language of the region.

I tried a different tack..."How does it feel to be in charge of the pilgrimage and this office?" I asked. "With so many people arriving" he replied, "it is a huge responsibility, we have to welcome pilgrims properly, we can't keep them waiting too long. I have to deal with the press, do interviews. But I am helped a great deal by two permanent assistants, Eduardo and Mari who help run the office, but we only ever have temporary staff. Such is the nature of the way we are funded. But we do it and this year more records have been broken. This is a good team."
He went on to describe the changes he has seen in the pilgrimage over his years in Santiago. It has always been a special place, he says. "We have the relics of the Saint and so people have always come here. But in the 1980's the town started to change as pilgrim numbers slowly increased. By 1992 around 10,000 pilgrims arrived. However in the Holy Year in 1993 this number expanded 10 fold when almost 100,000 compostelas were issued in addition to all of those who came by bus or car." 1993 says Don Jenaro was the turning point. "Everyone started to take notice: central and local government, the Chamber of Commerce. People saw the tourism possibilities. Some of us also saw the potential of the Camino as an expression of religious devotion and spiritual exploration. The network of albergues expanded as organisations such as the Confraternity of St James stepped up to the plate." For this he says, "pilgrims should always be grateful."      

In his analysis and reflection his religious convictions are always to the fore and he speaks of the rise in secularism and the selfishness of the 1990's to which faith in his view is the only antidote. He sees the Camino and all pilgrimage experience as part of the spiritual thirst he sees in the world as people strive for another way to live. People are looking for more meaning than money and material success. He is concerned that as numbers grow the spirit of the Camino, as essentially the search to come closer to God, will be devalued. It may simply become "something that is done for sport, for fun, because everyone is doing it." However as if to reassure himself he immediately related that only that very morning he was talking to some young people who had been deeply moved by their Camino experience.

"What of the future?" I ask, "Will the Camino continue to grow?". "Only God knows the answer to that" he replies and this eyes twinkle mischievously, "but I think it will, we have not yet reached the plateau if that day will ever come."

"And at this time of the year when Santiago and the whole world is preparing for Christmas a final word to pilgrims and members of Confraternities and Amigos groups who support them?"

"I want to wish all pilgrims a very happy and Christmas and a peaceful New Year. I want to express our gratitude to those who support pilgrims and to exhort them to maintain their efforts in the future."

"Will the Pilgrims' Office be closed for Christmas?" I ask. "Only on Christmas Day but I will have the stamp of the cathedral and the compostelas if any pilgrims arrive."

Pilgrims arriving on Christmas Day should report to confessional number 2.


  1. Thank you for sharing this message John and if you are in Santiago this Christmas, give the saint a hug from me!

  2. I didn't realise that was Don Jenaro! Thanks for sharing the messages and stories,

    Feliz Navidad!


  3. ".... 50 or so applications from people who want to volunteer to select a balanced group."
    Now surely it's an impossible task to generate a 'balanced group' out of experienced pilgrims - almost a contradiction in terms...
    I'm really looking forward to seeing the new office whether the staff are balanced or unbalanced.
    Buen camino!