Thursday, 12 June 2014

When the Saints go marching in...

For the two months of April and May I went to church every day. I can almost hear your gasps of surprise. I’ve written before about my ambivalence about religion and the Catholic Church in particular and my difficulties with the certainty of faith. But as you know, like most other pilgrims, I have also been profoundly affected by the spiritual power of the Camino. So at 9am every morning I have been going to the Cathedral and with an ancient key I have opened the heavy gates to a chapel where I have lit candles, turned on some soft music and I have just sat there. It has been one of the very best things I have done in my life.

Let me tell you more.
On the left hand side of the Cathedral as you enter from the Plaza Inmaculada the door to one of the side chapels has been open for the last 10 weeks. It will remain open until October. The chapel is open from 9am every morning until 7pm. It is a quiet place of prayer and reflection for pilgrims. It is the place where there is Mass in English at 10.30am every morning.
The Chapel is named after Our Lady of Soledad, Our Lady of Loneliness, and there is a powerful depiction, in typical Spanish style, of the mother of Jesus mourning the loss of her son. It is also a deeply serene space in the busy and bustling cathedral. It lies in one of the oldest parts of the building and some of its stones are more than 800 years old. In candlelight it is very peaceful offering pilgrims a quiet place to sit, to think or pray, to talk or to be silent. Or all of these. This is the place where every day the saints of the Camino come. Not saints who have been canonised by the Catholic Church. They are the saints who through their struggles and journey along many Camino paths have thought about their lives, who want to reflect more on where they are going , and who perhaps want to resolve the burdens they may have been carrying for years. Above all they are pilgrims trying to be better people. That’s what pilgrims do. The Mass which begins at 10.30am is remarkable.

The priest begins, “Good morning and welcome. I’m Joe from Cork in Ireland. I’ve walked the Camino and I’m here for a month to talk to pilgrims and provide Mass and confession. Where are you from?”  And so a beautiful pilgrims’ litany begins...”I’m Anne from Colorado, I walked from Sarria”, “We are Ivan and Irena from Russia, we walked from Saint Jean”, “I’m Alan from Australia, I walked from Ferrol”. There is huge laughter when someone says “I’m Tony from London, England, I walked here from my hotel” or “I’m Fiona from Florida, I came by cruise ship.” And even in these first few minutes of mass there are poignant moments, “I’m Mary from Ireland and I’m here to pray and wait for my daughter who finishes her Camino in the next few days”. “I’m  Ian from South Africa I walked from Pamplona in memory of my wife who died last year”.
As the service proceeds there is a tangible feeling of solidarity when the priest makes reference to the Camino experience as both a physical and spiritual journey. He raises a smile when he mentions blisters and knowing looks when he mentions the moments of reflection every pilgrim is drawn to.  Heads bow when he invites people to think of those they met, they kindnesses they experienced, the joy of arrival. Everyone knows the challenge which lies ahead is applying these lessons to the pilgrimage of life which is to come.
I sometimes think about how all of this began. Last year for the first time there was regular Mass in English in the cathedral for the first time when we organised three priests to come at their own expense for 6 weeks.  It was an instant success. This year I wondered if we could do it for longer. Would we get priests? Could we also get religious sisters or brothers to also come and help. I wrote about it here on this blog. On Facebook. I put an advertisement in a religious magazine, “Priests and religious wanted to minister to pilgrims in Santiago. Give up your time. Pay your own way.” 20 pilgrim priests applied. 24 religious said they wanted to come. And so we have a new ministry and a Place of Prayer in the Cathedral for more than 6 months.
The chapel is small and intimate although we’ve had almost 80 people there for Mass one day. The altar is simple. The cross is two pilgrim walking sticks lashed together. From the start we simply put out some paper and pens and a bowl. The pilgrims spontaneously began writing their prayers and leaving them in the bowl. For some these anonymous “intentions” as they are called in the Catholic tradition are prayers. For others they are wishes. They can be “to do lists”, heartfelt desires, expressions of faith or expressions of doubt. The bowl soon filled and the pilgrims started laying their petitions on the stone shelves and on the sleeping stone statues. The chapel has become covered in these pilgrim prayers which we have decided will remain there until the ministry closes in October.
There is always someone in the chapel. One of the team. Sometimes pilgrims talk, sometimes they are upset. Finishing the Camino brings a mixture of emotions as we think of the journey past and the return to reality which lies ahead. Sometimes a decision has been taken to deal with something in their lives. To heal a broken relationship or to finally let it go. Opposite the chapel the priest who says Mass in English is also available for confession or just to talk.
Now another priest and two sisters are here. They open the chapel every day.  I miss those hours of silence and being with the pilgrims. But there are volunteers to be organised and Compostelas to be written! When we close a final Mass will be said for all of the intentions of the pilgrims and then they will be burned. But the memories will linger for a long time to come.
On 3 May the Chapel was busy. During the introduction a group of women from Ireland explained they were walking with the mother of a young lad, Jack Kavanagh, who had been paralysed in an accident.  A Russian couple said they were walking to pray for peace, particularly in the Ukraine. The entire chapel  burst into applause when at the front a young couple from Australia, Jenny and Chris,  told us that they had walked the Camino Frances and would be married in this place that afternoon.
Not every day is quite so dramatic. But every day the pilgrim saints come and write their prayers. They are folded pieces of paper and anonymous. But the other day I saw a scrap of paper under a chair and reaching down to lift it up amongst the other petitions I couldn’t help but read the childish handwriting: “for my Dad, help him kick cancers butt”.
Despite all of my doubts I cannot deny the power of these expressions of faith and of hope. Into that chapel the saints keep coming in. Trite as it may sound, I want to be in that number.  


  1. Johnnie - this is awesome - wish I could be there to help and experience God's presence in such a powerful way - this is the way faith works
    Deacon Dale Metcalfe

  2. I love your posts which talk about feelings and experiences and not just number crunching. I also know they must be much harder to write than the ones the computer can just turn out.

    Thank you for the effort you put into them.

  3. Marcel Gutierrez3 July 2014 at 14:06

    Beautifully written, John. We will arrive in Santiago in late October, too late for this special Mass, but I hope my wife and I can visit this alter.
    In any case, we look forward to seeing the new Pilgrim Office, and to seeing you once again. Best wishes.

  4. I sat in that chapel for a while after a pilgrim's mass. It reminded me of many of the conversations in the book 'Where heaven and earth Unite: Powerful places, Sacred Sites and You". It is a powerful place and a sacred site.