By Gerald Schmitz

Santiago de Compostela reveals itself

Having trudged 20 kilometres that memorable Oct. 10 with a feverish cold and sore foot, the modern suburban approach to Santiago gave disappointingly little indication of anything sacred. Indeed Jean-Christophe Rufin writes in Immortal Journey that “the entrance to the city is a Calvary for the walker.” Arriving at our adequate but rather charmless albergue, Estrella de Camino (Star of the Way), I just needed to shower, change and rest a while. Then with a second wind and renewed anticipation I set off on the final kilometre to the great cathedral in the historic centre.

It’s only when one gets close that the spires can be glimpsed. Soon, walking ancient streets among ancient structures, another world opened. However invaded by restaurants, souvenir shops and other byproducts of the tourist trade, a profound presence still inhabits this space.

The first order of business was to line up with pilgrims from around the globe under a trellis of grapevines leading to the official pilgrim office where the folding pages of stamps in my pilgrim passport were checked before receiving the signed “compostela” attesting to a pilgrimage completed. Clutching that I entered the storied cathedral of St. James for the first time. A mass was being celebrated in one of the side chapels. I slipped into a back pew letting a blessed relief come over my body and soul.

It was as though a burden had been lifted. Refreshed, the next morning I returned to the central square, the Praza Obradoiro, with Bernard and Guy. Across from the cathedral, where we saw several pilgrims arriving on horseback, is a huge former pilgrim hospital that was supported by royalty — the Hostal de los reis católicos, now a luxury five-star Parador hotel. Still following centuries of tradition, daily meals are served without charge to the first 10 pilgrims who wait outside its doors. We had no difficulty getting into a free lunch in a special dining room off the main kitchen. After all, pilgrims need physical sustenance too!

The 7:30 evening mass was so packed it was standing room only against a stone pillar. These pilgrim masses, at least two daily, may be crowded by tourists taking it in as spectacle but, as Pope Francis might say, “who am I to judge?” Concelebrated by priests from different parts of the world they are an invitation to partake of an enduring catholicity. After the eucharist I witnessed the famed botafumeiro, originally used for fumigation, in which a giant incense burner suspended from the high arches is lowered, filled, then raised and swung from one end to the other. Later I would line up behind the high altar to mount stone steps to view the silver reliquary containing the bones of the saint and to embrace his golden statue. But these are outward signs, and as impressive as is the surrounding magnificence, it could not hold a candle to being able to dwell in silent prayer for my mother’s intentions in her centennial year.

Saturday morning I moved to a lovely private room with a view of the cathedral, recommended by Laurel and Monica, my Canadian Camino angels. After morning mass in the striking capilla (chapel) de las Animas, with its sculpted tableaux of Christ’s passion and resurrection, I explored other religious sights before spending hours in a park amid great ancient trees and affording panoramic views of the cathedral. Just soaking in the serene atmosphere was healing for mind, body and soul.

Thanksgiving Sunday morning I learned that the young housekeeper, Maria, was also born on June 6 — surely a good omen. At breakfast in the Café Paradiso the television was showing a mass instead of the usual insipid talk shows. There followed a report welcoming the 200,000th pilgrim to the city. I had time to visit the excellent cathedral museum before attending the jammed noon mass with another botafumeiro ceremony. Outside in the adjoining plaza an orchestra flying a flag “Assisi to Santiago 1214-2014” performed a wonderful concert in the cathedral square before rains forced me to seek shelter.

As I prepared to depart for the Atlantic coast the morning after, I read a front-page report in El País on beatification of 522 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War which noted the message of Pope Francis hadn’t referred to Franco’s crimes. A reminder of wounds that still stir controversy. I bought a simple Camino tee from shopkeeper Manuel Suarez with whom I had a long conversation about Galicia’s Celtic roots and current troubles that include Canadian gold mining companies moving in to exploit Galicia’s dire economic situation.

Santiago’s tourist draw has made it a magnet for many who beg on the streets. Sadly, no sacred place can shut out the woes of the world.

HISTORIC CATHEDRAL — The Botafumeiro is swung at the noon pilgrim mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. (Schmitz photo)

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