The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, under the gray, rain threatening Galician skies appeared more medieval than I could have ever imagined. Although the structure was dark and heavy the mood of the entering pilgrims was light, lifted by a sense of accomplishment. The pews filled quickly and soon the mammoth structure was filled with parishioners and pilgrims packed shoulder to shoulder between huge stone pillars and heaven bound arches. The noon “Pilgrims Mass” was about to begin.
Like a rock concert the crowd was first warmed up. The job was well done by a charismatic nun with a marvelous voice. She ran us through some of the songs that we would later sing during the mass. The wonderful acoustics of the ancient structure made us all sound better than we are. Finally the priests took the stage. I have never seen so many priests in one place in my life. There were young priests, old priests and priests from around the world, just like the pilgrims, and they each spoke to the pilgrims in their native tongue.
Since most of the mass was in Spanish I could only make out a few words and phrases but it was clear that “The Way of Saint James” and the pilgrims that have walked it were the focus of the sermon. As I looked around the cathedral I saw feet in flip-flops with blisters and plasters, sore knees wrapped in braces and believers hobbling slowly and painfully toward the alter to receive communion. Backpacks are not permitted in the cathedral but they were there, stuffed under the pew just far enough forward so the faithful could kneel and say their prayers. Some wept quietly and blotted their tears with their cuffs while others just stared out in space occupied with their own deep thoughts. Then came the moment in the service when you shake hands with the people around you and wish each other peace. That’s my favorite moment in any church service.
But the show-stopper-moment was when they started swinging the large, silver “botafumeira” or pot of burning incense over the crowd. They swung it higher and higher until it was nearly parallel to the floor and I could see the red embers glowing inside through the holes in the top of the canister. The gray smoke drifted slowly downward and blanketed the congregation as it has for centuries. Then a red cloaked man finally grabbed the swinging urn and wrestled it to the ground. At that point the congregation broke into applause. I have never heard applause in a Catholic Church before.
The “Pilgrims Mass” was a wonderful conclusion to my Camino Frances experience and despite a few medical issues Sue enjoyed walking her Camino as well. In fact she posed this question to me at dinner, “Why don’t we walk a different Camino each year?”