This series of articles was compiled by Johnnie Walker for the Confraternity of St James and with their kind permission they are reproduced here.
All routes to Santiago de Compostela end at the great Cathedral which dominates this beautiful medieval town. Therein lies the tomb of the Apostle St James who has inspired millions of pilgrims for over 500 years to journey to this place.
The Pillar, the Hug and the Tomb
Each day pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral Square but their journey is not at an end, they still have things to do.
Entering the Cathedral each pilgrim first touches the Pillar depicting the Tree of Jesse where now you can actually put your fingers into grooves marked by centuries of hands.
Then to the back of the high altar to rise behind the statue of St James to give him the traditional “abrazo” – a warm hug in gratitude for a journey well made.
Then descending to the tomb of the Saint to pray quietly, thanking God for all that has been encountered on the long journey here.
Seal of approval – The Compostela
Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela carry a Pilgrim Passport with them. They have these stamped everywhere they stop on the way. This document gives access to the network of refuges provided along the routes.
Beside the Cathedral is the Pilgrims’ Office, just like Passport Control! There the Pilgrim Passport receives the final seal of the Cathedral of Santiago. Those pilgrims who have walked at least the final 100 kms or traveled by bicycle or on horseback at least the final 200 kms will have their name written in Latin on the Compostela, the certificate attesting to their pilgrimage.
Each morning around 11 am everyone starts to make their way to the Cathedral. It fills quickly and by noon it is standing room only. Rucksack bearing pilgrims mingle with camera toting tourists.
At the stroke of Noon, the cantor, Sister Maria Jesus intones the entrance antiphon:
” Laudate Dominum, Omnes Gentes, Alleluia” and 1000 voices repeat “All people praise the Lord, Alleluia”. The procession of priests enters, many still wearing their walking boots under their vestments. A long list of the countries from which pilgrims have arrived in the last 24 hours is read.
The Mass which follows is deeply moving, with different accents and languages contributing and from the Pilgrims a profound sense of thankful relief and celebration that the journey has ended.
For them perhaps… but even during Mass still they come…rising behind the altar and hugging the statue of St James.
Holy Smoke – The Botafumeiro
The Botafumeiro is the world’s largest thurible carrying 40 kgs of charcoal and incense. Some say it was used as a medieval deodorant when the cathedral was full of pilgrims who hadn’t washed for the duration of their journey. Others say that the billows of incense it produces symbolise the prayers of the pilgrims.
Nowadays the Botafumeiro is swung at the end of some of the pilgrim masses when a team of 8 tiraboleiros operate a huge medieval mechanism to swing the Botafumeiro the height and length of the transept of the Cathedral.
The end is the beginning
Evening prayer in the cathedral is for pilgrims only. Here is a pilgrim’s description:
” We met together and shared our experiences with prayer and music and readings. Then we were invited to the Tomb of St James to pray quietly. With the final blessing the priest said, “Your journey to Santiago has now ended. In that journey you learned much about yourselves, about others and about the love of God. As you leave this great Cathedral look up beyond the statue of St James to the Cross of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the end and the beginning and continue to live in His love for the rest of life’s journey.” “
How do I find out more?
From the Confraternity of St James in the UK – the largest and oldest association of pilgrims which celebrates its 25 anniversary this year. www.csj.org.uk