A journey through an ever-evolving Catholic Church on El Camino

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (iStock)

This is the second post by the author about his time on El Camino de Santiago. You can read the first entry here.

The history and map of Spain are together both challenging and fascinating. Our tour director, both a historian and a mountain climber, has shared his skills in several lectures ranging from prehistoric Spain to the 1975 death of Generalissimo Franco—who, after leading a rebellion with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, had made himself a virtual king in the late 1930s. As we walk west across the country we hear that Catalonia, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, is trying to break away.


The history and map of Spain are together both challenging and fascinating.

Halfway through our march—averaging six to 14 miles per day of winding, twisting, rocky roads—hiking takes on a rhythm of its own, as the click-click-clack-clack of our walking poles sets a beat with our feet. I have been accustomed to fast walking in Manhattan, acting as if each man or woman ahead of me is an obstacle to progress. Somehow the reverse happens to me here as I slowly slip behind, joined only by a director whose job it is to subtly make sure I am all right. We have got six hours to make it in time for dinner at some picturesque roadside restaurant or a monastery that has been turned into an elegant hotel.

We look forward to each town’s entry in the centuries-long Best Cathedral Contest. We have admired San Sebastian, Burgos, Pamplona, Leon and Astorga, but we were slightly thrown off in encountering Antoni Gaudí’s “anti-Gothic” Episcopal Palace palace in Barcelona; the modern artist discarded the classic flying buttresses, creating something like a Walt Disney castle. Bishop Grau, who commissioned the building, died in 1893, before completion, and what was to be a diocesan administration building is now a museum.

We look forward to each town’s entry in the centuries-long Best Cathedral Contest.

We also enjoyed noticing the transformation from the medieval confession box to the contemporary mode. In one church the usual box with a screen on each side was distinguished by a collection of books in the priest’s cubicle to help kill time as he waited for penitents. In another, the exterior was the same, but the priest sat in the middle between two chairs with no barrier and faced the sinner sitting across from him. Finally, we saw five traditional confession boxes against the wall with their upper doors open, each priest looking outward, self-consciously smiling at the tourists who swept past.

Our bus dropped us off for a two-mile walk from the woods to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the reputed burial place of St. James. This was what we had come for, and we were not to be disappointed. Like others along the way, the town was celebrating a festival honoring its patron saint with street crowds, marching bands in red shirts, and bagpipe and drums clubs roaring away with melodies that sounded like football fight songs and Broadway tunes. Huge lights designed as seashells, the symbol of the pilgrimage, dangled over the narrow streets. They signified for us that we were gradually realizing how much we loved one another, no matter where we were from or what we did with our lives.

Exactly how the young James, brother of John—Jesus’ two favorite disciples—became a warrior saint in Spain is not fully documented, but it is deeply believed. His bones, we read, were discovered and moved several times over the centuries until they were given a home here in the ninth century. We stepped slowly into the tomb area and were able to view a silver box containing his bones behind glass.

The 21st-century Spanish church has preferred to mute the image of St. James the blood-spilling comic book hero.

Upstairs, also behind glass but surrounded by fresh flowers, there is a statue of a young man in a black hat and beard riding a great white warhorse. He swings his sword above his head, about to slash it down on enemy soldiers, the Moors, but their throats are already cut. This is none other than St. James, military hero. The flowers have been placed around the horses’ feet to hide the slain bodies of the enemy. Where did the image come from? A Spanish soldier, I am told, in the 17th century saw St. James on a cloud, galloping to the rescue of Spain. The 21st-century Spanish church has preferred to mute the image of James the blood-spilling comic book hero.

As we emerged from the crypt we were overwhelmed by an endless line of men and women from all over the world mounting a narrow stairway behind the altar to another statue of James, which each traveler reached out and hugged.

Our hotel, which 500 years ago was a home and hospital for pilgrims and poor children, sat across the vast square from the cathedral. The square swarmed with travelers. We had passed many of them on the trail or they had passed us.

Our experience with the Mass over 11 days was mixed. First, at their request, although I had no Bible nor ritual book nor vestments, I said the Mass, evoking prayers and texts one normally reads. We also attended a local Mass with three local concelebrants, where a local senior priest read a final prayer for the travelers.

But the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral offered a crowning experience. The cathedral, with its two towers and endless chapels, was overflowing. We sat on the side facing the altar, determined to witness something spectacular we had heard of but never seen: the flying censer. The organ roared, and the celebrant and six concelebrants filed in with the cantor and six men in blazing red gowns. The sermon went 10 minutes, nearly everyone went to Communion, and then we sat patiently waiting. The men in red took their places, five holding the end of huge ropes extending to the ceiling and dangling a huge glistening gold censer, known as the Botafumeiro, which they lowered, fueled and lit, then hoisted to about 50 feet above the altar steps. At the organ’s note, the censer began to swing back and forth, then farther out, and farther out again, until there it was swooping down like a fighter plane in a dive, swooping out over and behind us, then sailing down and back just missing the altar rail. Slowly, its work done, it rested.

Our 11-day tour having ended as well, we rested and, touched with grace, hugged one another and came home.

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The Rev Tim Taylor
1 year ago

Sadly, I beg to differ. As we walked the Portuguese Camino to Santiago, the image of St James the Moor slayer became very prevalent. In Portugal, the dominant image was Saint James the pilgrim, but in Spain it seemed that every church had a prominent display of St James over top of the killed Moors. The image hardly seemed muted.
This frustrating and un-Christian image was compounded by the fact that, during the Pilgrim's Mass in the cathedral, the verger stood up immediately prior to the Eucharist to announce (in English and Spanish) that only Roman Catholics were welcome to receive. So sadly, not "nearly everyone went to Communion"
As an Anglican priest, these two experiences significantly soured the Camino for me.


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