In 2001, I made a pilgrimage with a group of wonderful Catholics mostly from the Southern United States to Portugal and Spain. Many of them were, like myself, converts to the Faith. For me, it was such a wonderful experience being in the company of wonderful people who were so much on fire for the Lord and his Church. Catholics are often accused of not being good at singing in Church. In the Northeast and other Irish-dominated regions, this is pretty much true. Here in Korea, they sing so loudly that I swear it rattles the windows sometimes. However, these people could SING! And sing they did.
While most of journey was centred on Portugal, we did get to make a side-trip to Spain. We visited Santiago de Compostela for the feast of St. James, patron saint of Spain and of that particular city. Santiago de Compostela is a very nice city in the Autonomous Community of Galicia. It numbers about 25,000 people. It is also home to a very old diocese. Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio is the seventy-fifth archbishop. While not the largest city in the country, it has to be one of the most picturesque. The old town is exquisitely beautiful and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Spain, like other European nations, is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. The autonomous communities, which include places like Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country, have their own languages. However, they must also learn Spanish, the national language.
Galicia is one region where Spain’s Celtic heritage is quite strong. It is not unusual to see red-headed Spaniards there. Likewise, it is possible to see and hear Spaniards playing bagpipes. The language spoken by the Galician people, Gallego, is extremely close to Portuguese and sounds a lot like it. However, the people also speak Spanish, as they’ve been required to learn it since childhood.
It is believed that when the apostles went their way into the world, preaching the gospel of Christ, they ended up in varying places. Peter and Paul are associated with Rome, mostly because they were martyred there. However, Paul is also associated with Malta and Greece. A tradition holds that St. James ended up in Spain. A similar tradition holds that Thomas ended up in India, thus explaining the great devotion which the ancient Christian communities of the State of Kerala in India feel towards him. They are often known as Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the great Spanish centre of devotion to the Apostle James, son of Zebedee.
The Spaniards love nothing more, it seems, than a good fiesta. These fiestas are often associated with saints’ days. In Pamplona, they have the running of the bulls on the memorial of St. Fermin. (How this French bishop and martyr got associated with bulls is beyond me, but the Spaniards seem to like it. There is a tradition which holds that he was dragged to his death by bulls, but the French tradition, which most scholars would accept holds that he was beheaded at Aimiens.) Likewise, in Valencia, there are huge bonfires lit on the fiesta of St. Joseph. Apparently, carpenters used to burn their wood shavings on St. Joseph’s day and the thing became utterly huge later on. I was in Santiago de Compostela on the feast day, and while there was no running of the bulls or massive bonfires, there were fireworks of the like I had not seen before and partying in the streets which went on until ten o’clock the next morning. I have no problem with people have celebrations on days which are important to them, such as saints’ days. But when the meaning behind the celebrations is lost, as it often is with Christmas and definitely is with St. Patrick’s Day, then there is a problem. St. Patrick would have abhorred the day of his death being an excuse for public drunkeness. St. Patrick’s day ought to be a day for remembering the man who brought Christianity to Ireland. But if all it has become is an occasion to drink green beer, what merit is there in that?
During the Middle Ages, pilgrims from all over the country walked to Santiago de Compostela. This tradition continues today. One of the most famous aspects of this Cathedral is the botafumeiro. This is perhaps the largest thurible in the world. A thurible, or censer, is often seen at solemn Masses and at funerals. Just as the smoke from the thurible rises, so to do our prayers rise. It expresses the symbolism of our prayers rising up to God. Our tour guide also explained that when the pilgrims arrived, given the hygenic standards of the time, they often smelled really bad. Thus, the need to do something about it. The botafumeiro hangs from the ceiling. A group of several men manage to get it swinging to where it almost hits the ceilings of the transepts. This cathedral is not very large. It only looks big, given the huge Baroque additions to the exterior made over the years. When I got inside, I was struck by how small it is. So, if you are seated near the front, it can be mightily disconcerting to see this huge metal thurible swinging through the air.
Here is the botafumeiro in action. It is disturbing to watch just on video. I’m really amazed that the archbishop and canons can remain so calm, but they’re used to it, I guess.