Santiago De Compostela: A place for Pilgrims, Tourists or God?

One of the first things you notice in Santiago De Compostela is that the Cathedral Quarter is full of people who appear to be Pilgrims. Going into the Praza Do Obradoiro, the main Cathedral Square you see hundred of people with staffs in their hands with Scallop shells (the symbol of St James) and many of these with the cross of St James on them. You also see many people amongst them with serious amounts of camping and walking gear with them looking tanned, dirty and weary! You soon realise that they is a difference between the many who arrive by plane or public transport and then “pretend” to be Pilgrims, and those who have walked much, if not all the Camino. You see school parties who turn up by coach and walk a few hundred metres just to say that they are Pilgrims. There are shops and stalls around the Cathedral Quarter that pander to this group, offering t-shirts, shells and Staffs so people can say “I’ve been there”.

The Cathedral itself is geared up for Pilgrims in two main ways. It offers confession, in native tongues, for all pilgrims, it offers services in Native tongues for all pilgrims (as well as the main Pilgrim Masses). What it lacks is people to greet pilgrims, to offer them the chance to pray and experience properly the Cathedral and the shrine. The most bizarre thing for me was the reaction of those who call themselves pilgrims to a) the shrine and b) the statue of St James behind the altar. They all want to hug the statue but far fewer actually want to see the shrine. For me the shrine was most important, but on going down to it the first time there was a family kneeling in front of it apparently in prayer. I recognised it as the Lord’s Prayer, though spoken in Spanish, but whilst they were praying they were taking photos on their phones! I couldn’t quite grasp this in a way that made sense to me! How can you pray and take photo’s? I went back later when there was just Candace and myself and was able to pray in private but was disappointed that there was no prayer suggestion there before the shrine itself. The other strange thing was surrounding the Pilgrim Mass, a central piece of worship in the Cathedral’s day, to which very few Pilgrims attend. The beauty of the liturgy and the music seeming lost of the desire to say “I’ve done it!” or “I’ve been there”. It seemed to be a number of missed opportunities, and I wondered if they were cashing in on their good fortune on having visitors and not a) reaching our in a meaningful way to all visitors b) not truly offering what these people wanted and c) almost arrogantly assuming that the worship would be the draw for folk instead of drawing people into the worship. Those are my opinions and you may totally disagree with me, I hope I am partly wrong.

Santiago De Compostela is a wonderful city, truly a place to visit, truly a place of Pilgrimage. It is a cultural phenomenon which is worth seeing and visiting.

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The City also offers some wonderful secular Museums which are well worth a visit. The restaurants, cafés and bars are excellent and cater for many tastes and price ranges. I even found a craft beer bar when I was there! I loved the place.

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I loved the Cathedral, the Shrine and its Museums, and I would have loved to stay longer. But, does it work as a centre of Christian Pilgrimage? Has it over cooked the desire to be a tourist destination and a money making factory rather than a true Spiritual Centre? I worry that it has in many ways. It Bizarre Foundations have led to Bizarre practices and has endangered it to the potential of losing its soul. Having said that I was so glad to go, to be there that I can say with hand on heart: go! If you don’t fancy the Camino, or haven’t the time to do it all, you can still visit the Cathedral, Shrine and surrounds, you will be amazed. The people of the City also enable it to be a place to love, as it is obviously a place they love. So: GO!

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