I hobnob this weekend with the saints of Leon. We are gathered at the Benedictine convent in the middle of the old city, where hundreds of passing pilgrims are welcomed every year to sleep in dreary bunks in sunless dormitories, for a mere 5 Euro per. (the nuns throw in breakfast, and all the plainchant liturgy you care to take.)
On the other side of the wall from the albergue the sisters keep a splendid three-star hotel, where I checked in on Friday along with most of the other delegates to the Acogida Cristiana en el Camino hospitalero group. (We might volunteer to care for dreary dormitories. That doesn´t mean we have to stay in them ourselves, given a choice.)
Almost everybody here is a professional Catholic of one kind or another: priests, nuns, and even a couple of friars. I want to tell you about these people.
But first, Me. I grew up in a working-class Protestant world where Catholics in general were rare, and Catholics in uniform were the stuff of wacky TV sitcoms, or black-and-white Bing Crosby movies. I never knew a nun until I was 18 years old, when the Sisters of Charity charitably let me attend Seton Hill College. I walked in the door a week into the Fall semester of 1980, and they offered me enough scholarship money to stay through my first two years of higher education. Me, a backslid Pentecostal. I had no money, and a pretty questionably attitude. But I found the sisters fascinating, and the Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey, our “brother institution,” put me on the road to becoming a church historian. (I veered off that road in short order and plummeted into journalism, but that´s another story).
Fast-forward a few years and I moved to Spain, where the Catholics advise the Vatican on Christianity. I am told there are a lot fewer cassocks and soutains around than before, but the place is still alive with people in vestments and habits and pointy hangy-down hoods – and it is not Halloween. Here this weekend are Augustinas in white, Benedictinas in black, Franciscans in brown, and two Daughters of Charity in regular-people clothes. Some of them are under age 40! Here are some of them:
Joaquin is a Conventual Franciscan from Italy. His religious order had little to do with Spain, but when Italian pilgrims came home from their pilgrimages with bad reports, the friars took note. “All the churches were closed. They could find no presence of the church along the Camino – one of the three great Christian pilgrimages!” he said. “We decided to do something about it, and build some bridges with our fellow Franciscans at the same time.”
So Joaquin and some of his brothers moved to Ponferrada, and now serve at the great “pilgrim factory” albergue there. They keep the chapel open, lead worship services, offer pilgrims counsel and hospitaleros a helping hand with the housework.
Padre Jaime is from the island of Mallorca. He´s a parish priest, but he looks like a big, beefy truck driver. Since 1992 he´s taken groups along the Camino, 12 or 15 at a time, several times a year. Some are families, some church groups. But mostly they are prisoners -- convicted criminals on a special accelerated rehab program. “It´s hard to say that spending time in jail with other sinners really changes a man much. But an encounter with Christ will do that. A lot of these men will tell you that,” Jaime said.
Giuseppe is an Italian priest, an economist, a Jesuit who works for the papal nuncio of Prague. He is also a camino-head, who keeps coming back to walk and talk and study and volunteer at pilgrim albergues. He did an informal study over several months, and found most people under 30 on the trail are not Christians. The only religion he heard discussed was Buddhism. Last December he ran a pilgrim albergue in Hospital de Orbigo, and did an experiment with seven of the pilgrims who passed by – simpaticos, helpful and kind, but not Christian. Each stayed a day or two extra to help out. They attended interfaith services in the chapel, and spent time with the parish priest during the work sessions. No pressure. Just Christian presence.
Giuseppe gathered up his seven pilgrims after they finished their caminos. All of them are volunteer hospitaleros now. One of them, a Chinese student, will be baptized in January. Giuseppe will be his Italian godfather.
Juan, a Franciscan friar, wears a long brown robe and cowl. He and his brothers serve pilgrims in the mountains, down in La Faba and up in O Cebreiro. “Most of them are not Christians, so we pray with them a prayer for peace. Everyone can believe in that,” he says. Like the Conventuals in Ponferrada they offer listening ears to pilgrims, and helping hands to the hospitaleros.
Perhaps the person most challenging to the Catholic status quo was Leonie, an extrovert from Rotterdam who serves pilgrims with the Augustinian sisters in Carrion de los Condes. She sings the songs and cleans the kitchenware and translates. She is full of life and charisma. She speaks five languages. She is a seminarian. She is studying for priesthood in the Dutch Reform church.
Leonie doesn´t wear a habit, but she is a minister like the rest of them. There´s nobody here going to tell her to go home.
I still marvel at people who join religious communities and wear strange uniforms. Their world still seems very foreign and exotic to me, even though I am these days a practicing Catholic.
Perhaps the Catholic church is Spain really is ignoring the pilgrims on the Camino, overwhelmed as it is with keeping parish churches open and misbehaving priests and nuns out of jail. Maybe this is the hour for religious communities to step up and help out.
Or maybe the Bishop of Leon is right. He paid a visit today, said a few throwaway lines, and was quickly blindsided by the people in the room. A man in the back stood up and asked him: “What is the difference between a Catholic and a Christian?”
“Catholics are Christians by definition. Not all Christians are Catholic. We all stand on the same rock,” the old man said. "Every man must answer the call himself, however he hears it."
Mother Abbess of the Benedictinas stepped up and hit him with “We need more support from the church in our efforts to evangelize pilgrims. The church is distant from the Camino. We cannot do this work all alone. The church is missing a great opportunity.”
Don Genarro, head of the pilgrim office at the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela itself, piled on: “Thousands of pilgrims are coming all the way across Spain to us. They arrive full of questions. Who is responsible for these souls?”
Poor old bishop Julian mumbled some platitudes about pastoral roles of secular institutions, and finally talked himself around to a very pointy point. He pointed at the room full of Christians.
“In the final analysis, I agree with the Mother Abbess,” he said. “Yours is a very important field of Christian work. And you are the church on the Camino -- we don´t have the manpower to institutionalize it for you. YOU are the evangelists and pastors out there."
Preach it, brother.