It was a week that most would look on as a crashing bore: a hundred hardcore Catholics, gathered in a moldering seminary in a far corner of Spain – people determined to keep Mammon from stealing away the historic Christian savor of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. There were Benedictines from Samos and Leon, Augustinians from Avila, three flavors of Franciscans, priests, monks, and nuns – people who work every day along the pilgrimage routes. There were laypeople too, hospitaleros, academics, students, and even a few people like me. Foreigners, Protestants, arrivistes, adventurers – “others.”
And this time there were bishops, at least four of them, and two archbishops. Even a Dean, for Chrissakes. Suddenly we are newsworthy, credible. In a town built around a Cathedral Shrine, we Made the Scene.
With that additional clerical firepower we were the first International Congress of Christian Welcome on the Camino. We had three days dedicated to the apostolic sweetness and light we all like to imagine has motivated this pilgrim pathway for a thousand years. Evangelism, ministry, communion, community-building.
I went because I am myself a Christian, an Anglican/Episcopalian with a Buddhist outlook. I attend Catholic Mass each week, as it is the only game in town (I have official permission). I have belonged to the Acogida Christiana group for a couple of years now, almost from its inception, because I live the Christian Acogida ethos – Christ told us to welcome strangers, travelers, and pilgrims into our homes as if they were Christ himself. I find this appealing and pretty easy, and divine providence so far seems to approve the decision.
The original ACC members still can fit into one meeting room at the Benedictine convent in Leon. But as the group grew, the bosses decided to move the April meeting to Santiago de Compostela, the goal and the nerve center of the pilgrimage. They decided to go international, invite like-minded ministers from outside Spain. Big hitters. They booked into the big seminary complex.
And some of it was wonderful. We had Mass each morning in the seminary chapel, presided-over by the beanie-bearing bishops, concelebrated by eight or nine priests, sung by skilled musicians with readings in several languages by native speakers that included me. Delicious worship. It alone was worth the trip!
But then the talks began. Talks at ACC gatherings are usually lively affairs, presented by people who have walked the camino, experts on the artwork and buildings and saints that populate the Way, people with real insight on pilgrim spirituality, albergue management, healing, how to pray and counsel and cook with groups big and small. But this time was different.
This time we sat in red-velvet theater seats in the Major Seminary of San Martin de Pinario, and heard a bishop from France describe, in French, the Philosophy of The Word "Pilgrim" ... or so I think he described. I do not speak French. And neither did 80% of the other people in the room. The bishop is a fine man, I am sure – he presides over the dozen or so bishops in France who have camino trails passing through their respective turfs. But he has never walked a pilgrimage. And even a bishop should not talk for two hours when he was assigned 45 minutes.
Other people had discussions planned for those later time slots. Discussions that many of us had a part in scheming and planning and presenting. Discussions with some real relevance. But no, we all were treated to the philosophical musings and scriptural ponderings, in French, of a highly respected bishop that no one had the rank or audacity to tell to sit down and shut the hell up.
He was not the only offender. I learned an important lesson this week about bishops, at least bishops in Spain: schedule them at the END of the agenda. These are men unused to controlling their verbiage. Some are gifted speakers, but more are very, very narcotic. Give them a chance to bloviate, and no one else will get a word in edgewise. I hate to say so, but the bishops, the very men called in to give the conference credibility, just about highjacked the whole thing.
If not for the time alongside – the communal meals, the sessions skipped for a quick coffee or vermouth – it would have been a bust. Outside the meeting room I met Faith and Nate, two American Evangelicals who are setting up an outreach center near the pilgrim reception office. That takes a lot of nerve and patience and conviction. They see how many pilgrims finish their journey having found no answers on the trail, and only incomprehensible rituals at the cathedral at the end. So they´re opening an English-speaking Christian meeting place, where they´ll offer a simple, clear Gospel message to people who may never have tasted spiritual food before.
A German couple were there, who do the something similar in German. And a Dutch group, who do it in Dutch. The Spanish are missing out, perhaps... but I do not think they can see that. But then I am a foreigner, raised by Protestants. I am not an Evangelical, but I see them doing great things.
I had a coffee with Laurie, an expat Canadian who´s had to do with the camino since the 1980´s. I spent hours with two friends from Scotland, movers and shakers these days in Santiago cathedral and pilgrim office posts – logistical and strategic geniuses who left big business in London to come here and serve the pilgrims and pilgrimage. I stayed out til the wee hours with the chairman of American Pilgrims on the Camino, a professor out of Carolina. I walked to the Alameda with Marion, the power behind the Confraternity of St. James in England, and did tapas with William, a merry English doctor with a stentorian voice who once rescued our pilgrim Kim from the streets of London and let her stay at his house... he´s a hospitalero in the Great Wen!
The Augustinian sisters from Carrion de los Condes were there, and the sweet Benedictinas of Leon, Isabel from Casa Pilar in Rabanal, and Don Blas, the priest of Fuenterroble – we almost moved there instead of Moratinos! Old friends, co-workers, some of them truly saints.
It was good, and it was exhausting.
I am not a “joiner.” There are many pilgrimage-related clubs and groups, but I do not belong to many of them. There is work enough here at Peaceable to keep me busy, and I seem to make the leaders of many groups feel uncomfortable... I do not toe the line so well. My Spanish is not the greatest. I am foreign. I live a long way from anywhere. I cannot contribute very much that is practical.
I like this Camino Welcome group, though. They do things I believe in. They do not only talk, they achieve. And it is true: we do better with the support of the church authorities. Spain is still a deeply Catholic country, even if most of its people almost never go to church. We cannot continue this Catholic pilgrimage without having the bishops and archbishops on board.
But we don´t have to hand them a microphone.
We don´t have to make ourselves a captive audience.