Thank you very much for the invitation to speak to you today.
It seems to me that as the world becomes increasingly secular it is important that we find new, effective ways of sharing the Good News. To do this the church needs to be welcoming and embrace those who believe, those who do not believe and those who are searching for God. In many ways that is the definition of the pilgrim community.
I am a pilgrim. I walked here to Santiago and now I live here. I work as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office through which we have also developed a Welcome Service for Pilgrims. I would like to bring you up to date on this and other developments.
We call the volunteers in this service “Amigos” – and that name defines what they do: they say Welcome and Congratulations in as many languages as they can to the pilgrims who arrive in Santiago. They answer questions, they shake hands, they hug pilgrims and receive many hugs in return. They listen to pilgrim stories both joyful and sad. They provide practical information and they help solve problems.
The Amigos Welcome Service is fully funded by the pilgrim associations who participate and by the volunteers themselves. The model is very simple. We provide an apartment in which the volunteers live, and training and support. The volunteers pay for their flights and all other costs.
Last year we piloted the scheme and it was hugely successful – volunteers personally welcomed over 100,000 pilgrims. The service was greatly appreciated by pilgrims, the volunteers themselves and the staff of the Pilgrims’ Office. Last year 26 volunteers took part.
Santiago should be very proud of the fact that this year 100 volunteers are taking part with 60 of them working in the Pilgrims Office and the rest in the associated albergue Fin Del Camino in the Parish of San Antonio in Fontiñas.
This year the Amigos Welcome Service alone is being supported by the pilgrim associations in Canada, Holland, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. These organisations together provide the 10,000 euros it costs to rent accommodation etc. In addition the total the volunteers themselves personally contribute in flights and buying their food is approximately 50,000 euros.
Also the Pilgrim Association in Holland has now opened another apartment for volunteers who are staffing a Casa Holandesa – a welcome centre for Dutch and Flemish speakers at 29 Rua San Pedro – in total a contribution of another 25000 euros by the organisation and their volunteers.
I am reporting all of this to you to bring you up to date on developments here in Santiago but also so I can talk about the underlying motives and principles.
Welcoming pilgrims who believe and those who don’t believe is the title of this session. We know from experience that pilgrims of many faiths make the pilgrimage to Santiago.
Spain, France, Italy and Ireland for example are Catholic countries and therefore experience tells us that pilgrims from these countries would say they were Catholic if they were asked. Whether they are active in their faith and attend Mass and the sacraments regularly is another matter. From other countries Germany, England, the United States, come Lutherans, Anglicans, Protestants, Evangelical Christians. I am very pleased that we have people from these traditions here today. We also know from experience that many pilgrims who arrive here have no faith, or have rejected organised religion.
To help me prepare for this session today I thought I would carry out a survey asking pilgrims about themselves and their perceptions of other pilgrims.
This was not a scientific exercise. It is an aid to our discussion and a way of beginning to examine what I think are some of the key issues. The first set of questions is about perceptions...what do you here today think about pilgrims and how does that compare to what pilgrims think about themselves?
The second set of questions were set to give harder data and ask about the pilgrim's own experience of arriving in Santiago.
Let’s pause for a moment so you can answer the same questions. The questions are on the sheets being passed round. Please answer them as quickly as you can.
If you have enough courage perhaps you would show your answers to your neighbours.
There are approximately 70 people in this room today – 498 pilgrims answered the same questions. 90% of the respondents come from outside of Spain.
So most pilgrims say that they believe in God and they think that other pilgrims do too.
If the vast majority of pilgrims have some faith in God, what percentage attend a religious service regularly?
The answer is not all that many.
I asked pilgrims a very general question. Did they think that they and their fellow pilgrims were searching for answers about life, about God about their future.
The vast majority of pilgrims say that they, and they think other pilgrims, are searching for answers.
That is certainly my own personal experience and I suspect the experience of many other pilgrims in this room.
Pilgrims might be weak in faith, they might have rejected the church, or simply fallen away, they might be at odds with institutional religion but still they walk, still they search.
From a Christian perspective all of this leads me to only one conclusion: pilgrims are ripe for evangelisation, they are searching for answers. The next questions follow on from this.
For all pilgrims their destination is here. Santiago. The tomb of the Saint. The cathedral of Santiago is the Pilgrims’ Church. The town of Santiago and the cathedral of Santiago need to open their arms even wider to embrace pilgrims if we are to help them to be attracted by the values of the Gospels.
There is no doubt in my mind that the cathedral of Santiago is the Mother Church of pilgrims, the Mother Church of the Camino. What we do here in Santiago should be the model for all Christian welcome along the Camino. The standard should be set here. The welcome in Santiago should be so effective that others aspire to replicate what happens here.
I asked the 498 pilgrims if receiving the Compostela was an important part of their pilgrimage and 91% of them said it was important:
I asked pilgrims if attending the Pilgrims’ Mass was important to them and an even higher percentage 93% said it was:
Here we need to pause. Because there is also a perception amongst pilgrims that arriving in Santiago is an anti-climax.
Many pilgrims have met friends along the way. That fellowship is part of their spiritual experience. Soon friends leave, for flights or to walk to Finisterre. Arrival can be joyful but also disappointing. That is why the warmth of our welcome, the openness of our arms and hearts to pilgrims is of fundamental importance. In welcoming and embracing them we are showing them Christ’s love, in congratulating them we are showing them that they are valued, that the church values them, that they can be part of our Christian community.
I am Scottish and Robert Burns is our National Poet. I am paraphrasing a quotation from him:
He prays: “Give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us.”
For all of us engaged in Welcoming Pilgrims along the Way to Santiago – whether here at the tomb as Archbishop, in an albergue as a hospitalero, as a religious in a house providing beds and food or simply as a fellow pilgrim living on the camino and opening your home to others – this question is of central importance.
“How do others see us?” “How do pilgrims see us?” The gift of seeing ourselves as others see us requires courage and it requires humility. I was delighted when I recently attended a Pilgrims' Mass and the Archbishop welcomed pilgrims in 7 languages without notes, the readings of Mass were in different languages. “Pilgrims, this is your home” was the message. The Cathedral is to be commended for this approach because it has not always felt like that. 59% of the same 498 pilgrims who answered the survey said they didn’t feel welcomed or only a little welcome at the Pilgrims Mass they attended:
60% of them said that they only understood a little or nothing of what was being said at the Pilgrims’ Mass:
And finally 70% said that were only able to participate a little or not at all in the Pilgrims’ Mass.
These are challenges and I believe that here in Santiago real progress has been made addressing a number of these issues.
In the Cathedral increasingly I hope that we see the use of more languages of welcome and blessing and more multi lingual information about the Mass.
There is a lot of positive initiatives. Soon in the Cathedral the Evening Services for pilgrims will start. German priests and religious will arrive to provide services in German, volunteers are working hard with the staff of the Pilgrims’ Office to personally welcome every pilgrim this year.
As I have told you the Dutch Association have opened up their Casa Holandesa, the Terra Nova Group of Christians intend to open a welcome centre in the heart of the Old Town and in the last week another country based association has decided also to find ways of having a more prominent presence here. Obviously there is potential for working together in the future.
I would like to finish by looking to the future. By the nature of my work here a lot of what I have said has been about Santiago. As a pilgrim I want to thank everyone engaged in welcoming pilgrims along the way. Many of you have welcomed me.
At events such as these often we share information, we talk about the difficult challenges we face and we share some of the joys too. I think it is also important that we decide what practical action we are going to take before the Second International Congress.
It would be easy for us to be critical of the church and other faith groups – we can talk about closed churches on the camino, churches where there is no information about mass times, where there is no welcome for pilgrims, no pilgrim blessing, where priests are not interested in pilgrims. The reality is that priests and bishops cannot do everything - nor should they.
The responsibility for evangelisation and for welcoming pilgrims in that spirit lies with every one of us. The challenge to priests and bishops is that they need to allow us and encourage us to do it.
Therefore I would like to see a small commission or committee established to take forward the issues raised at the Congress, to further encourage solidarity and sharing of those engaged in welcoming and ministering to pilgrims and to develop and share resources such as those in different languages so they can be used along the Camino.
The journey of renewal and re-energising our efforts is only just beginning at this conference – thank you for listening to me and I wish all of you Buen Camino for that journey.