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Swinging the botafumeiro

On my recent overseas trip, I walked the Camino. One of the highlights of this pilgrimage was attending the Pilgrims’ Mass, which is held each day in the Cathedral at Santiago, where the Camino finishes.

At the conclusion of the Mass, an incense burner, the botafumeiro, was swung, reaching considerable speed and rising near to the roof of the cathedral.

It was exhilarating to watch.

In 1499, when Catherine of Aragon travelled to England to marry Arthur Tudor (he died at a young age, and Catherine married his brother Henry, later to be King Henry VIII) she attended mass at the same cathedral.
That day, when the botafumeiro was swung the rope attaching it to the roof broke, and it flew out of a cathedral window! (Fortunately, no one was hurt. It weighs around 80kg.)

Swinging the botafumeiro is risky.

When I watched it fly, I was caught up in wonder and joy, accompanied by a sense of danger.

It was memorable.

Being a pilgrim (‘peregrino’ in Spanish) on the Camino is a little risky, too. You don’t control your environment, and you are susceptible to the unexpected.

When it rains you get wet, when a cafe isn’t nearby you get hungry.

You don’t choose your travelling companions, and the way ahead can only be followed, never engineered.

Of course, it’s nothing like a botafumeiro flying out of the cathedral window!

Nonetheless, it struck me that the swinging botafumeiro symbolically gathered up the stories of pilgrims who had risked the way, and elevated them to a transcendent level.

Mundane and ordinary human stories were placed within a different, much broader, and quite exhilarating context.

That is the church at its best.

Sadly, other parts of the Mass were not as uplifting. Indeed, some of it was disturbing.

In the homily, the preacher told all the gathered pilgrims that they had journeyed to Santiago to venerate the bones of St James. (It is claimed that the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, are buried underneath Santiago cathedral.)

Most peregrinos who walk the Camino are not religious. (They may be spiritual but they don’t identify with the Christian faith.)

For myself, while I am Christian, the notion of venerating bones eludes me.

Why then would the preacher at a Mass held explicitly for pilgrims make this claim?

I felt left out. Speaking to others after the Mass, I heard a similar sentiment.

Here was the church that so many people disparage, and rightly so.

Pointing to the divine, lifting people up… and excluding them. It is difficult to comprehend such an experience.

I wonder now how it might have been otherwise.

How might the church in Santiago, and here in Australia, listen better to people’s stories, gathering them up into the divine realm without excluding them?