It was New Year’s Eve, 2010. The close of the Holy Year and the final day of my short first camino. I arrived in Santiago de Compostela at 3:15 p.m. with the door set to shut at 4:30 p.m. in preparation for the Mass and the ceremonies and the dignitaries with speeches. I dropped off my backpack, waited in the line, entered the cathedral, and said my prayers before leaving to check into my hotel.
When I went back for Mass, the only place to sit was on the base of a column but I could watch the processional, see the antique vestments, hear the music, and breathe in the flowery scented smoke from the Botafumeiro. But the Pilgrims Office was closed for the holiday and I wanted a Holy Year Compostela, so I asked the sacristan if someone could help me and he pointed to a small group of pilgrims standing off to the side and I walked over to join them.
We were led into a maze of rooms, along one of the walls of the cloister, past vestment wardrobes, bookcases, dark wood furniture, into a room with a long table at one side and chairs along the opposite wall. Once by one, you called us to sit to your left at the table and tell you how we arrived and why we walked. The page was signed and noted “Año Santo.” I thanked you and left the room, smiling broadly and showing everyone my new Compostela.
Fast forward two years and I was just finishing my second camino with my daughters, arriving in Santiago de Compostela just after New Year’s to find once again the pilgrims office closed; this time for a funeral. I told my daughters that, out of respect, we should attend the funeral because it was for a man who ran the office. Someone who helped pilgrims.
Mass started and we saw dozens of purple-vested priests enter the church and I looked for your face among them – the priest who had signed my first Compostela. I sat down and scanned through the photos on my phone, looking for the picture of me, taken that night by a fellow pilgrim, as I sat at your side. And it was you who had died, it was you who ran the office, who was so generous with his time on New Year’s Eve in the closing hours of the Holy Year. We were attending your funeral.
After the Mass, we watched as your casket was lowered into the stone walkway in the cloister, as all those priests bade you farewell and laid you next to your brother.
In that moment, I felt as if I had known you all along and that we had become friends. And now, whenever I visit Santiago de Compostela, I make my own small pilgrimage to your grave – to say some prayers and let you know I remember you.