Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: Basilica of Santa María del Conceyu
Location: Llanes, Asturias, Spain
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 June 2019, 7:00pm
Also known as Santa María de la Asunción, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Council is named in honor of the patron of the town, as the local council met before its walls. This Romano-Gothic building may date from 1240 – although that date is in dispute, some historians believing that it dates instead from around two hundred years later. There is a spectacular retablo with interesting carvings at the lower level, depicting St James dressed in pilgrim’s garb of the day – it provides one with edifying diversion during long sermons. One plaque commemorates the 65 sailors from Llanes who sailed on the three ships the town fitted out for the Spanish Armada in 1588: the Santa Ana, the San Nicolas, and the Santelmo. On the north wall, separated from the nave by bars and burials, is the Chapel of the Trinity, created as a place of interment for members of his family by former mayor Juan Pariente, who died around 1457. Pariente had built the chapel independent of the church. The Mannerist altarpiece of this chapel dates from 1601.
The church was elevated to the status of minor basilica in 1973 by Pope Paul VI. The emperor Charles I of Spain (also known as Charles V of Germany), on a visit to Llanes in 1517, heard mass in Santa María del Conceyu on Sunday morning, and vespers in the afternoon, after which he and the royal party took in a bullfight, which in the words of one chronicler ‘provided great fun because the bulls were fierce and bad.’
Llanes, a traditional fishing port in the north of Spain, is bound to the south by a limestone ridge. There have been bishops here since the 10th century. The port flourished in Roman times and well into the Middle Ages, but declined in the 18th century due to intense conscription of seamen for the navy as well as heavy emigration to the New World, especially Mexico and Venezuela. Today’s Llanes is an agreeable combination of working port and (as of yet) unspoiled tourist attraction. Both the beach and hiking trails along the ridge are popular with domestic as well as foreign holidaymakers, as are a collection of shops and restaurants. The church is in the old walled city, and one has the impression that the town grew up between the church and the harbour.
There was no notice or announcement, and there is no parish website. The priest was dapper and in his 50s, and wore a full green chasuble with a gold orphrey.
What was the name of the service?Misa Parroquial (Parish Mass).
How full was the building?
The church might have fit up to three hundred or so in the nave, and had sixty-two women and thirty-two men, including five children and a small gaggle of adolescents, gothed to the nines, but with dramatic sneakers. I noticed three young pilgrims kneeling at a side altar as I entered.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I’ve only once or twice run into a greeter in a Spanish church, but we got the usual glances acknowledging our presence.
Was your pew comfortable?
I liked these pews, and the kneelers were padded.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
My usual spot on the epistle side was crowded out, so I hustled over to the Pariente chapel, up by a pillar, so I could slouch gracefully if things went on a bit.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, and parishioners followed the service by memory, as is usually the case.
What musical instruments were played?
There was some recorded music at the beginning and during the communion, as well as an a cappella hymn.
Did anything distract you?
Not much, and the place seemed comfortable. The three young pilgrims, who turned out to be from the Czech Republic, were seated near me. I enjoyed the retablo’s figures.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was an evening Sunday mass in the parish church in a small port, all very routine. Twenty or so of us knelt during the consecration, including the Czechs, one of whom (the really cute one) knelt on the stone pavement.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
It seemed to be a bit longer than usual, perhaps 12 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The priest was very lively and articulate, so I would give him an 8 or 9, judging by his communication skills. Sadly, my poor vocabulary failed to assess the quality of the content.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Good question. Sometimes I wonder about this as I sit through another sermon which, unless I'm terribly lucky, I barely understand. At length, I have come to think of it as soothing and meditative. Every now and then I comprehend the preacher and am agreeably startled.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As my pilgrimage brought me near the town, I chose to detour off the beaten trail via a hill variant that was two kilometers shorter and gave me extraordinary views of the Bay of Biscay – until it began to rain, that is – but it involved an ascent of 600 meters. And so I was very pleased indeed to be able to sit down and recuperate from an arduous day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not much. It was a nice little basilica as basilicas go, and I had already scoped out a good restaurant for my dinner.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the mass, I was about to head up to the sacristy to get my pilgrim’s credential stamped, and the Czechs asked if they could go past the altar rail with me, as they were not certain that it was possible. I told them that the clergy were always happy to see mass-going pilgrims. Their castellano was close to non-existent, although their English was good, so I was called in to interpret for them in my rocky Spanish. They were students in communications, and included a slightly older couple who were walking to accompany a 19-year old woman who was going to Santiago (from the Czech city of Pilsen!) to fulfill a vow. They had begun their journey in Lent, and it had taken them 72 days to get that far. The priest was stunned by this and thought that I had mistranslated what they had said, so we switched into French to make sure that he had heard correctly. The young woman knelt for a blessing, which the priest, visibly moved by the conversation, readily gave her.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The Czechs declined my invitation, as dinner was waiting for them at the pilgrims’ hostel where they were staying. I had an extra orújo (the local firewater, a bit like grappa, but strong) after dinner as I thought about their trek across Europe.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — Probably 9 if I were in Llanes for awhile, not that there’s much competition (there is a Kingdom Hall). Every Sunday there is a mass in Asturian – I could also hear services in a mediæval dialect, as if only understanding a quarter of what was said was not bad enough.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was taken aback by the quiet but intense devotion of the Czechs.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Well, I headed off the next morning to light a candle at the nearby Magdalene chapel for my friend in whose name I was walking. Then, weeks later, in Santiago, I ran into the Czechs again on the night before they were to return home in an overnight bus. They were beaming as their three-month walk was finished. I asked the young woman about her vow and she said it was important, but it was private. The couple who had walked 2,300km with her did not know the vow either, but they knew it was serious, so wanted to walk with their friend, as it would be easier for her to have company on such a long journey. omg, as the young folk text.