Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: San Cristobal
Location: Comillas, Cantabria, Spain
Date of visit: Thursday, 6 June 2019, 7:00pm
Your Mystery Worshipper began his latest pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, often called in English the Way of St James, at this historic church. Pilgrims have been following one or more of several routes comprising the pilgrimage ever since the 9th century (although your Mystery Worshipper began his first journey much later). The Wikipedia entry gives a concise history of the origin and development of this sacred passage. As for the Iglesia de San Cristobal, in 1617 the Duke of El Infantado was miffed when he was unable to use his entire reserved pew in the parish church (now part of the cemetery). The townsfolk were miffed back and decamped to the nearby hermitage of St John. As that church was inadequate for the numbers, over the next century they raised enough money to build the Church of St Christopher. It is a huge barnlike structure, with a large rough-hewn cross towering over the altar.
This is the parish church in a port, and those in town who attend any church at all will be here.
Fishing boats have been landing on the beach at Comillas, in the north of Spain on the Bay of Biscay, since Neolithic times, and there are arch̀æological sites galore in the area. There have been Christian churches here since before the Visigoths. A 19th century transport and tobacco magnate was made Marquis of Comillas and spent freely in the town, with his own palace and a gorgeous small house by Antoni Gaudí, known as the greatest exponent of Catalan Modernism – it is well worth the visit. During the Alfonsine period the town was full of rowdy and debauched aristocrats, but in the early 20th century they all decamped for the Mediterranean and the environs gradually became host to less exciting tourists from the interior seeking the cool summer breezes of the Biscay shore. A pontifical seminary for the Americas was built by the marquis and given to the Jesuits to run – the University itself has since moved to Madrid, but its buildings can be seen overlooking the town. A second marquis, notable for his charitable efforts, is being promoted for beatification. The church dominates the main plaza.
There was no notice or announcement, and there is no parish website. The priest was a small man in his 70s. He was assisted by two lectors, a 60ish lady and a 40ish gentleman.
What was the name of the service?Misa Parroquial (Parish Mass).
How full was the building?
The church might have fit up to four hundred in the nave. There were fifty-eight women and twenty-two men, including eight children and a few adolescents. People were respectably, if not formally, dressed; and the children, cursing their luck, were under the watchful eyes of grandparents and a few big sisters. As well as myself, there were a few German pilgrims and an Australian couple.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Greeters are not a feature of Spanish church life, but we got friendly nods and glances from parishioners, who are normally hospitable to pilgrims and perhaps think of us as bringing good luck.
Was your pew comfortable?
Likely constructed by ships’ carpenters idle in the winter, it was comfortable enough.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived a few minutes into the service and found myself a pew about halfway up on the epistle side, so I missed any pre-service action.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Even if I wasn’t there, I can tell you for certain: En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Parishioners followed the service by memory, as is usually the case.
What musical instruments were played?
None, although an a cappella hymn was sung after communion.
Did anything distract you?
There were some singular statues, including one of Our Lady with light emanating from her hands in a way reminiscent of a science fiction film. As well, one of the little boys had his football with him and clearly would rather have been practicing outside.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a weekday mass in the parish church in a small port, all very routine. Perhaps a quarter of the congregation stood during the consecration. One worshipper wore the now-almost-extinct mantilla with the traditional standing comb. When I first went to Spain almost 18 years ago, they were not common but one often saw them at a mass; this time, this was the only one I saw in a month.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
We were addressed for about 6-7 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — I would put him at 7 or so, judging by the congregational response. Perhaps they had heard this sermon before.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After a day of heading into the wind for six hours, it was pleasant to sit in a place with only a slight breeze coming from an open door. A series of windows and statues reflected the seafaring nature of the port, and the dangers of that life gave one something to think about. And then, at the passing of the peace, the little boy who had been standing nearby handed me his football, saying, ‘Paz, señor.’ I gave it back with the same wish.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, it was a bit of a barn, and not a cozy or intimate place. I had the feeling it would be really quite damp and chilly in the winter.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the mass, I went to the sacristy to get my pilgrim’s credential stamped. The priest and the lectors were pleased to see me, shaking my hand, and wishing me Buen Camino.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None to be had there, but there was a restaurant on the square where I horrified the staff by sitting outdoors in what they believed was the bitter cold of an evening. I eventually had some coffee after my squid dinner. A glass of the local firewater helped it down.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It's not the sort of place I really prefer, I guess, but people were pleasant enough.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It is always good to sit in the middle of a community and feel welcomed without any fuss. I have no idea why we can’t do this in Canada.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Our Lady with her electric powers. When I went to the sacristy to have my credential stamped, the priest seemed electrified by the Canadian credential, and went on to congratulate me on the Toronto Raptors basketball team’s victory. I do not follow organized sport much but had heard of the games going on. Then a very small and elderly nun came up and exclaimed, ‘¡Vámanos los Raptores!’ The convent must have gotten very rowdy for the final game later that week.