Our Holy Year Camino on an Almost Unprecedented Extended Holy Year!

With all the ups and downs of the pandemic over the past 2 years, we rearranged many of our travel plans. They’ve been canceled, shifted, changed, shifted again in a dizzying array of uncertainty, confusion, and frustration. I know our travel plans, in the grand scheme of the horrors that are happening during said pandemic, are small and insignificant. But I really feel like I was just getting into the travelling groove as the pandemic hit.

The Holy Door in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Although I was able to snap a photo of the Holy Door in 2019, it was not open. It only opens on Holy Years. (Off to the bottom right, you can see signs of the internal restoration of the cathedral that was taking place while we were there.)

Although I’m an atheist, I was really looking forward to the possibility of walking the Camino de Santiago on a designated Holy Year. With the pandemic rearrangement of all of our plans, it was looking like this was not going to be the case. Then the Pope (of all people) made my day! Under a very special dispensation, the Pope has extended the Holy Year to include 2021-2022. This is only the second extension of Holy Year in 900 years of Jacobean Holy Years. The first being in 1937-38 because of the Spanish Civil War.

First, let’s back up a bit. I need to explain what the Holy Year is. It happens when St. James Day (July 25th) falls on a Sunday. That’s it in a nutshell (though for the devout Catholics there is more to it than that). There are more celebrations on the Camino during Holy Years. There are festivals, parties, concerts, art exhibitions and numerous other events that take place for the celebration of the Holy Year. There are only 14 Holy Years in every century. The reason for this 2nd ever Holy Year extension is, essentially, down to the pandemic. There are just so many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago these days, that they thought it best to spread the Holy Year out because it fell during the pandemic. After spending 20 Million Euros on an impossibly massive restoration of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in preparation for the Holy Year, it makes sense that they would want to extend it to accommodate all the pilgrims who want to take advantage of seeing the Cathedral in all its renewed shining glory.

Me, hugging the apostle. Close to the Holy Door, you will find the little alcove you enter to step up behind the bust of St. James behind the altar of the cathedral. Pilgrims wait in line to walk into this little alcove and HUG THE APOSTLE. They wrap their arms around the bust, hugging the apostle from behind. Those out in the pews can see arms continually wrapping around the beleaguered saint all the live long day!

When I walked the Camino in spring of 2014, the entire front of the cathedral was covered in scaffolding. They even took the quasi-cartoonish step of having the cathedral spires drawn onto the sheets draping the scaffolding for some strange reason. Anyway, that gives you an idea of how much of a restoration it truly was. The entire outside of the building was worked on. Also, when we went back in 2019 for a fall pilgrimage, most of the inside of the cathedral was off limits as they had moved the restoration process to the inside of the building. So when we return next year it will be the first time I see the cathedral without shrouds of sheets and scaffolding and construction. This atheist is excited to see the world famous cathedral in all its shining new glory.

Our new intention–and I will frame it like that as almost anything can happen between now and then–is to walk the Caminho Português (Portuguese Way) from Porto, Portugal, to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in September of 2022. We will walk the Coastal Route along the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t know how wise it is to walk along the Atlantic Ocean in September, but I suppose we shall find out.

I guess I should add here the benefits of the Holy Year for Catholic pilgrims. But first a little on the magic little opening ceremony of the door, which involves the Archbishop of Compostela and a hammer.

The Holy Door is an important symbol of the Holy Year. All pilgrims look forward to arriving at the cathedral at the end of the 800 mile journey of the French Way (or any of the other camino ways or partial ways). For us non-religious types, it’s akin to Dorothy arriving at the palace in Emerald City to see the Wizard after her arduous journey on the Yellow Brick Road. (In fact, the pilgrims follow yellow arrows and there are many similarities to be found between this secular fictitious journey and this holy journey. Although, don’t expect talking lions…it won’t happen.) This moment of arrival and entry into the cathedral is made extra special with the opening of the Holy Door on Holy Year. It’s a back door that goes almost directly to the huggable apostle and the (SUPPOSED) tomb of the apostle St. James. (The possibility of the bones in that tomb being those of St. James is so far-fetched it’s almost laughable, but that’s another story. BLIND Faith is needed and I suppose a lot of Catholics may have that in abundance.)

The Holy Door is the Catholic version of the GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card in Monopoly. It basically grants those who walk through it plenary indulgence, or…the absolution of all of their sins. It’s a threshold to cleanse sinners of all of their sins. BAM! Sinbegone.

To be honest, walking through the door isn’t all the sinners are on the hook for. They also have to partake of confession, receive Holy Communion, pray for the Pope, recite the Creed and pray for their intentions. And spinning three times in a circle while whistling Ave Maria probably wouldn’t hurt either (I added that last part myself).

Performing the above mentioned ablutions spares the repentant sinner from spending any time in purgatory. Herein lies the comparison to the GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.

The Archbishop of Compostela performs a ritual at the door at the beginning of Holy Year. This ritual includes banging on a bunch of slabs placed before the door with a hammer. (Picture the Don’t Break the Ice game with an Archbishop in a big hat being the only one with the little hammer.)

I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. I do love the Camino, I do. Whenever it delves into the religiosity of it, however, the sarcasm comes out in me. Blame it on my strict Catholic upbringing. Ex-Catholics are the worst.

Anyway...the Archbishop strikes at the wall of rock slabs 3 times with a silver hammer, then cleans the debris around the door with holy water and olive branches. He is the first to walk through the threshold. The Archbishop performs this absurd little play on the last day of the year prior to the holy year. In this case, December 31st, 2020.

The facade of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The palace in Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road.

NOW…the door is open. Anyone walking the Camino between January 1st, 2021 and December 31st, 2022 (don’t quote me on the end date, but I believe it goes right to the end of the year) can enter the cathedral through this special doorway.

Enjoying a break at the end of the journey.

We are looking forward to the extra pomp that will be on display during our 2022 extended Holy Year. Religion aside, it’s a great time to be on the Camino. The excitement is higher, the celebration is greater. It’s all good…for Christians, all the other religions, atheists, and agnostics alike. It’s a celebration not to be missed, I have heard.

The botafumeiro (Galician for Smoke Expeller). This massive incense burner swings the width of the cathedral, spewing incense smoke as it sways back and forth. Apparently, it swings more frequently during Holy Years. It’s not always guaranteed that pilgrims will see this captivating performance. It’s worth being present to see it occur…pure magic.

Let’s go, 2022! Be the year we escape the pandemic clutches that has the world on standstill. I wanna walk again…

By Kevin Craig

Author, Poet, Playwright. Author of The Camino Club, Billions of Beautiful Hearts, and Book of Dreams, all from Duet Books, the LGBTQ Young Adult imprint of Chicago Review Press. Other books: Pride Must Be A Place, Half Dead & Fully Broken, Burn Baby Burn Baby, The Reasons, Sebastian's Poet, and Summer on Fire.

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