The pilgrims wore matching sunshine yellow shirts with the black logo indicating their walk to Fátima. It took them five days from Lisbon; they were blistered and content. It was May 13th, the date of Mary’s first apparition to the three shepherd children in Portugal. I naively asked, “Will you get a certificate?” They smirked and laughed. “No. It is in my heart,” a grizzled pilgrim said, pointing to his heart. I was clearly the crazy American tourist.
In Fátima, the tourist office on the sacred plaza by the Basilicas only offers a Camino stamp. It was my first; it depicted Mary floating on a cloud, three children kneeling at her feet with the scallop shell below and the words Camino de Santiago framing the image. In the days to come I would collect stamps along the Camino. The Catholic Church requires two per day for the last 100 kilometers (for hikers) in order to obtain a certificate of completion in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This tradition stems from the Middle Ages when pilgrims needed the permission from their pastors, spouses, and employers to set out on the pilgrimage. The pilgrim brought permission letters with them and returned with proof of completion: badges both natural or fabricated – the scallop shell served as proof from Santiago. Since the 1980s the Catholic Church again requires proofs of travel in order to validate the pilgrimage. The stamps serve as that proof.
Some pilgrims take the stamps seriously. A German-Vietnamese pilgrim went from hostels to cafés, post offices, police stations and churches gathering many per town. Pilgrims collect stamps like a birder has a life list or climbers are referred to as “peak baggers.” I met a pilgrim walking back from the Herbón monastery and her only comment was, “I got the stamp.” In the monastery at Armenteira one nun carefully explained their stamp to me with pride. “A monk – there used to be monks living here- went to the garden to pray to God. See here is a little bird in the tree (she points to the elaborate stamp). He stayed 300 years and when he returned to the monastery none of the monks knew him.” She concluded with an explanation, “When you are in communion with God … (there is no sense of time).” The stamp grew in meaning for me. One morning at the Evangelical homestay, Debbie explained that the previous year she did not have a stamp. She would draw in the pilgrim’s Camino passport. Then as a surprise one pilgrim got her drawing made into a stamp back home for her. She used this now.
When the pilgrim passport is filled with colorful shapes – sometimes sideways, smeared, overlapping or sweat soaked, it is presented for inspection to the Roman Catholic Church office in Santiago. The Church will only issue the Compostela to those who have the requisite number of stamps and who did their pilgrimage on foot, horseback or on bicycle. This certificate is a printed, decorative “medieval” manuscript in Latin with your name, translated into Latin, written with a calligrapher’s flourish in the center. Once again the Church has taken over the authority to confirm who is a “real” pilgrim.
The lure of formal documents rewarding the pilgrim has begun to infect the Camino de Santiago with a consumerist air. Galician certificates multiply. The Spanish offer certificates for completing half of the French route (San Jean to Burgos?), for walking into Padrón and another for going to the Herbón monastery nearby,
for walking from Santiago to Finesterre/Fisterra
on the coast, another for walking into Muxia. The more certificates that are issued the less they seem to have value. Maybe the Fátima pilgrims were right. We should confirm the pilgrimage in our hearts rather than on paper.