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  1516: San Tirso, Palas de Rei, Galicia, Spain

San Tirso, Palas de Rei, Galicia, Spain

Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: San Tirso, Palas de Rei, Galicia, Spain.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Lugo.
The building: Most of San Tirso is modern, although the entrance is 12th century Romanesque, the only remaining vestige of its historical past. The altar and gilt retablo look as if they might be from the 1920s, but much of the plastering and windows seem to have been done within the past 20 years.
The church: San Tirso, or St Thyrsus, was an early Christian martyr, sentenced to be cut in half with a saw for his refusal to offer sacrifice to pagan idols. However, tradition has it that the saw became so heavy that his executioners could not use it. Instead, they tore his arms from his body and gouged out his eyes, and then dragged him before a statute of Apollo, which immediately toppled over. Tirso's relics were transferred first to Constantinople and then to several churches in northern Spain. He is usually depicted in art as holding a thyrsus (the staff carried by the wine god Dionysius) in one hand and a saw in the other.
The neighbourhood: The church is at the entrance to the town if you come by foot, and a staircase by its entrance takes you down into the village. There are a few houses nearby.
The cast: In his 60s, he was probably the rector, Don Manuel Failde, but that's a guess.
The date & time: 19 October 2007, 8.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Evening Mass.

How full was the building?
While you could fit about 150 in here, there were about 65 this evening (not bad for a weekday mass), about half of whom were a posse of Spanish teenagers whom I had been passing several times a day over the previous few days. There were several young Poles rattling their rosaries, and two puzzled Germans.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I entered, a woman in an elegant white pants suit smiled and greeted me, and three of the Spanish teenagers called me over to sit with them, to the mockery of their comrades.

Was your pew comfortable?
After 29km from Arzúa, anything would feel like a featherbed. Although the walk had been spectacular, much of the countryside resembling the nice bits of Middle Earth, and the famous grilled octopus and white wine of Melide was delicious, it had been a very long day.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were quietly entering, greeting one another. The woman in white who had greeted me went to the front and led parishioners in saying the Rosary.

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?
There were small booklets in the pews with the week's collects and readings in both Galician and Castilian (which we generally call Spanish).

What musical instruments were played?
As it was a weeknight mass, there were no instruments. The Spanish teenagers, however, decided that they would sing for us during the offertory. I recognised neither the tune nor the hymn, but they were very energetic and cheerful.

Did anything distract you?
Well, I was sitting among a group of lithe and attractive young women, all of whom were far too young for me. Generally, I was able to believe that they regarded me as some sort of ancient bearded mascot, but one of them kept on giving me the eye.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We were all quiet and tired, and in a good mood. The priest seemed pleased that he had a good-sized congregation. The two Germans were taking it all very seriously. The priest called up two of the teenagers to read the Old Testament lesson and the epistle, another two to bring up the offertory. Their group leader (a woman teacher) and the woman in white assisted with the distribution of communion.

San Tirso, Palas de Rei, Galicia, Spain

Exactly how long was the sermon?
3 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – After six weeks, my command of Spanish had improved to the point that I could follow the sermon, but not entirely.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
With some references to the day's gospel, he told us that the camino was a place of miracles. All of the world was here and was coming to know one another, under the eyes of St James and Our Lady. While our path was hard, we could then learn to remember those whose lives were truly difficult.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It had been years since I had been in a church with so many young people – the energy! The energy!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Aside from the disconcerting glances of a much younger woman, nothing at all. In fact, the temperature inside the church was decidedly chilly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the dismissal, the priest had the pilgrims come up to the chancel. The teenagers giggled but headed up – he spoke to them for a few minutes, and gave them a blessing. The Poles and Germans and I were standing behind them, along with a Flemish student. He then told the adolescents to let the foreigners through – we had come a great distance and we had earned a spot at the front. The two Germans, clearly not churchgoers, were glancing about with much nervousness, and the priest took their hands in his and blessed them in German. He asked me where I was from, and the Belgian, and the Poles, and he then spoke to us in French.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was not available, but there was a good octopus joint down the street, and I headed there for my pulpo and albariño, only to be distracted through my dinner by about a dozen of the Spanish teenagers outside the window miming a Madonna song for my amusement.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Well, if geography were to place me there again... The people and the priest were friendly, even if the building was chilly.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The rhythm of the camino and the evening masses in their half-understood language were growing on me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Three quite disparate things: A ravishing young Spaniard giving me the eye, the visual relief of the plain gold retablo after weeks of writhing baroque saints, and being mistaken for a French speaker.

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