A Summer of Camino Service

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A Summer of Camino Service

by Thomas Labuzienski | South Bend, IN

Many pilgrims are familiar with the saying “the Camino provides.” Early this year, I eagerly applied to the American Pilgrims Ribadiso Welcome Service program to be considered to serve as a greeter at the donativo albergue in Ribadiso on the Camino Francés. After completing the application process and Zoom interviews, I was sad when I learned I had not been selected for one of the highly sought after positions. Within days, though, the Camino provided me with an invitation to apply to volunteer at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrim Office Tom handing out compostelas.
Author Tom Labuzienski presents a Compostela to a pilgrim who expresses her gratitude with a gesture to her heart. Photo by a generous Pilgrim’s Reception Office volunteer.

I was warmly accepted and assigned to report on May 23 for my weeks of volunteering and Chapter One of my summer of Camino service. Montse, the friendly Pilgrim’s Reception Office manager, welcomed about half a dozen volunteers from countries including Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, and the United States. We were each assigned a private room in San Lazaro, about three to four kilometers from the cathedral. We often walked to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office. As the route to and from our accommodations follows the last few kilometers of the Camino Francés, we had the chance to walk and talk with excited pilgrims as they took their final steps into Santiago.

Little did they know, they would meet us again on the other side of a desk as we handed them the official document certifying that they had completed the Camino de Santiago. While volunteering in the Pilgrim’s Reception Office, it was our privilege to welcome pilgrims, examine their cherished credentials and stamp them with the final sello of the Santiago Cathedral, and then print and present their Compostelas, and, if desired, the distance certificate. Our shifts in the office alternated; one day I would serve pilgrims from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. and the next day I would serve pilgrims from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The pleasant local pilgrim office staff working alongside of us also arranged for some of us to swing the Botafumeiro, the giant thurible or censer that disperses incense at the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass held at the cathedral. It was a humbling experience to wear the iconic maroon robe of the tiraboleiro and pull the ropes to propel the Botafumeiro in this historic ritual. I attended Mass in the cathedral daily during my month in Santiago. Having been ordained a Roman Catholic deacon this past January, it was also my honor to regularly serve as a deacon at the altar above St. James’s remains. After a month in Santiago, it felt like a second home. My most memorable Santiago experience, however, was witnessing the emotions, and often tears, of the pilgrims. Frequently, I would come around the counter to give a pilgrim flowers and a hug. Even after personally greeting 2,000 to 3,000 pilgrims, I never grew tired of it.

2023 Granon dinner.
Pilgrim dinner at the Grañón donativo albergue on June 21, 2023. Photo by Tom Labuzienski.

Tom’s Experience as an Hospitalero in Grañón

For Chapter Two of my incredible Camino volunteer summer, I was assigned to serve as an hospitalero in Grañón, a village of about 150 residents. At the Parroquial San Juan Bautista, an historic, inspirational, and popular donativo albergue on the Camino Francés, I encountered close to 2,000 pilgrims, welcoming each guest, registering their passport numbers in our journal, explaining the donativo rules, and inviting them to help prepare dinner and to attend daily Mass.

Many were surprised when I informed them that “yes, there is no WiFi, try speaking to each other,” “pay what you can and take what you need,” and “there is no official credential stamp here because the stamp from Grañón will be in your heart.”

We invited pilgrims to a special candlelight service each evening after dinner in the church choir loft to share their deepest Camino prayers and intentions. At the conclusion, everyone exchanged hugs, “stamping each other’s hearts with love and peace.” Father Alejandro invited me to serve as a deacon each evening at Mass, read the Gospel in English, and give the special pilgrim blessing at the end of Mass.

I feel so fortunate to have had these exhilarating and meaningful experiences while serving the Camino this summer, and I am forever grateful. I am also grateful to American Pilgrims on the Camino for connecting me with the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago and training me to serve as an hospitalero. I strongly encourage you to explore ways to give back to the Camino and its many pilgrims. In doing so, you will further enrich and deepen your connection to the Camino.

If you are interested in becoming an hospitalero, please visit our Hospitalero Training page for more info, FAQs, and our upcoming training sessions.

This story was featured in our Fall 2023 issue of La Concha. The theme was “Seasons of the Way”, and you can find the full issue in our archive here.

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