When grandson number one started school many years ago, in his tiny timid voice, he left this voice message on our phone machine. “ I went to school today”. Five words said it all. I listened to that message many times over the years.
I, actually we, went to church today. It was church at its best in every way. Not all church visits are memorable in a positive way, but I will remember this one for years to come. I will cherish it in the same way I cherished Raphael’s phone message.
I am in Porto,Portugal, doing prep work for a Friends of the Anglican Pilgrim Centre in Santiago Tour next September. I am here with another board member, Edie Morrill, and Joanna Wivell, owner of Insiders Travel, and leader of our tours. We will walk a portion of the Camino Portuguese and visit the places where we will sleep and each day. We will begin in Porto and after ten days finish in Santiago de Compostela.
Our Pilgrim Missioner in Santiago, Mother Anna Noon, had arranged with Bishop Jorge Pina Cabral, Bishop of Portugal, for us to receive the traditional pilgrim blessing before we began our walk. The Rector, Father Jaime Dias of the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Vila Nova de Gaia, would bless us and stamp our pilgrim passports after the 11 o clock Eucharist. His email said the church was “just on the other side of the river- easy to find”.
We were staying near the train station and according to Google maps, it was a 27 minute walk to the church. We allowed ourselves 45 minutes and headed out. Down the hill, along the River and over the bridge. A piece of cake.
The bridge was a two tier affair and we went across the lower level, assuming the church was along the river on the other side.
We discovered to our horror the church was at the top of a long and steep hill. And I do mean long and steep. Endless and relentless. By the time we got to the top, we were breathless and sweaty. Joanna bought a bottle of water which we passed around. We were now high above the river but the clock was ticking. In spite of the now flat terrain, the church was still quite a way off. We hustled along, trying to stay in the shade as the temperature was about 90 degrees.
A few minutes after 11, we arrived at the church.
In spite of how bedraggled we looked, we were warmly welcomed and escorted to a pew in a mostly full church. We sat behind a row of teenagers, all fully engaged in the service, including singing the familiar hymn, How Great Thou Art, whose words were posted on the screen.
The sermon was on pilgrimage. The peace was passed with affection to friend and stranger alike. Communion included practical Covid regulations. From the back to the front, we went forward to the crossing where an usher squirted our hands with sanitizer. Father Dias dipped each piece of bread in the chalice being held by the Deacon standing beside him. He then laid it into our hands, we consumed it, and returned to our seats. There were several parishioners who took communion in their seats and it was moving to see the entire congregation stand and face them as they too recieved.
During the entire time, the organist played Louis Armstrong well known song It’s a Wonderful World. How right he was!
At the end of the service, before the three of us were called up to the altar for the pilgrim blessing, a woman from the parish asked for help with the Christmas bazaar and contributions for needy of the neighborhood. The church is the same throughout the world and some things including the announcements never change.
For our blessing, we were given a choice of English or Portuguese. We chose Portuguese to the relief of Father Dias, who said he had been practicing the English translation. I can’t tell you what he said, but I can tell you we were blessed.
The first stamps in our credentials may be a little blurry but they were stamped with love.
After church, on the way to coffee hour, we laughed as one parishioner gave a bar of sea salt chocolate representing the sweet and not so sweet in every marriage, to Father Dias and his wife Clarisse, who were celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary.
At coffee hour we joined in a birthday celebration and feasted on ice cream cake and “the best cup of coffee Joanna had ever had”. It was delicious.
As we were leaving, Father Dias showed us the Ecology Tree, where parishioners leave ribbons indicating steps they will take to help save the planet. Some were longer than others.
And then we were gone, but like my sweet grandson’s voice message, I will remember the welcome and the love of this priest and this parish for years to come.
If you are starting your pilgrimage in Porto, I hope you will let Father Dias bless your journey. Just remember to cross the bridge on the upper level.
To be continued.