Modern-day pilgrims finishing one of the oldest trails in existence have been warned against sealing their triumph the traditional way for fear of catching swine flu.
For centuries people reaching Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, one of Catholicism’s holiest shrines, have kissed the statue of St James whose remains are purported to be inside the town’s cathedral.
Now the church is urging the faithful not to kiss the shrine and has even removed the holy water that worshippers use to bless themselves.
The cathedral’s dean, Jose Maria Diaz, said the campaign has been discreet.
“We have not put up any signs or anything,” he said.
Instead an usher stationed next to the statue, located behind the main altar, quietly passes the message on.
“They are asked at least to refrain from kissing it,” Dean Diaz said.
He said the measure stems from a new Health Ministry campaign offering hygiene hints on how to curb the spread of swine flu, one of which is to halt Spaniards’ deeply ingrained custom of greeting each other with kisses, one on each cheek, even when meeting strangers. They are now supposed to shake hands.
Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez erred the very day after announcing the drive this month, receiving a colleague with two kisses prior to a meeting on swine flu.
At the cathedral, people are generally receptive to the idea of not kissing S. James but they still trade pecks during the Catholic Mass for the kiss of peace, the dean.
“As we say in Spanish, this is like trying to put a fence around the countryside,” he said, using an expression for a task deemed impossible. “What about all the kissing in the nightclubs and pubs?”
Santiago’s cathedral is not the first to rein in worshippers’ lips, just the most prominent, visited each year by hundreds of thousands of people. Earlier this month, the cathedral in the central city of Toledo urged people suspend their habit of kissing a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Swine flu has killed 12 people in Spain and is spreading so fast the Health Ministry has stopped trying to count the number of confirmed cases.