If you own one of those Our Lady barometer statuettes, you will know to expect rain when she turns pink. One of the best-selling souvenirs in Lourdes, in those stores piled high with mass-produced pastel-colored delights of popular piety, is the Our Lady barometer. Her mantle changes from light blue to mauve to pink, according to the weather.
In Santiago de Compostela you will not notice any change in your barometer statuette, for Our Lady stands unemployed on the mantelpiece, her cloak permanently pink. It is always raining in Compostela. In a queue of wet pilgrims waiting to be allowed into the vast new reception center, I typed into my phone while raindrops ran down the screen and the battery showed just 10% remaining. Could I get the access code and collect my pilgrim certificate before the battery failed, or was my Holy Year pilgrimage in vain?
Pilgrimage, like life in general in a post-Covid world, just got more complicated. When pilgrims arrive in the city of Compostela to complete their trek to the shrine of Saint James, they must show their stamped pilgrim passport to collect their certificate but now there is an extra hurdle. Access to the building requires you to complete a questionnaire first, obtained by a QR code. “Covid security,” explained a uniformed guard. I managed to complete the form and get the access code to enter the building, just as the battery dropped to 5%, the same level as my fading morale.
Once inside, I joined the socially-distanced queue for my Holy Year Compostelana and thought about the way the online form divides pilgrims into categories. The form asks why you have made a pilgrimage to Compostela. You can only tick one box. The choices are: Religious, Spiritual, Sport, or Cultural. My reasons were both religious and spiritual but only one motive was allowed: it was not possible to be Religious and Spiritual. I briefly considered ticking Sport as a protest, but decided to avoid rebellion: it would be another blot on my charge-sheet on the Day of Judgment. Why add to my years in Purgatory, when I came here to obtain an indulgence?
So, I ticked the box to say I had done the pilgrimage for Religious motives. ‘Religious’ was clearly code for Catholic: you tick that box to distinguish your pilgrimage from all those pseudo-pilgrims who are merely Spiritual, the followers of ‘ley lines,’ the tree huggers, and those in dreadlocks with mystic crystals dangling from their rucksacks on colored strings. Let’s stick to our categories. A fast walker with an interest in medieval art cannot tick both Sport and Culture, but must choose just one. If you are a Catholic priest and clown-Mass devotee, merrily lurching along the Camino on a unicycle, you cannot have all three of your motives recognized on your arrival, Religious, Cultural, and Sport. No, sir: your syncretistic spiritual muddle will need to be reduced to one category, so just settle for Cultural.
When did this bureaucratic fixation with categorizing pilgrim piety begin? Did pilgrims who arrived in Compostela in the 15th century have to fill in a form asking if their reason for walking across Europe was to avoid the pains of hell? (Tick box 1.) Or just the sheer thrill of surviving robbery, murder, and the bubonic plague? (Tick box 2.) To be fair, the categories have been gradually defined by the pilgrims themselves. Mountain bikers often say their main interest is in the technical challenges of the trail itself, so Sport is their obvious motive. Those motivated by Culture self-identify by carrying The Complete Cultural Handbook to the Camino, which adds the weight of the average stone gargoyle to their rucksack while explaining all they ever wanted to know about Romanesque and Visigothic architecture.
Those drawn by less mundane motives, the Religious and the Spiritual, are more nuanced categories. Walking the Camino now, you hear pilgrims say, “I am spiritual but I don’t believe in organized religion.” I now have my own polished reply to this: “Ahah! So you don’t believe the Camino infrastructure organized by Catholic religion for hundreds of years has provided you with any benefits at all? What an ungrateful ‘spiritual’ pilgrim you are!”
These categories do not only apply to the Camino, as shown in a study by Lipka & Gecewicz, reporting their findings in a survey in the USA, which incidentally contains the amazing finding that 6% of respondents said they were ‘religious’ but not ‘spiritual’! So, maybe the Compostela tick-box survey of pilgrim categories is not confected but simply reflects pilgrims’ own self-definitions.
On the Camino Inglés, the early morning pilgrims starting out from Neda on their way to Pontedeume break their morning walk for breakfast in the town of Fene. The Camino breakfast stop is opposite the town hall in Fene, and it is called the Café Pachamama. Until then, the only context in which I had seen the word ‘Pachamama’ had been the two years of trench warfare in the Catholic press and blogosphere, with continuous charges and counter-charges around issues of paganism, idol-worship, and blasphemy. I had never quite understood how a minor example of enculturation from Latin America during a synod in Rome could cause so much frothing at the mouth and bug-eyed hysteria in presumably otherwise sane Christian commenters, while the world lurched from climate crisis to pandemic, and the gap between rich and poor countries became more extreme, and the majority of the world’s Catholics still live in poverty.
I have not written about the Pachamama before now, which probably makes me the only Catholic blog commenter who has never expressed a view on the subject. I feel uncomfortable having to admit it. Failure to express an opinion on the Pachamama is a sign of an intellectual laziness tantamount to having nothing to say on Vatican II, Humanae Vitae, or the alleged decline in the artistry of the Christmas grotto scene in Saint Peter’s Square during this papacy.
So, finally, I was brought face-to-face with the issue over breakfast at the Café Pachamama. As I arrived, a group of five Italians from the previous night’s pilgrim hostel in Neda were already installed in the Café Pachamama eating croissants and drinking big cups of hot coffee. As I walked in and took off my rucksack, I reprimanded them: “You should all be excommunicated and your pilgrim credentials canceled for eating in a pagan café!” They laughed. The subject does not divide Italian Catholics very much and this particular group regarded the Pachamama fuss as an incomprehensible obsession of crazed English-speakers.
“You know what?” I said, as we finished our breakfast, “Forget the Pachamama drama! I’ve seen more paganism in the souvenir shops of Lourdes.”
After breakfast, I took a photo of Café Pachamama for the record then continued towards Pontedeume on the day’s walk, and I was prompted to think about popular piety and the way it can arouse our worst prejudices. The witch-hunt over the Pachamama provided a glorious example of a moral panic, but we should look closer to home if we are serious about identifying superstition in popular piety.
There are some things that the Church requires us to believe, the central articles of the faith, but then we add many more things that we choose to believe. Some of them are entirely spurious; others are things that Catholic culture supports but to which it does not require us to give any formal assent. Some things we invent for ourselves and the Church may raise an eyebrow but pretends not to notice: this occurs quite commonly in poor liturgy, for example, the empty donkey in the Palm Sunday procession. Occasionally the faithful carry on believing in phenomena long after the Church has clearly chosen not to grant its official support: the dubious Marian shrine at Medjugorje is a good example in recent history. Similarly, a dodgy shrine at Garabandal has been left in a sort of canonical limbo.
The tradition of Saint James in Spain is an interesting example of popular piety with some very glaring superstitious elements, but happily for my sins – as a pilgrim in the Jacobean Holy Year 2021 – my journey to the shrine of Saint James conforms to Catholic tradition. It is understood that the remains of the Apostle, after his beheading by Herod, were transported miraculously in a stone boat without a pilot, across the Mediterranean Sea, up the Atlantic coast to Galicia in Spain. There, the stone boat was washed up on a beach and the remains of Saint James were instantly recognized and secretly buried by persons unknown. (Presumably they were trained local Christian spotters of stone boats bearing relics and experts in identifying apostles.) I am not required by Holy Mother Church to believe this story, nor believe that these remains were unearthed centuries later by a visionary hermit who saw celestial lights above a field (Campo Stella – hence Compostela). On the other hand, if I do believe all this and make my pilgrimage to Compostela to venerate the relics officially declared authentic by the Catholic Church in the 19th century, I will enjoy the blessings of the Church in a sort of soft indulgence provided by a certificate on arrival. Thus, I can excuse myself from partaking in any form of superstitious belief whatsoever. Phew! What a relief.
There is no historical evidence for Saint James’s mission to Spain, before his martyrdom by Herod, and yet it is central to Spanish Catholicism. According to this tradition, Our Lady appeared on a stone pillar in Zaragoza and encouraged him to continue his mission. The Virgen del Pilar is the national Marian shrine and when I went there for the wedding of some friends they explained that I had to touch the pillar and make the sign of the cross, because that “brings good luck.” My friends also bought some plastic Virgin Mary statues that glow in the dark and two or three Our Lady barometer statues, to bring good luck to family and friends.
Most Catholics will be familiar with the Virgin Mary statue that glows in the dark and will probably have one hidden away in a drawer somewhere (a present from Aunty Mildred to bring good luck). Next to it may also be a discarded plastic statuette of Saint Anthony of Padua, relegated to the drawer after he failed to find any Lost Things. Readers may be less familiar with the Our Lady barometer statue, but this is a standard item in souvenir shops in Lourdes and other main Marian shrines. The statuettes of Our Lady that change color with atmospheric humidity, from blue to mauve to pink, should more accurately be described as hygrometers, but let’s not get too theological: the Virgin Mary not only brings you luck, but miraculously predicts the weather.
The Catholic Church does not require me to possess an Our Lady barometer as an article of faith, and the absence from my mantelpiece of such a Catholic meteorological figurine will not be held against me, should the Spanish Inquisition arrive (unexpectedly). But the question arises whether an Our Lady barometer statue is a more authentic expression of Catholic piety than an Amazonian figurine celebrating the miracle of human birth? It seems not only absurd to me that we condemn an image that doesn’t conform to our pious expectations, formed by narrow familiarity with an array of cheap ornaments in the average Catholic souvenir shop. We don’t need theologians to tell us this. We simply need to acquire better manners towards Catholics in the developing world.
Somewhere in a misty Pyrenean valley near Lourdes, within the damp stones of a rustic farmhouse, a frail old woman sits in a rocking chair listening to the rain dripping from the slate roof outside and gazing at the Our Lady barometer statue on her mantelpiece. It has changed from mauve to blue while she has been saying her rosary prayers, so she knows the rain will stop and she can soon let her cat go outside. She smiles and feels Our Lady’s healing presence. In Lourdes, we call this Catholic piety. In the Amazon, it would be pagan superstition.
 Michael Lipka and Clarie Gecewicz: “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but not Religious.” Pew Research Center (2017). www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/
 The subject has been so well explored on Where Peter Is, including the comprehensive recent article by managing editor Mike Lewis, that it is unnecessary to explain the saga of the Pachamama here.
 The Soubirous brothers started their lucrative souvenir business in Lourdes shortly after their sister Saint Bernadette was safely enclosed far away in a convent in Nevers. Their family business https://magasin-soubirous.com/en/ remains the official purveyors of souvenirs in Lourdes. It is unclear if they pioneered the Our Lady barometer statue, which proved to be one of the all-time best-selling items of popular piety. If you need one urgently, it is also marketed in the USA: “Watch this little statue of Blessed Mother Mary as her mantle changes color with the weather. This special devotional is not just a statue but is totally unique because it is a barometer too! The variety of the weather will be signaled by the changing colors of the statue. Blue for fine weather. Pink for bad weather. Mauve for changeable weather.” https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/barometer-statue-blessed-virgin-mary-253515764
Header image and final image: Both photos of Our Lady statues in souvenir shop in Lourdes, Adobe Stock.
Images by the author: The Our Lady barometer statue is shown in its ‘fair weather’ state displaying a blue color. Other weather is available. The photo of the Café Pachamama was taken by the author while walking to Santiago de Compostela in September 2021.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).