The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 3, 2000 Issue

Travel broadens

Visit to Spain, Tangier was rewarding

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Two weeks in Spain and perhaps 30 hours in Tangier, Morocco, certainly don't make me an expert. But I did come away smarter than I had been and with some impressions of both.

Eager to escape winter in Wisconsin, Jackie and I spent the first half of February on the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean Sea in southern Spain.

We were in the Andalusia region, which felt most strongly the Muslim Moorish influence from 711 until 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, through the Inquisition, ordered all Muslims and Jews out of Spain. Even then, many Jews and Muslims remained in Andalusia where they were accepted by their neighbors. That is hardly surprising given that in this region of Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews had lived together in peace for about 700 years. As our guide - who is a Basque from northern Spain - told us, the people of other regions of Spain argue to convince people of the rightness of their views, while the people of Andalusia argue to explain what they believe.

The influence of the Muslim Moors, who came from north Africa, can be seen in buildings with arches that look like an old-fashioned key. About 25% of the words in Spanish have Muslim origins, including words that start in "Al" or "Guad." We saw few mosques (many were converted into Catholic churches) or synagogues in Andalusia, but they are there.

One thing that's clearly obvious when traveling in Spain is the importance of religion - particularly Catholicism. Many places had shrines to the saints, usually Mary.

One I remember well was at the harbor in Marbella, an exclusive Mediterranean resort city whose full or part-time residents include the king of Saudi Arabia, Sean Connery and Nancy Sinatra and scores of Mercedes. Facing the yachts in the harbor was a Marian shrine three or four-feet square and eight or nine-feet high. Beneath the statue, barred off from prying hands, were numerous coins. Some shrines were only a foot or so square and perhaps two-feet high. Often, the saints' statue was only from the waist up. The idea behind the shrines is similar to that of the numerous Marian shrines we see in yards around here, but the execution was quite different and the statues had a Mediterranean Spanish, rather than northern European, look.

We went to Mass two Saturday evenings at San Miguel Church near our apartment in Torremolinos. There was seating for about 225, but more than 300 people wedged in, just like Christmas Eve or Easter. The people really sang, all by heart. Once again, that helped prove my belief that if we want people to sing well at Mass, we can't be constantly introducing new (especially new, hard-to-sing) music. Everything was orderly until Communion when everyone seemed intent on being first. At the collection, a basket was passed from person-to-person. To keep us from making change or loans, the slot was big enough to drop in money. While there were many tourists at Mass, there also were many residents.

We learned that Spain has the lowest birthrate in all of Europe - 1.07 children per family. The people who study such things say they aren't sure why. It's unclear to me whether anyone asked young, married Spanish couples why they were having only one child, or if they asked but couldn't get answers. At any rate, the authorities are worried, since it portends a dying country.

In Tangier, we saw many contrasts. Women wearing modern, Western clothes could be seen close to those wearing the traditional jellaba (a long, loose-fitting robe) and a veil (only married Muslim women cover their faces with a veil). Many men also wore the jellaba. While cars are common, donkeys are also used for transportation. Much too common were the concrete shells of partially-completed apartment buildings needing the infusion of more money. Unemployment is at 19%. We saw mosques, synagogues and Christian churches in Tangier.

We heard two interesting talks on Islam, including an explanation of the basic belief or five pillars: belief in God and Muhammad, his prophet; prayer five times a day; almsgiving of 2.5% of their wealth to the poor each year; fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if possible.

One speaker in particular emphasized that Islam is not a fanatical religion, though it does have some fanatical members or factions, as do most religions. But, he asked, don't judge Islam by them. I came away with a new respect for Muslims, but with no desire to convert.

Of course, much more could be said, but there's no more space in which to say it. But it was a tremendous experience.

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