Spain Kissing a Saint
Lalo R. Villar  /  AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez embraces the statue of the apostle St. James during a visit to Santiago de Compostela in October, 2005.
updated 8/21/2009 11:25:28 AM ET 2009-08-21T15:25:28

Spain's Catholic Church has new advice for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela: Don't kiss the saint.

For centuries, pilgrims have visited one of Roman Catholicism's holiest shrines — the cathedral holding the purported remains of St. James the Apostle, Spain's patron saint. It was customary for them to hug a statue of St. James and even kiss it.

Now, thanks to fast-spreading swine flu, the church is urging the faithful not to pucker up. It has even removed the holy water that worshippers use to bless themselves in the cathedral in the cobblestone old quarter of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain's northwestern Galicia region.

The cathedral's dean, Jose Maria Diaz, said Friday the campaign has been discreet.

"We have not put up any signs or anything," he told The Associated Press.

Rather, 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," Diaz said.

Shake hands, no kissing
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. Spaniards are now supposed to shake hands.

Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez goofed 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 St. James but they still trade pecks during the Catholic Mass for the kiss of peace, Diaz said.

'Putting a fence around the countryside'
"As we say in Spanish, this is like trying to put a fence around the countryside," Diaz 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, shifting instead to a weekly estimate. By that measure, it says Spain is seeing more than 10,000 cases new cases of swine flu per week.

Luis Alemparte, a 67-year-old man from the Canary Islands, said he had embraced the statue of St. James rather than kiss it, but in any case he was not afraid of swine flu.

"If you come down with flu, either you get better or St. James is here to take you to heaven," Alemparte told the Spanish news agency EFE.

More on: Spain | swine flu

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