With the pandemic keeping so many imprisoned in their own homes for months, perhaps there has never been a better year to consider walking the 480 miles Compostela, otherwise known as the Way of St James. A Holy Year in Santiago occurs any time the Memorial of the Martyrdom of St James (25 July) falls on a Sunday, as it does in 2021. This means the cycle of Holy Years repeats every six, five, six and 11 years. The last Holy Year was in 2010; the next one is in 2027.
The beginning of the 2021 Jubilee Holy Year of St James – the synonymous saint of the famous pilgrimage route – was marked by Archbishop Julian Barrio of the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela ritually opening the ancient cathedral Holy Door of Saint James the Great and celebrating mass.
This followed 11 years of restoration work on both the cathedral’s Baroque façade and her Romanesque and Gothic interior. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stands above the tomb, which tradition holds to contain the relics of the St James the Greater, the brother of St John the Evangelist and one of the Apostles of Christ.
For over 1,000 years, it has been the destination of millions of pilgrims who have made their way to Santiago de Compostela from every corner of the world. Some idea of how it has become turned into the world’s number one “super-pilgrimage” route in the last 40 years is indicated by the number of pilgrim passports issued. In 1985, 690 passports were issued; in 2019 there were 347,578.
Pope Calixtus II granted plenary indulgences to those who visit the Apostle’s shrine during Holy Years was granted to the see of Compostela in 1122. This privilege was recorded in the bull, Regis Aeterni, issued by Pope Alexander III in 1179. That a permanent privilege of this nature was granted to a shrine, not in Rome, attests to the significance of medieval pilgrimages to the tomb of St James, one of the most popular shrines in Christendom after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s in Rome and Canterbury.
On arrival – to qualify for a pilgrim’s passport, one must have walked at least 100km – pilgrims enter the cathedral through the Holy Door, located behind the high altar and the tomb of St James.
Whether or not they enter the cathedral through the Holy Door, they can gain a plenary indulgence granting the full remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins, or those of the deceased, by fulfilling the following conditions: visiting the tomb of St James in the cathedral of Santiago; saying prayers: minimally, by praying the Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father, and a prayer for the intentions of the Pope. It is recommended (though not required) that the pilgrim attend mass; receiving the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion.
So how did the relics of St James, martyred by King Herod Agrippa I in Jerusalem in AD 44, end up in the remote and wild northwestern corner of Roman Hispania in the first place?
The preaching of St James and his companions in Spain
According to the tradition, some time after the events of Pentecost, St James travelled to Hispania, at the western edge of the Roman Empire, in the company of seven other disciples. Here they proclaimed the Gospel in the cities of Braga (in Portugal), Iria (a Roman settlement to the north in Gallaecia, now Galicia, where his tomb is today located), and the city of Cesaraugusta (today Zaragoza). However their efforts met with little success and so, disheartened and weary after years of frustrating labour that had resulted in the baptism of only a small number of converts, they resolved to depart Cesaraugusta and return to Jerusalem.
Parallel to this, another ancient Spanish tradition holds that while the disheartened St James and his companions were praying on the bank of the Ebro River in Cesaraugusta, they were astonished by the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St James had been praying to Our Lord for a sign that their efforts to bring the faith to the peoples of Hispania had not been in vain. She instructed him to build a small temple on the site before returning to Jerusalem.
The martyrdom of St.James and the translation of his relics to Spain
Once back in Jerusalem, James was martyred, decapitated by order of King Herod Agrippa I. His companions recovered his head and body, determined to set sail once more for Hispania, intending to bury their teacher there. Landing near the small settlement of Padrón where they had previously proclaimed the Gospel, they made their way inland, searching for a suitable burial place. A local pagan queen – who converted to Christianity – named Lupa (or Atia) finally allowed them to bury St James in a tomb, and a small Christian community grew up around it.
The rediscovery of the tomb of St James
When the memory of the Apostle’s tomb was lost is unclear. There were many factors including the persecutions of Christians by Imperial Rome and the birth of Visigoth kingdom of Spain and its eventual destruction at the hands of Muslim invaders in AD 711. The latter saw many Christians abandon the area altogether. In AD 813, a hermit living in the region, Pelayo (Pelagius), reported an angelic visitation at the spot where the tomb of St James had lain hidden. Hurrying to the nearby city of Iria Flavia, he reported the miracle to the local bishop, Teodomiro. King Alfonso II of Asturias then ordered the construction of a chapel on the site and travelled as a pilgrim to visit the Apostle’s tomb.
The pilgrimage of St James and the road to Compostela in the Middle Ages
Soon, pilgrims from every corner of Christendom began making their way to the shrine. By AD 899, as the first church could no longer accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims, King Alfonso III ordered the construction of a larger building to take the place of the one his father had built 70 years earlier.
The first clearly documented pilgrimage of which we have record took place in the year 950. From this point onwards, the steady stream of pilgrims became a torrent. Santiago de Compostela surpassed Jerusalem and Rome in popularity as a destination for pilgrims from the north and west of Europe. A vast network of monasteries, convents, pilgrims’ hospitals and refuges sprung up along the route to provide for pilgrims’ spiritual and material needs. The steady flow of pilgrim traffic contributed enormously, both economically and demographically, to the repopulation, expansion, and defence of territories wrested from the Moors’ control in the Iberian Peninsula.
Along with the pilgrims pouring across the Pyrenees en route to Compostela came craftsmen and merchants, knights and farmers enticed by the tax exemptions and offers of land made by the kings of Aragon, Navarre, Castile and Leon.
A 12th-century monk of Parthenay-le-Vieux in Poitou, Aymeric Picaud, compiled Europe’s first travel guide by documenting his own pilgrimage to Compostela. St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Aragon, and the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made the journey to the tomb of St James. The popularity of the pilgrimage endured until the religious upheavals in Western Christendom provoked by the Protestant Revolution, and the religious scepticism of the Enlightenment.
But from the 18th century onwards, the torrent of pilgrims making their way to the Apostle’s tomb decreased to a trickle. By the early 20th century, there were seldom more than a few hundred arriving at the cathedral each year. In 1972, the cathedral registered the arrival of just 72 pilgrims in one of the traditional manners (ie foot or horseback).
Ten years later, in 1982, the year Pope John Paul II made his first apostolic visit to Spain as a pilgrim himself and visited the tomb of St James, the number was 1,868. It was indeed in the 1980s that the Camino turned back to being a European pilgrimage cult.
In 1985, UNESCO declared Santiago’s old city centre and its cathedral a World Heritage Site. In 1987, the Council of Europe declared the Camino Europe’s first “European Cultural Itinerary”.
But perhaps the most important factor was investment. In 1993, the regional government of Galicia began promoting the Camino de Santiago as a tourist activity separate from the religious journey.
In a society addicted to comfort, drunk on pleasure, and hostile to the idea of personal responsibility for sin, the pilgrimage to the tomb of St James is a sign of contradiction and a testimony to our need to find meaning.
Undertaking the journey in a penitential spirit can open our hearts to the power of spiritual grace.
Curtis Williams is a teacher, with more than 20 years’ experience on the Way of St James