Curtis Williams, a longtime resident of Spain and veteran leader of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, takes readers on a jaunt to the crossroads of history, legend, and devotion in this look at the past, present, and future of one of the great pilgrimage sites — and routes — of Christianity, at the rough outset of the Jubilee Year of St James, underway in 2021.
It’s safe to say that very few people were unhappy to see the back of 2020 as it drew to a close. The beginning of vaccination campaigns in several countries in December, along with continuing investigation into improved treatments for those suffering from the disease, have raised hopes worldwide for an end to the pandemic that has ravaged the global economy and caused the death of roughly 1.8 million people worldwide as of 1 January 2021.
For Catholics, a series of events at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 can serve as a reminder that we have further reason for hope beyond discovery of an effective vaccine, the reason for which ultimately rests on our faith in the promise of redemption in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
On 8 December Pope Francis published the Apostolic Letter, Patris corde (“With a Father’s Heart”), recalling the 150th anniversary of the declaration of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church and declaring 2021 the Year of St. Joseph. Among other points, the Holy Father urged Catholics everywhere to look to St. Joseph as a model of humility, courage and patient acceptance of the will of God in our present difficulties and all of the circumstances of life.
Meanwhile, here in Spain, Archbishop Julian Barrio of the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela, accompanied by numerous ecclesiastical dignitaries and political figures from Galicia and other parts Spain, marked the start of Compostela’s 2021 Jubilee Holy Year on 31 December with the ceremonial opening of the cathedral’s Holy Door and a Mass.
This follows eleven years of intensive 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 the Apostles of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For over 1,000 years it has been the destination of hundreds of millions of pilgrims who have made their way to Santiago de Compostela from every corner of Europe along the famous pilgrims’ route, the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James).
During these years, pilgrims may enter the cathedral through the Holy Door, located behind the high altar and the tomb of St. James. More importantly, 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:
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 6, 5, 6, and 11 years. The last Holy Year was in 2010; the next one will therefore occur in 2027.
During such years, the number of pilgrims visiting the tomb of St. James swells dramatically. Once a strictly European phenomenon, pilgrims now flock to Compostela from every continent.
The granting of plenary indulgences to those who visit the shrine of the Apostle during Holy Years was granted to the see of Compostela in 1122 by Pope Calixtus II, a privilege recorded and confirmed 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 both the significance and the popularity of the medieval pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, the third most important shrine in Christendom after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and St. Peter’s in Rome.
But 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). Their efforts met with little success, however, 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, there is another ancient Spanish tradition which 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, who was bi-located from Jerusalem, where she was still living.
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, when the Virgin suddenly appeared before him, accompanied by a group of angels bearing a small pillar made of jasper.
Assuring him that the seeds he had sown by his preaching would indeed bear fruit in time, she gave him the pillar and instructed him to build a small temple on the site. This he did, as well as ordaining one of the recent converts to care for the small Christian community they had founded there, before returning to Jerusalem and martyrdom.
The martyrdom of St. James and the Translation of his relics to Spain
Once back in Jerusalem, James soon received the palm of martyrdom, decapitated by order of King Herod Agrippa I, an event recorded in the New Testament:
About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)
His companions recovered his head and body, determined to set sail once more for Hispania, intending to bury their teacher there and continue preaching the Gospel. (The pious legends of the Middle Ages tell the story of a journey by sea that, guided by the hand of God, took only seven days despite travelling in a boat that had neither sail nor rudder.) Landing near the small settlement of Padrón and the city of Iria Flavia where they had previously proclaimed the Gospel, they made their way inland, searching for a suitable place to bury the body and head of their master.
It turned out not to be an easy task.
The disciples had to overcome a number of obstacles, including the opposition of a local pagan queen named Lupa (or Atia), who at one point sought to have them killed, before herself converting and finally allowing them to lay St. James to rest. Two of them, Athanasius and Theodore, stayed behind to watch over the tomb and minister to the small Christian community that grew up around it thanks to their preaching, while the other five eventually returned to once more to Jerusalem.
The rediscovery of the tomb of St. James
At what precise point in time the memory of the Apostle’s tomb was lost is unclear. The vicissitudes of time and history—persecutions of the Church by Imperial Rome; the subsequent decline of the her power and the successive waves of barbarian tribes invading the Peninsula after her collapse; the birth of Visigoth kingdom of Spain and its eventual destruction at the hands of the Muslim invaders in AD 711—all took their toll. The latter, particularly, saw many Christians abandon the area altogether as they fled to the mountainous reaches of Asturias, the only region of the peninsula that was to remain completely free of Moorish domination for the next seven hundred years.
It was in AD 813 that a Christian hermit living in the region, Pelayo (Pelagius), reported receiving an angelic visitation. Hearing the sound of heavenly voices singing, he was drawn to a small hill in the forest where he lived by the appearance of a brilliant star illuminating the exact spot where the tomb of St. James had for centuries lay hidden. Hurrying to the nearby city of Iria Flavia, he reported the miracle to the local bishop, Teodomiro, who wasted no time in journeying to the spot himself and confirming the tomb’s existence.
The bishop immediately communicated the discovery to both King Alfonso II of Asturias who not only ordered the immediate construction of a chapel on the site but also travelled there as a pilgrim to visit the Apostles’ tomb. Word was also sent to Pope Leo III, who in turn proclaimed the joyful news of the miraculous rediscovery to the whole of the Christian world.
The pilgrimage of St. James and The Road to Compostela in the Middle Ages
Within a few short years 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 steadily increasing numbers of pilgrims, King Alfonso III ordered the construction of a larger, pre-Romanesque building to take the place of the one his father had built seventy years earlier.
The first clearly documented pilgrimage of which we have record took place in the year 950, when an archbishop named Gotescalc from Aquitaine in southern France arrived at the head of a large retinue of pilgrims. From this point onwards, the steady stream of pilgrims became a torrent, and Santiago de Compostela quickly surpassed both Jerusalem (too far away and too dangerous a journey) and Rome (requiring a difficult crossing through the Alps) in popularity as a destination for pilgrims from the north and west of Europe.
The allure and popularity of the pilgrimage to Compostela throughout medieval Europe is difficult to overstate, as is the influence it had on the forging of a common European identity. A vast network of monasteries, convents, pilgrims’ hospitals and refuges sprung up along the route to provide for the spiritual and material needs of pilgrims. The steady flow of pilgrim traffic contributed enormously, both economically and demographically to the repopulation, expansion, and defence of territories wrested from the control of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula.
Along with the pilgrims pouring across the Pyrenees en route to Compostela came craftsmen, merchants, stonemasons and builders, knights, and farmers enticed by the tax exemptions and offers of land made by the kings of Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Leon, who needed skilled craftsmen for their building projects, soldiers for their wars against the Muslim kingdoms, and settlers to repopulate the towns reconquered from them.
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. Some of the leading figures of history such as St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Aragon, and the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella have made the journey to the tomb of St. James. The popularity of the pilgrimage endured right up until the religious upheavals in Western Christendom provoked by the Protestant Revolution, and the religious scepticism resulting from the period of the Enlightenment.
From the 18th century onwards, however, the torrent of pilgrims making their way to the Apostle’s tomb gradually decreased to a trickle.
By the early 20th century there were seldom more than a few hundred arriving at the cathedral each year, many of them specialists in medieval or Spanish history with an interest in the Camino de Santiago as an historical phenomenon. In 1972, the cathedral registered the arrival of just 72 pilgrims in one of the traditional manners (i.e., on foot or horseback). Ten years later, in the Holy Year of 1982, the year that Pope John Paul II made his first apostolic visit to Spain and visited the tomb of St. James, the number was 1,868.
In 2019, before the global pandemic struck, the Pilgrim’s Office at the cathedral registered the arrival of 347,585 pilgrims who had made the journey on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. What explains this dramatic increase?
The Contemporary Revival of the Pilgrimage to Santiago
Contemporary interest in the Camino de Santiago and its renewed popularity can be explained, in part, by a series of religious and secular events that took place in the 1980s:
These events resulted in an explosion of renewed interest that dramatically expanded the awareness of the pilgrimage and has continued to the present. While the overwhelming majority of the pilgrims making their way to the Apostle’s tomb each year still come from Europe, pilgrims now flock to Compostela from every continent. More noteworthy still is its growing popularity not only among Catholics, but with significant numbers of Protestants, followers of non-Christian religions, agnostics, and even atheists.
The pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Compostela is one the Church’s oldest and most venerable traditions. 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 powerful testimony to our need for conversion.
Undertaking the journey in a penitential spirit can open our hearts to that conversion more profoundly and obtain innumerable graces for ourselves and others.
It also connects us to the hopes and the prayers of the millions of pilgrims, our brothers and sisters in the Faith over the course of centuries, who travelled the Way in faith before us despite their fears and the uncertainty of the times in which they too lived.
Curtis Williams is an expatriate teacher and translator, with more than 20 years’ experience on the Way of St. James. He writes from Pamplona.
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