Have you ever thought about going on a pilgrimage? The Feast of St. James is a great opportunity to think about this type of spiritual journey. St. James, known as James the Greater and one of the Apostles and a son of Zebedee—along with John—is known for many things, among them being generally considered the first of the Apostles to be martyred.
After returning to Judea, James was executed by Herod Agrippa I in 44 A.D. According to local tradition, his remains were taken by a group of his disciples on board a boat, which was in turn guided to Iberia by angels, and now rest in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
After a hermit received a vision and discovered the tomb of St. James, the site was officially established. It developed at first as a small town, called Campus de la Stella, and a monastery, in the ninth century A.D. at the behest of the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, and the Archbishop of Galicia, Gelmirez.
It is this final resting place that is central to one of the most famous pilgrimages—and one of the three which, when undertaken, earns the pilgrim a plenary indulgence. El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is the name of this pilgrimage. While there are a variety of routes commonly taken, each has the ultimate destination of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. By far the most popular route is the Via Regia and the final stretch, the Camino Frances or French Route.
While the Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point for the pilgrimage, many foreign pilgrims begin the journey in one of several places in France. A second popular route is the Northern Way, alongside the Bay of Biscay. This route was established in the Middle Ages as an effort to avoid the large areas of Spain controlled by the Muslim Moors. The importance of the Way of St. James in Spain is not without good reason. St. James is the patron saint of the country, and through legend acquired the name “Matamoros,” which translates as “Moor-slayer.” Whenever the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, it is celebrated as part of a Jubilee year, and a special eastern entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is opened, and the average numbers of pilgrims making the journey skyrockets into the hundreds of thousands.
Though going on the actual pilgrimage is of course a tremendous undertaking, you can delve deeper into the traditions and explore the spiritual values with a variety of sources, like The Way of St. James DVD, in the comfort of your own home.
There are also ample opportunities to experience this sacred journey in person. Places like 206 Tours offer guided, group experiences as you walk along the 11-day route. While some tours pre-arrange luxury hotels, there are dozens of hostels and dormitories specifically for pilgrims along the way, called albergues or refugios. These cozy accommodations cost as little as a half-dozen euros per person each night, and cater to the particular needs of pilgrims.
The journey itself takes the pilgrim across the gorgeous country in northern Spain, through vineyards and orchards and, if started in one of the common starting point towns in France, through the majestic Pyrenees bordering the two countries. The Camino is frequented by pilgrims from all over the world, “a virtual UN” of the faithful come to venerate the resting place of St. James, as put by Brian Wilson on his Pilgrim’s Tales site.
The result of either walking over 100 kilometers or biking over 200 is the receipt of a compostela, certifying that the journey was undertaken and granting the pilgrim an indulgence; this practice was established during the Middle Ages and persists today. It is an opportunity that tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries engage in every year.
Even if you don’t want to or can’t experience the pilgrimage firsthand, you can simply learn more about this incredible tradition from any of Aquinas and More’s varied books or DVDs. Delve deeper into the traditions of the Catholic faith this summer, and let Aquinas and More be your resource!