Stepping into History: The Camino de Santiago

By Christine Mortlock, Minister for Children, Families, and Lifelong Formation

St. Francis of Assisi did it in 1214. Andrew McCarthy, who starred in movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, did it in the early 2000s. And in the spring of 2022, eleven people from (or friends of) St. John’s did it too.

We walked the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Spain.

This May, our St. John’s group hiked the northwestern Spanish provinces of Leon and Galicia. Scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino, hung from our backpacks, Compeed plastered our blistered toes, and hiking poles swung in our arms as we traversed dirt paths, asphalt sidewalks, and cobbled roads for eleven rain-free days. Hiking around fifteen miles a day (with reprieves for a day or two for a few of us), we followed the Camino de Frances, the most popular of several pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. We passed cow pastures, alpine mountains, vineyards, fields of heather and broom, medieval cities, and small farming villages that stunk to high heaven of cow manure. We were strengthened by cafés con leches, daily devotions, stays in two- and three- star hotels with delicious (often ham-inclusive) meals, and conversations with each other and pilgrims from places like New Zealand, Italy, and Germany.

Our ultimate destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, holds the tomb of St. James under its high altar. James the Greater was the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. James and John were two disciples of Jesus’s original twelve disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read of the moment James and John were called to follow Jesus. “As [Jesus] went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:21-22). Much of what we know of James comes from stories that flowered outside the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

Legend holds that St. James travelled to the Iberian Peninsula to preach the Gospel. He wasn’t very successful and returned to the Holy Land only to meet an unfortunate end—he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 C.E. His martyrdom is recorded in the Book of Acts. Legend continues that friends put James’s headless body on a boat to the Iberian Peninsula, and his bones were eventually buried in a Galician field.

In 813 C.E. tradition holds that a Christian hermit named Pelayo heard music and saw lights shining over a small cave on a mountain in Galicia. Digging at the spot, Pelayo found parchment and bones buried there. Pelayo brought Bishop Teodomiro to the site and the bishop declared that the bones were—fantastically—those of St. James. The discovery occurred as Spanish Christians were continuing to galvanize people to fight Muslims who had reached as far north as central France. James became a centralizing figure for Spanish Christians in their fight and patron saint of the country.

The site where his bones were discovered drew pilgrims by the mid-tenth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Camino to earn penance for their sins, serve out a punishment, be healed, or simply to travel. The pilgrimage’s heyday was during the 11th and 12th centuries, and a whole industry grew up around it. It experienced a resurgence of interest in the last thirty years or so, and in 2019 over 325,000 pilgrims made it to Santiago de Compostela, according to the Office of Pilgrims.

Our group started in the city of Astorga, birthplace of chocolate in Europe and home to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace, and stopped along the way in towns like Ponferreda, once a gateway to Rome’s mining region, O Cebreiro, a tiny village high atop mountains, and Rua, with nearby towering and fragrant eucalyptus trees. We covered over one hundred and fifty miles that has been occupied by Celtic tribes, Romans, Germanic tribes, Visigoths, Muslims, Christians, and during the Napoleonic Wars, the French. We found remnants of their occupations in ancient Roman ruins, Celtic thatched roof oval homes, and a large mural on a city building depicting Napoleon’s invading troops. We also found delicious cheeses and fish to feast on, cold rivers to dip our feet into, Baroque Catholic churches with gilded everything and candles in red votives flickering before chapels dedicated to saints like Teresa and the Virgin Mary.

On May 11, we entered Obradoiro Square, stared up at the statue of St. James dressed as a pilgrim on the cathedral’s façade, and joined the millions of pilgrims who have taken this journey before us. Many of us cried—we were so happy and also so bone tired. After hugging each other, we took photos on our cell phones to WhatsApp home to friends and relatives. We’d made it. We’d made it on our tired two feet like so many pilgrims before us.

Main Source & Suggested Reading:
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay. (2000). The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. St. Martin’s Griffin.

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