A Journey for the Faithful

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain


Pilgrims at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

By + More

On foot, bicycle, even horseback, they make their way individually or in groups along routes dotted with Romanesque churches and monasteries and through villages that have existed since the Middle Ages. They come in growing numbers, modern-day pilgrims in this secular age in a search for their spiritual selves. Their destination: the shrine of the apostle James in Santiago de Compostela.

With its overpowering 11th-century cathedral in which the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles converge, Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain has been one of three major Christian pilgrimage sites, along with Jerusalem and Rome, since the ninth century. According to legend, the relics of St. James, who is believed to have preached in Spain before returning to Jerusalem and martyrdom at the hands of the Romans around A.D. 41, were found by the hermit Pelayo eight centuries later after a vision.

Historians doubt the account, but the mystery and the spiritual power of the pilgrimage itself, the Camino, draw the faithful and the curious. "The idea that life is a pilgrimage and that the really important aspects of life have been revealed to them through their experience of the route is a constant in the pilgrims' narratives," says Nieves Herrero Pérez, an anthropologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Requirements. The vast majority of pilgrims today do not have the time or the energy to walk the more than 600-mile traditional routes from France, a journey that can take two months or more. Most arrive by tourist bus. Still, each year some 100,000 people are awarded La Compostela, the Latin certificate bestowed upon pilgrims by the Roman Catholic Church.

To receive the document, pilgrims must walk or ride horseback at least the final 62 miles (125 miles on bicycle) to the cathedral, where they present an authorized passport stamped to show where the traveler stayed en route. "The bodily effort of walking a long distance is related to the penitential character of pilgrimage, and the shelters reflect the pilgrims' renunciation of their normal comforts and the idea of earthly life as passage," says Herrero Pérez.

Most important, pilgrims who want to receive La Compostela must also declare "religious" or "spiritual" motives for their journey. In 1989, when Pope John Paul ii visited Santiago, only 5,760 received La Compostela, but by the 2004 Holy Year nearly 180,000 people had gone home with the prized certificate. (A Holy Year is a year in which the Feast of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday.)

"A lot of people set out not being really sure what they are looking for," says Laurie Dennett, a former chairman of the London-based Confraternity of Saint James, which promotes knowledge of the Camino. Dennett says that, like many others, she didn't embark on her first pilgrimage 21 years ago as a religious undertaking. (She went, in part, to raise money for a multiple sclerosis charity because her mother suffered from the disease.) But in what she describes as a typical case, the journey became a spiritual experience. "It taught me," she says, "that there is such a thing as fraternity, that it is a living reality because one is called to make it one."

For centuries, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela faded into near oblivion, a victim of historical forces including the Reformation, Francis Drake's 16th-century invasion of the northwestern Spanish provinces of Galicia and Asturias, the anticlericalism of the French Revolution, and the Spanish government's takeover of church property in 1834, which prevented pilgrims from resting and praying in monasteries on their journey. Even the rediscovery in the 1870s of St. James's relics, hidden in a cathedral wall to protect them from Drake, and their subsequent authentication by the Vatican did not increase the number of pilgrims journeying to Santiago.

That would not happen until a century later when a Galician priest, Elias Valiña Sampredo, produced a series of guidebooks and led a campaign to improve and clearly mark the pilgrimage routes. In 1987, the Council of Europe, an organization that represents all countries on the Continent, designated the Camino as the first cultural itinerary site. It was not until the 1993 Holy Year, however, that thousands of people renewed the tradition established in the Middle Ages by taking to the roads again.

Now, with several hundred thousand pilgrims visiting the cathedral every year, there is concern that its very success could diminish the spiritual experience many seek. Indeed, some 10 million visitors are expected in Santiago for the 2010 Holy Year.