The Way of St. James is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galacia in northwestern Spain, where tradition tells us that the remains of the saint are buried. The Way of St. James or the El Camino was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, along with Rome and Jerusalem and one where a plenary indulgence could be earned. Legend tells us that the saint’s remains were transported by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on what is now the city of Santiago de Compstela.
The Way can take one of dozens of pilgrimage routes to Santiago. Traditionally, as with a lot of pilgrimages, the Way starts at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However, a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly travelled. Yet, the Black Death, Protestant Reformation and the political unrest in 16th century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Later, the route attracted a growing number of pilgrims. The route was the first to be declared an European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1987. It was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Whenever, St. James’ Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Jubilee Year. The most recent was 2010. The next will be 2021.
The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. As the symbol, the shell is seen very frequently along the trails. The shell is seen on posts and signs along the route in order to guide pilgrims along the way. The shell is also seen on pilgrims themselves as wearing a shell shows you are a traveler on the Camino. Most pilgrims receive a shell at the start of their journey and either attach it to themselves by sewing it onto their clothes or wearing it around their neck or simply keeping it in their backpack. The pilgrim’s staff is a walking staff used by pilgrims to the shrine . Usually the stick has a hook on it so that something may be hung from it and may have a crosspiece on it.
Today, tens of thousands of Christians and many others set out each year to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few by horseback. In addition to those making a religious pilgrimage, many others walk the route for non-religious reasons like travel or sport. And many consider it a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the hustle and bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat.
Pilgrims on the Way walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They follow many routes but the most popular route is Via Regia and its last part the French Way. The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points along the French border are St. Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport.
In Spain, France and Portugal, pilgrim’s hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial. It usually costs between 6 to 10 euros per night per bed. Pilgrims are usually limited to one night’s stay and are expected to leave by eight in the morning to continue their pilgrimage.
Most pilgrims carry a document called the credencial which is a pass which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation along the trail. Also known as a “pilgrim’s passport” the credencial is stamped with the official St. James’ stamp of each town or hostel at which the pilgrim has stayed. It serves a record of where they ate or slept. It also provides proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route.
The compostela is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims upon finishing their pilgrimage. To earn it, one needs to walk at least 100 km. At the Pilgrim’s Office, the credencial is examined for stamps and dates, and the pilgrim is asked to state whether the motivation was “religious,” “religious and other” or “other.” In the case of the first two, a compostela is available. In the case of “other” there is a simpler certificate in Spanish. The Pilgrim’s Office gives more than 100,000 compostelas each year to pilgrims from more than 100 different countries.
A Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. The highlight of the service is the synchronization of the “Hymn to Santiago” with the spectacular swinging of the huge Botafumeiro, the famous thurible kept in the cathedral. Incense is burned in this swinging metal container or censor.
The Camino has been highlighted in TV show “Rick Steves’ Europe” and the movie “The Way.”