The pilgrimage to the Apostle

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which began with the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle in the ninth century, has given rise to countless experiences of pilgrims, who during the Holy Year, Jesus Christ wants to reach in a special way to the bottom of the soul of the one who walks.

Javier Peño Iglesias-August 9, 2021-Reading time: 7 minutes
Pilgrims to Santiago

When in 1122, Pope Calixtus II granted the grace of the Jubilee Year to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, probably no one could have imagined the magnitude that the pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle would reach so many centuries later.

Indeed, in the medieval mind it was inconceivable to think of hundreds of thousands of Europeans arriving in the small Galician town every year, let alone that most of them were not even Sunday Mass Catholics! But, as things are, in this Jacobean year 2021-22 the reality is what it is. However, the Way of St. James continues to be an obvious attraction that God uses to continue calling men and women of all times to meet with Him, just as Jesus did the encounter with the disciples of Emmaus.

Because, despite the growing secularization, probably represented today in the concept of 'turigrino', the different routes that lead to Compostela continue to speak of God. From the extraordinary Christian art, heritage of an almost extinct Christianity, to nature, one of the ways to prove the existence of God for St. Thomas Aquinas, through the Christian welcome in the hostels. Not to mention the innumerable crucifixes that, especially in Galicia, pilgrims can see while walking. Even a town founded by a saint, bridge builder and hospitaler like few others, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Therefore, despite the loss of faith in the social sphere, the Camino de Santiago still has a clear Christian identity -Catholic, to be precise-.

The silence of the Camino

On the Camino de Santiago, man, created in the image of God, also encounters silence, remoteness from the hustle and bustle of modern life and, although he often does not rest until he has a good WiFi connection, it is inevitable that he will have to get used to losing the connectivity with the world to which he is accustomed. You will soon realize how liberating it is, especially when you are on pilgrimage for several weeks. The task will be to be able to live just as freely when you return home. In any case, the encounter with oneself opens the door to discover that, in the depths of the human heart, there is a call to communion with God. And, in God, with others.

This communion is one of the great existential metaphors that the Camino de Santiago gives us. All heading to the same place from places as diverse as Irun, Roncesvalles, Madrid, Fatima, Seville... from wherever one begins the pilgrimage, since, despite the official routes, it cannot be said that the Camino is this or that, but that the Jacobean route is any road that leads to Santiago. Likewise, some will be more athletic, others less; some will be more determined in their determination and others less; some will go to hostels saving money, so often just, there will be those who sleep in places more conditioned without thinking so much about the expenses. And so on and so forth. But we are all pilgrims. In the same way, Christian life is a pilgrimage to Christ, each one from his own charism. All together, all with the same goal, but each one with his own talents at stake.

Towards the same objective

In fact, this is how the different routes we know today originated. It all began with the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle, in the first third of the ninth century. According to the legends in the Concordia de Antealtares and the Cronicón Iriense, it was an anchorite named Pelayo, a man of prayer, who discovered the tomb when he glimpsed some bright luminaries. Upon verifying and intuiting that the remains found in the Libredon forest belonged to someone important, he soon passed the news to the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, who confirmed the identity of the man whose remains rested there: Santiago the Great, apostle of Jesus Christ and first martyr of the Twelve Apostles. He then informed the king of Asturias, Alfonso II the Chaste, who decided to travel personally to the place to prostrate himself before the one who bowed his knees before God made man. Thus, the good news was gaining international scope to the point of reaching Carolingian France and Rome, as well as the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

With a spirit of faith, upon hearing such great news, believing men and women from different places set out for the incipient Compostela, soon populated by a primitive church that the chaste king ordered to be built to protect and venerate the apostolic tomb. Thus were born the roads to Santiago, with those pilgrims who, from their places of origin, traveled to the eastern end of the peninsula to visit the Apostle St. James. Naturally, they took advantage of the already existing roads, especially the Roman roads, although, at a time when Roman Hispania was conquered by the Muslims, it was not always easy. 

It is remarkable how, as the Christianization of the peninsula progressed southward, the main routes to Compostela took shape. For example, the primitive French road did not follow the current route, but followed the Roman road XXXIV (via Aquitana), which linked Bordeaux with Astorga, passing through Pamplona, Álava, Briviesca or Carrión de los Condes, and not through Logroño and Burgos, as it does today. But the need to consolidate the Christian kingdoms, especially that of Nájera, led Sancho III the Great to modify the route towards the south, which was also helped by the incipient expansion of the monasteries dependent on the great Benedictine abbey of Cluny, in France. Elsewhere in the Peninsula, in the west, we have the Via de la Plata, which in Roman times linked Merida and Astorga and was also used by those making the pilgrimage to Santiago. From the earliest days, the Way of St. James united past, present and future: it gathered an infrastructure, put it in value - in many cases Christianizing it - and bequeathed a tradition to those who would later arrive.

Welcoming pilgrims

A paradigmatic example of this is that of St. Dominic de la Calzada, a man who, after not being admitted to the monastic life, retired to a remote forest to spend the rest of his days praying almost like a hermit. However, his particular world leakage was interrupted by the pilgrims who, due to the deviation of the Way that the king had ordered, were passing by without knowing very well where they were going. Domingo García understood the designs of providence and welcomed them as if they were Christ himself. He even fixed the roads and built, among others, the famous bridge that is located today at the exit of the French road in the town of Calceatense. His most famous disciple, San Juan de Ortega, did not lag behind him and did the same a few kilometers further west, as we are reminded by the monastery where his relics rest today and where every year hundreds of women come who wish to have a long descendants, as the church has a capital of the Annunciation famous for being illuminated by sunlight only on the days of the autumn equinoxes and especially in spring, very close to the solemnity of the Annunciation.

These unsuspected encounters, which are capable of orienting a whole life in a decisive way towards God, constitute, perhaps, the core of what the Way of St. James means for the pilgrim of the 21st century of whom we spoke at the beginning. There are very many of us who have encountered God on our way to Compostela, even when we were not, strictly speaking, pilgrims, but simple wayfarers, even when we were not walking to a person, but to a place. But, as the Lord says in the Apocalypse, He is always at the door knocking at our door (Rev. 3:20). It is a matter of allowing ourselves to be surprised, because he is always wanting to be surprised.

Beyond the fact that ascending O' Cebreiro in 2010 I saw clearly my priestly vocation for the first time, an example of this that I write happened to me in August 2019, when I completed the Camino from the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid, where I was ordained deacon and presbyter in April 2018. The route followed was not the official one, but rather, to pass through the town of the friend with whom I made the pilgrimage, which is Palaciosrubios, in Salamanca, we took a detour along agricultural roads to Arévalo, from there we walked to Palaciosrubios along as many paths - sometimes, literally, passing through inhospitable villages - and, from the town of Salamanca, we headed northwest until connecting with the Vía de la Plata in Zamora to, finally, take the Sanabria variant. 

Camino Experiences

Why am I telling this itinerary? Very simple: while walking through places that are not protected and are not very frequented, one morning we were surrounded by five mastiffs that were blocking our way. It was a very tense few minutes, but we managed to get out of the problem. 

Fear accompanied me, as I prayed with him. Surely the Lord allowed all this for a reason. I can say that these experiences changed the meaning of the Camino that year and I arrived in Santiago thinking that the only fear I had to have in life was to sin, to separate myself from the Lord. Well, when we crossed the arches and the steps that lead to the Obradoiro square from the Immaculate Conception square, we stood in front of the majestic façade, knelt down and prayed an Our Father together. When we finished, I continued a little longer, I put that inner silence that only those who have completed something great can understand, and the Lord placed in my heart an extraordinary grace, which the reader will understand I will not share out of a sense of modesty. The fact is that the gift of tears accompanied that experience. I don't know how long I was there, on my knees, but I do know that no one saw those tears. And I took care of it. I looked down at the ground with my face covered by my hands and canes and only got up when I recovered. I went to my friend and, at that moment, a pilgrim appeared, who was not Spanish and whom I had not seen before, came up to me and said: "You have really done the Camino. You are a true pilgrim". I immediately associated that message with the grace I had obtained and understood that the Lord was confirming it. 

The fact is that, as I said before, the Lord always calls and always finds us. Our task is to allow ourselves to be made, and for this, without a doubt, in this 21st century, he is using the Way of St. James as a privileged instrument. That is why it is worthwhile to set out for Compostela. Even if you do not have the holiest intentions, a small opening is enough for the grace to enter. The pilgrimage is a clear shot, and in the Jubilee years like this 2021 (and 2022) Jesus Christ is willing to reach the depths of our soul on the Camino. This is what he did with James, the son of Zebedee, who was able to give Jesus the most intimate and personal thing he had: his own life.

This is the full meaning of the Way as a metaphor for the Christian life: to complete the race that will take us to Heaven. To do this, once again, we will arrive at the city of the Apostle to place ourselves under his protection, ask for his help and rest our hearts in the one who was able to do the same with the Son of God. We will go to confession, attend Holy Mass, receive Holy Communion and, having received the plenary indulgence for our sins after praying for the Holy Father and his intentions, we will begin our return home. And as we leave the cathedral with emotion, we will contemplate that precious chrism on the door of Platerías with the letters alpha and omega placed in reverse order, reminding us that the end of the Jacobean route is nothing more than the beginning of a life of conversion, an existence decisively oriented towards God.

The authorJavier Peño Iglesias

Priest, journalist and pilgrim to Santiago.

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