The pilgrimage to St. James


Spain: Last year, nearly 69,000 people walked to an ancient city identified with the remains of the apostle. It is a trek with religious, and cultural social implications.

January 13, 2004|By Elizabeth Bryant | Elizabeth Bryant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain - They come sunburned and sore-kneed from Sweden, San Diego and Sri Lanka. They come with boots spattered with mud of the Pyrenees, with blisters hardened into calluses many miles ago. They come to heal suffering. To find faith. To make the hike of a lifetime.

Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have come to this Galician city built, it is said, on the remains of the Apostle James. But they have never been so many, or come from so far.

Over the past two decades, the recorded number of pilgrims trekking to Santiago de Compostela has soared from 120 in 1982 - when certification of their journey was reintroduced - to nearly 69,000 last year. Add religious visitors flocking in by tour bus, airplane and train, and the yearly total might surpass 2 million, experts say.

The figures are deceptive, since no accurate accounting exists of the thousands of pilgrims who arrived before 1982. Nonetheless, pilgrimage researchers say, the recent surge has been astonishing, and attests to a new era of spiritual uncertainty and seeking - coinciding with a surge of interest in hiking and in the past.

"There's a general recognition that the pilgrimage goes beyond a purely religious phenomenon," says Olivier Cebe, a French member of the International Committee of Experts on the Road to St. James. "It's become a social phenomenon, a cultural institution in Europe."

Medieval-era route

Efforts to upgrade the main, muddy, medieval-era route to Santiago from France helped fuel the renaissance, Cebe says. Church and lay associations built hostels along the way, and installed road signs decorated with the trademark, scalloped shell of St. James. The United Nations proclaimed Santiago a world heritage site that draws Christians, Buddhists, Jews and even atheists.

The improvements coincided with surging European interest in hiking - and, particularly in France, a renewed appreciation for the country's heritage.

Pilgrimage clubs mushroomed. So did a network of alternate routes to Santiago; not just from France, but from Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Along the way, the pilgrims have heartened Europe's Roman Catholic clergy, providing support in the battle to have a reference to religious heritage included in a draft European Union constitution.

"The idea of pilgrimage, particularly to Santiago, shows how Europeans centuries ago had a sense of common identity, which was strongly influenced by Christianity," says John Coughlan, spokesman for the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, in Brussels, Belgium.

Catholic leaders are organizing a special pilgrimage in April, culminating with a theological conference in Santiago, to mark Santiago's holy year and the entry of 10 new countries into the European Union.

But for pilgrims like Suzanne Da Rosa, who ended her journey to Santiago one sunny autumn afternoon, the road raises more basic concerns.

"Much of it is just about walking," says Da Rosa, 52, as she searches for a hotel room with a half-dozen fellow travelers. "You're thinking about which side of the road has fewer rocks. Or whether you can make it to the next bathroom stop. Your feet and legs hurt. You're tired. You're hot."

A poet from Glen Ellen, Calif., Da Rosa vowed she would take the Santiago road after attending an art exhibition on the pilgrimage. After her youngest daughter graduated from high school, she did. Now, 500 weary miles later, clad in worn boots and hand-washed clothes, Da Rosa gropes to explain the experience.

"It wasn't a journey in the religious, spiritual sense," says Da Rosa, a nonpracticing Catholic, who began walking from Roncesvalles Pass in the Spanish Pyrenees with her oldest daughter, Georgia. "I grew up in the '50s and early '60s, when religion was something you feared. But along the camino [road], I began looking at Mary, the mother figure, in churches of towns I passed by. I began to identify with her."

Along Santiago's narrow, cobblestone streets, pilgrims like Da Rosa are scruffy but tolerated fixtures. They plop heavy backpacks alongside pews during Mass at the city's soaring, granite cathedral. They salute each other at tapas bars and cafes, renewing alliances sealed by shared dormitories, Band-Aids and chocolate bars during a journey called "the camino."

"These tourists don't make any trouble for us," says Alberto Fernandez Garrido, who owns a silver shop in Santiago's historic district. "They're quite polite. They're very cultured tourists."

According to legend, early Christians placed the body of the martyred St. James in a boat and pushed it out to sea. It came ashore on the rocky beaches of Galicia in northwestern Spain. In the 9th century, a hermit discovered the apostle's tomb in a forest. The first pilgrims arrived soon after, and the city of Santiago de Compostela was born.

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