Monday, July 23, 2012


There are as many reasons for walking a Camino as there are pilgrims.  Some walk for fun, for sport, for religious or spiritual reasons, after the loss of a loved one, to say thank you for something special or grace, after a change in professions, a change of life.  (Very few pilgrims will tell you that they are walking to Santiago in order to venerate the remains of the apostle and pray at his tomb.)
When the Pilgrim's Office asks you this question they are only interested in four possible replies:

Religious. Spiritual. Cultural. Sporting.

They don't ask out of idle curiosity. This is one of the qualifying criteria when pilgrims arrive at the Pilgrims’Office in Santiago to collect the Compostela, a certificate of completion awarded to pilgrims who walk the last 100km to Santiago or cycle the last 200km.

Ticking two out of four will qualify, but if you don’t tick the right box, you don’t get the certificate.  Many pilgrims know this so they tick the first two - or all four - just to make sure.  This probably inflates the statistics of pilgrims walking to Santiago for Religious reasons.  For the first 5 months of this year (2012) the stats showed that Religious reasons for making the pilgrimage was about 41% whilst Religious and other was 53% and not religious was (5,52%)

Canon Genaro Cebrián reminds us that to be granted the Compostela "it is necessary to confess a religious faith. Pilgrims are not asked about their faith, if they are Catholics, Buddhists or Islamists. We only ask that the reason is religious", he added. "Therefore, atheists and agnostics can only aspire to an alternative “welcome” document." (I am a Buddhist, therefore a non-theist, so I don't ask for the Compostela although I did get one after my first walk in 2002)

Perhaps the Pilgrims’ Office should ask the question, “Are you Catholic?” 
It would be interesting to know what percentage of pilgrims who walk, ride or cycle to Santiago is Catholic because this must impact on the person’s reasons for doing the pilgrimage, how they see themselves – as a pilgrim or as a ‘religious tourist’ - and how they see other pilgrims on the road.   
Acts of penance, confession, revering relics, the power of the bones of Saints are all very Catholic and millions of Catholic pilgrims visit the tomb of Santiago every year arriving by plane, train, car, in church groups or on pilgrimage tours.

Every now and then, a returning walking ‘pilgrim’ (Catholic or Protestant – we don’t know) will post a scathing attack on a Forum about his/her fellow pilgrims because they did not fit his/her view of what a real pilgrim is or should be.  E.g: They should have walked further, carried a heavier pack, not taken any transport or had any back-up during the walk, not stayed in hotels, eaten frugally and so on.   

In many cases those who have walked further, carried the heavier pack, not sent their packs ahead, and who have only stayed in pilgrim shelters, feel that their extra (self-imposed) hardship makes them a better pilgrim, more worthy of special treatment.  The question they should ask themselves is, "In whose eyes?" Or, "In whose opinion?"  The Santiago pilgrim's office doesn't offer extra Brownie points for phyiscal suffering or longer distances, nor do they care how your backpack reaches Santiago - as long as you can prove that have walked the last 100km or cycled the last 200km, and you claim to have walked for Religious reasons, you will get your certificate. 

The narrow view of the mendicant, penitent, long suffering pilgrim is a hangover from the Middle Ages when Indulgences were introduced for the remission of sins and time spent in purgatory; when the longer and harder the journey, the more time you earned off purgatory. It no longer applies to those making pilgrimages today - and it never did apply to people who were not Catholic.  Catholics can still earn an indulgence by visiting the tomb of Saint James but they don't have to walk or cycle there to do so.

An accusation often made is that pilgrims starting at the 100km mark don’t deserve to be given a Compostela (even though this is the only requirement imposed by the church to earn the certificate) and even if the pilgrim is a local Catholic, fulfilling a pledge to walk to the tomb of his patron saint with the intention of earning an indulgence by attending mass, taking Holy Communion, saying confession and making a donation or doing a good deed.   

Non Catholic Christians (Protestants) don’t walk for rewards or believe in purgatory and the remissions of sins. Non-Catholics cannot earn indulgences or any other ‘get out of jail’ card as so many pilgrims seem to believe.The Compostela is a certificate, a lovely souvenir of your walk, but has no other function.
Essentially, el Camino de Santiago is a Catholic pilgrimage.  Founded when a long hidden tomb, discovered on a hillside in Compostela, was declared to contain the remains of the apostle Saint James the Greater – Sant’Iago.  For the first three hundred years pilgrims to the tomb were mainly locals.   Those that visited the tomb did so out of curiosity and a desire to visit the body of an Apostle of Jesus.  Indulgences for visiting shrines were only introduced two hundred years later.

‘The earliest record of a plenary indulgence was Pope Urban 11’s declaration at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that he remitted all penance incurred by the Crusaders [to the Holy Land] who confessed their sins, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance.’ (Wiki)  Indulgences were first written by hand but after the invention of the printing press, were churned out in their thousands.

It would be another two hundred years before indulgences were extended to the ordinary masses which would result in a tsunami of superstitious people seeking out shrines that offered the most generous indulgences for time off purgatory - some up to a thousand years.  
(The Orthodox Church did not believe in purgatory as the word does not appear in the Bible so they did not follow the Catholic Church in this practice.)
The earliest documented account of indulgences granted to pilgrims to Santiago dates from the middle of the 13th C and we can presume that until then, pilgrims walked to the tomb of Santiago with a sense of piety, caritas and curiosity – not for a reward.  Their reward was arriving at the tomb, kneeling before it, praying to the saint and to God, and living with a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Once indulgences were introduced, a cruel pecking order soon devleoped based on who was considered more worthy of remission of sins; those who walked a longer way, those who walked in winter; those who wore a hairshirt and self flaggelated along the way, those who died on the road to Santiago.  Rewards for taking part in all sorts of rituals in Santiago were introduced and a 13th c catalogue, recorded by the British pilgrim William Wey in 1456, lists these indulgences:

·                for making the trip to Compostela - remission of a third of one’s sins.
·                if you die on the road - total remission.
·                for taking part in each religious procession in the city of Compostela - 40 days’ indulgences; if the procession is led by a mitered bishop - 200 days more.  if the procession is on July 24th - 600 days.
·                hearing mass at which an archbishop, dean or cardinal officiates - 200 days.
·                hearing mass at the Monte de Gozo - 100 days. 

If you visited all the shrines along the way to Santiago de Compostela, you could collect indulgences for thousands of days off purgatory – it was a Holy rewards program, a bit like the modern day Voyager Miles program.  By the 14th C wealthy people could buy their indulgences instead of making long, dangerous journeys to far off shrines.  They could pay proxy-pilgrims to visit the shrines on their behalf.  By the 15th C people were urged to buy indulgence for their deceased loved ones who were probably burning in purgatory because they had not had the opportunity to buy or earn their own indulgences.
Vast sums of money were needed to finance the colossal reconstruction of St Peter's in Rome which had started in 1506. “Professional ‘pardoners’ (quaestores in Latin) - who were sent to collect alms for specific projects - practiced the unrestricted sale of indulgences. Many of these quaestores unfortunately exceeded Church teachings, whether in avarice or ignorant zeal, and promised impossible rewards like salvation from eternal damnation in return for money.” (Wiki)  

In 1517 Martin Luther, a German monk and priest, called for reforms in the Church, including a stop to the selling of indulgences, the veneration of the saints as a means of reaching God, and the use of opulence and graven images in churches. He argued that the forgiveness of sins came through Christ alone who died on the cross, and that one could not buy His grace with money or earn forgiveness through long journeys to the graves of dead saints.
"All pilgrimages should be done away with" he wrote in 1520 "for there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God's commandments. These pilgrimages are the reason for there being so many beggars, who commit numberless villainies, so all pilgrimages should be done away with”.
Christian pilgrimage was practically built on the precepts of relics, reliquaries and remissions of sins, and the money brought into the churches’ coffers by pilgrims was essential to the continued building and maintenance of the Vatican and of the great pilgrimage churches which started in the 11th C and 12th C.  The result of this challenge to the church was a split in the Holy Roman Catholic Church that changed Europe and Christianity forever. 

Until the early 16th C almost all Christians were Catholic.  By 1555 Christianity was divided between those who agreed with Martin Luther, known as Protestants (from ‘protestors’), and the Roman Catholic Church.  Religious wars resulted in the slaughter of Christians from both camps and hundreds of monuments and churches were destroyed.  Pilgrimage became unpopular and was banned in some countries. Pilgrims were looked upon with suspicion and were reviled as vagabonds and villains.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela didn’t suffer quite the same fate as other shrines in Europe but it became a more local and regional destination rather than an international one. In 1589 the relics of St James were under threat and were moved and hidden to prevent a possible attack by Frances Drake. Their exact whereabouts were forgotten for almost 300 years. It’s not surprising that the number of pilgrims to Santiago dried up almost completely. With no body to venerate it would be almost 400 years before they started to arrive in any numbers.

‘The Spanish Civil War of 1820–1823 further prevented pilgrims from visiting Santiago and, in whole of the 19th century less than 20 000 pilgrims visited Santiago – most of them from the areas around Santiago, and the majority of those arrived in the Holy Years.’ Don Jose Ignacio Diaz Perez

‘In the Holy Year of 1867 just 40 pilgrims turned up for the celebrated mass on 25th July.’ Cordla Rabe
 A search for the relics was launched in 1879 and they were eventually found between the walls of the apse. Five years later, in 1884, a papal bull from Pope Leo XIII declared them to be genuine (which silenced the sceptics) and there was a growing revival in the number of visitors to the shrine.  T
wo years later, P. Fidel Fita rediscovered the Codex Calixtinus, a copy of the so-called Pilgrims’ Guide that never was, after it had been lost for centuries. This was fortuitous timing as it spurred historic research into the pilgrimage routes to Santiago just when interest in the shrine was being revived.

After the re-discovery and authentication of the saint’s relics, pilgrim visitors started flocking to Santiago once again and there was a steady rise in the numbers especially in the Holy Years. But, the old trail routes remained overgrown and forgotten and the number of people walking to Santiago was so insignificant that no records were kept of their arrival.

In the last century there were always a hardy few, nostalgic Catholics, medievalists or other academics, who tried to find the old pilgrimage trails to Santiago and reach it by means other than by car or bus.  In 1917 Georgiana Goddard King completed The Way of St James, a three-volume work tracing the pilgrimage trails to the shrine of St James, based on her journeys on foot, donkey cart, mule and other transportation.
Dr Walter Starkie made the pilgrimage through France and Spain on foot, by car and bus four times from 1924 to 1952. In his classic book The Road to Santiago he makes many references to the work of G.G. King.

In Pilgrim Stories Nancy Frey wrote: “In the 1965 Holy Year the number of ‘visitor pilgrims’ more than doubled (2.5 million) compared with 700 000 in the 1954 Holy Year but walking to Santiago was still not an important criterion.”  The journey was not important - but the destination was. This still holds true for the other great Christian shrines like Jerusalem or Rome and the more modern Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe (the most visited shrine after Rome).

An article in the New York Times (dated 16 August 1965) about the 1965 Holy Year describes the atmosphere in the cathedral as thousands of pilgrims, who arrived from all over Europe in buses and cars, lined up to kiss the stone-sculptured head of the apostle at whose tomb they had come to pray. The 50 miles of road between La Coruna and Santiago was crowded with huge tourist buses and cars.  (There is no mention of people having walked there although locals must have done so.)

There are no surviving records of pilgrims arriving in Santiago before 1970. The late Don Jaime of Santiago’s cathedral found an old book kept by his predecessor, which showed that in 1967 a total of 37 pilgrims arrived at the Cathedral’s pilgrim office and in 1971, which was a Holy Year ,there were 491 pilgrims.

The revival of ‘The Camino’ as we know it today only began in the late 1970s and 1980s with a dedicated priest from O Cebreiro, a group of hard working volunteers with a few tins of yellow paint, and the formation of Camino interest groups. These events, coinciding with the advent of Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s, saw the numbers of people visiting Santiago explode with exponential growth into the 21st century.

Millions of pilgrim visitors still journey to the tomb of St James every year –
an estimated 12 million in the 2010 Holy Year.  We can presume that their motives were to venerate the relics of St James the Greater.  Unlike these pilgrim visitors, however, you will rarely hear today’s walking or cycling pilgrims say ‘I am making a pilgrimage to the tomb of St James of Compostela’.    For the majority of walking pilgrims today the Camino itself has become the destination – not St James’ relics in the Cathedral.

What is the Protestant view today of pilgrimage?

"It's been possible after several centuries to disentangle pilgrimage from the works righteousness that Luther so disapproved of, so that now Protestants can go on pilgrimages—though most often, they don't call them that—without any sense that they are earning God's favor by doing so. For most, they are like study tours or holidays with a spiritual dimension." [

I have walked to Santiago six times and will do so again next year.  I was raised a Protestant and was married in the Lutheran church.  For the past 35 years I lived my life according to Buddhist principles and have not experienced any conflict with the Buddhist way of life and my Christian upbringing.  I do not walk the Camino for religious reasons and according with Buddhist philosophy, it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. 

The Camino has become my alternate life and I can enjoy it at home.  Besides memories, I live it in books, in DVDs, in Cyber Space on forums, emails, with friends on Facebook, at workshops , hospitaleros course and pilgrim get-togethers etc.  I sometimes think that I am like the Camino!  What I mean by that is that although I walked the pilgrimage for the first time in 2002 - I (Sil) became the pilgrimage – and I am still on my own personal pilgrimage, processing the experiences of the many walks I've done. 

Walking it in different ways, on different routes, in different seasons, with friends or alone, with my husband, with a group; as a 'real' pilgrim carrying a pack and staying only in albergues, or with baggage transfers and staying in Casas; serving as a hospitalera, writing about it, sharing at workshops - all of this is beginning to come together as a whole experience and not fragmented, different experiences.

My motivations for walking a Camino have changed from the first walk in 2002 when I did it for fun and as a physical challenge but although it has become a deeply spiritual journey, a I am not a Saint James pilgrim in the accepeted sense and still don't qualify for the Compostela.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. You've done a concise summary of a lot of things that I've wondered about. Now I know where to go to refresh my memory when I forget them again!