Today we started off our day with a guided walking tour of Santiago de Compostela. As I mentioned in the last post, Santiago is home to the relics of the apostle James (James the son of Zebedee, brother of the apostle John, aka James the Greater). If you’re wondering why St. James is located here in Spain, read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead past the history lesson.
The History of St. James and Santiago de Compostela
After our Lord’s Ascension, the apostles followed Jesus’ command to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. St. James made it as far as the Iberian peninsula, in modern day Spain, spreading the Gospel to the people in this area. He returned to Jerusalem where he was ultimately martyred, as recorded in Acts 12:2. Two of his disciples, Theodoro and Athanasius, brought his body back here to Spain where was buried in a forest, in a Roman cemetery there, on July 25 (his feast day today).
His grave was venerated for many years, but over the centuries the location of his grave was lost, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasion. The relics were rediscovered in the early 9th century. A man named Pelagius had been seeing strange light coming from the forest. Accompanied by the bishop of the area, Teodomiro, they followed the stars to a field and, after clearing away all the brush, discovered a small chapel containing the remains of St. James and his two followers, Athanasius and Theodoro. They name the area Compostela from the Latin campus stellae, field of stars.
A church was built on the spot, which was later replaced (mostly) with a massive cathedral in the late 11th to early 12th centuries (which has been added on to in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries).
Santiago as a Place of Pilgrimage
Since the rediscovery of St. James’ relics, Santiago became a place of pilgrimage. As early as the 9th and 10th centuries, pilgrims came from all over Europe to venerate the tomb of St. James. Pilgrimage routes through France and Spain became known as the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. Santiago de Compostela became one of the three largest pilgrimage sites in the Church, after Jerusalem and Rome. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims could no longer travel there, making the Camino all the more important. Today, over 100,000 people still walk the camino each year, walking hundreds of miles across northern spain to visit the tomb of St. James. (In fact, two of our group will actually be staying behind in Europe following our pilgrimage to meet up with separate groups and walk the camino themselves!)
Our Pilgrimage to Santiago
Back to our story…. We did not walk the camino (we came by bus), but saw many people who did. These days, not everyone walks the camino out of religious devotion, but there were many people we saw who did, which was very inspiring.
We met our local tour guide, Pedro, right outside the cathedral, and he took us around to a few places to show us how the entire city of Santiago grew up because of the pilgrimage. Though the city has grown now to include a university, the pilgrims are still a major focus of this town.
We visited the cathedral museum, seeing examples of the art and ornamentation of the cathedral throughout the centuries, going back to items from the original 9th century church (part of which is still standing, and is connected to the cathedral as a chapel). Following that, we made our way into the cathedral itself, where we got a tour of some of the side chapels, then were given the opportunity to go under the main altar and pray before the tomb of St. James (and his two disciples). This was an incredibly moving moment, to kneel at the tomb of an apostle, one of Jesus’ closest followers, present with him throughout his entire ministry.
We finished up around 11:30am, and stayed for the 12 noon Pilgrim’s Mass. This Mass is celebrated each day at noon for all the pilgrims who have arrived from walking the camino. We were able to witness something that this cathedral is known for, the swinging of the botafumeiro. The botafumeiro is a 5 foot tall thurible that hangs from the ceiling. At the end of the Mass, it is filled with over 50 pounds of charcoal and incense and swung across the transept, swinging 70 feet high at 60 miles per hour. You have to see it to believe it.
After Mass, we all had a free afternoon. Most of us returned to the cathedral throughout the day for prayer, and more opportunities to go pray in front of St. James. At one point, as I was praying before St. James, there was a Mass going on at a nearby chapel, and I heard them praying the Our Father. And I realized, I am praying before a man who was there the first time those words were ever prayed by our Lord. I can’t describe what an incredible experience that was.
Later on, Dominic and I got the chance to climb up to the roof of the cathedral. We got a full guided tour of the cathedral from the roof, seeing some great architectural details from a point of view few people get to see, as well as some great shots of Santiago de Compostela.
After our free day, we all met together for our next theological reflection. This time, we read an article on and discussed the difference between being tourists and pilgrims. We discussed how a tourist is someone who goes somewhere to visit a place, but typically leaves unchanged, whereas the purpose of a pilgrim is conversion, to affect a change in themselves. It was a great discussion to have in a town that exists solely because of pilgrims.
Tomorrow we leave Santiago for Alba de Tormes.