A Whistle-stop Guide to the Way of St James

By: Stephen Morgan

The patron saint of Spain, St James, is one of the most revered figures in Spain. Probably the most revered male figure, coming in second behind Mary and if truth be known probably a good way ahead of Christ.

For those amongst us who are possibly not biblical scholars then St. James was the son of Zebedee. St James was also a disciple and a fisherman who gave up his fishing nets to follow Christ. His mother was Salome and his brother was the Apostle John. With me so far?

In AD 44 he was martyred at sword point by King Herod Agrippa. Life as you can appreciate had its risks at times.

So, we take the story and fast forward a couple of centuries. We know have this situation where, supposedly, depending on who you believe, we have a boat arriving off the coast of Spain with the remnants of St. James and the occupants of this boat then proceed to bury the remains in a secluded cave in the Galician hillside.

So the actual story goes as follows, we have this hillside in north-western Spain, appropriately near Cape Finisterre (derived from the Latin Finisterrae literally meaning Lands End) which was probably at that time in history the most point of the known world and a shepherd.

So suddenly guided by an angel and falling stars, the shepherd is led to this secluded cave where he is told, lay the bones of St James. The local Bishop deems this to be a miracle and then verifies the bones as being those of St James and pilgrims flock to this holy site from all over Europe.

The cave is near a place called Compostela and the modern day legend is borne and has now become Santiago de Compostela.

The interesting thing about this whole story is that along with all items of religious history there usually is somewhere to be found a convenient political footnote. In this case the footnote ties in with the situation the indigenous Spanish were having with their Moorish invaders from North Africa at the time.

Basically this whole episode gave Christians renewed faith for their fight against the moors and legends and stories of battleground heroics sprung up including Santiago himself slaying hundreds of moors in battle and assuming the title Matamoros or slayer of the moors.

How, of course, the body of St. James ever arrived in northwest Spain is of course open to extreme conjecture. These stories include amongst others St James preaching in Spain shortly after the death of Christ and then returning to the Holy Land with some Spanish converts who upon St. James' martyrdom decide to take his body and remains back to Spain with them.

Either way and there are other stories that can be found as to the origin of St. James's remains in Spain the end result through various incidents over the years has left us with Santiago de Compostela and the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James.

Nowadays of course with the modern day Way of St. James Pilgrimage, it is estimated that each year some 100,000 pilgrims on foot, bicycle, donkey and horseback come from over a hundred countries to claim their certificate called a Compostela, a certificate of the fact that they have completed their pilgrimage.

The pilgrimages to Santiago have become phenomenally popular over the years. No doubt helped along the way by various popes announcing that any pilgrims who had successfully completed the journey of the pilgrimage would have their time in purgatory halved.

Either way, the pilgrimage traffic to Santiago de Compostela every year has now moved the site into the third most visited Christian pilgrimage site in the world after Rome and the Holy Land. The confirmation from UNESCO that Santiago de Compostela was to become a world heritage site further cemented the place in the eyes of the world.

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