Catholic Pilgrimage—Based on Fact or Myth?
By Awake! correspondent in Spain
EVERY summer Europe witnesses a massive pilgrimage. By bus, car, and plane, millions swarm southward in search of sea and sunshine. Their favorite mecca? The beaches of Spain. But unknown to most of the beach lovers, some of these tourists are traveling the very route their Catholic forefathers trod centuries ago.
Of course, the medieval pilgrims were a different breed. Their goal was a shrine, not sunshine; their promised reward, a divine pardon, not a suntan. Peasants, princes, soldiers, and scoundrels trudged by the thousands some 600 miles [1,000 km] across Spain’s northern hinterland, bound for Santiago de Compostela, a small, damp city on the remote northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
What venerable object could have persuaded those people to trek hundreds of miles across snowy peaks and scorching plains, to brave highwaymen and hunger, disease and even death? It was believed to be the shrine of “Saint” James, Santiago, the patron “saint” of Spain. His “sacred relics” exerted an extraordinary attraction on the faithful from all over medieval Europe. Today a cathedral stands on the site. How did it all begin?
A City Built on a Vision
It started with one of those “miraculous” visions that pop up frequently in the pages of Spanish history. One evening in 813 C.E., a hermit by the name of Pelagius saw a celestial phenomenon. He dutifully called his bishop, and eventually a marble tomb was discovered. The corpses it contained were supposedly identified as none other than those of the apostle James and two of his disciples. The local king, Alfonso the Chaste, visited the site, declared that the remains were genuine, and proclaimed James “Protector of Spain.”
Thus, the country’s patron “saint” was born. The timing of that discovery was fortunate for the embattled “Christian” enclaves in northern Spain, surrounded as they were by Muslims. It was just the relic they needed to try to offset the ‘arm of the Prophet Muḥammad,’ housed in Córdoba, southern Spain, which was reputed to make the Moors invincible. “Saint” James soon became the standard-bearer around whom the people could be rallied to fight against the Moors, who were occupying most of the peninsula.
In the 11th century, a cathedral was built over the burial place, and the city of Santiago de Compostela (literally, “Saint James of the star field”) arose on the very site where Pelagius saw his starry vision. In a short time, Santiago became one of Christendom’s foremost pilgrimage centers—surpassed only by Jerusalem and Rome. But why did the bones of this supposed apostle acquire such significance?
The Making of the Myth
A curious blend of legend, myth, and religious lore assigns a special place to “Saint” James in Spanish history. According to some Catholic historians, this apostle was Spain’s first Christian missionary. It is said that he spent several years preaching in Galicia (northwestern Spain) shortly after Jesus’ death. But only nine converts resulted from that campaign. Apparently discouraged by so little success, he made his way eastward and was heartened by a spectacular appearance of Mary, the mother of Jesus (who, however, was still alive in Palestine). She appeared to him atop a marble pillar and in “mortal flesh” in the Roman town called Caesaraugusta (later known as Zaragoza), in the northeast of the peninsula. The legend says that when she departed, the pillar remained, and centuries later it became a pilgrimage shrine.a
Shortly afterward, James returned to Jerusalem, where he suffered a martyr’s death at the hand of King Herod. (Acts 12:1-3) According to legend, his disciples rescued the corpse, took it down to the coast, and from Jaffa embarked on a miraculous ship made of stone. After a week’s journey (that covered over 3,000 miles [5,000 km]!), they arrived in Galicia, where they buried their master in an unmarked tomb, the location of which was eventually lost.
Centuries passed, and it was this tomb that was supposedly rediscovered by the hermit. And the myth became reality for the “Christian” soldiers. Before long, “James” himself was seen fighting on behalf of the “Christians.” According to tradition, he appeared in the decisive battle of Clavijo and, mounted on a white charger, helped to vanquish the Moors. After that victory he became popularly known as Santiago Matamoros (Saint James, the Moor-slayer).—Compare Matthew 26:52.
Other miraculous powers of a more benevolent nature were attributed to him. One legend tells about a young man who was riding on horseback along the shore to meet his bride to be. Suddenly, a huge wave engulfed him, and he was swept away. His betrothed appealed to “Saint” James, who obligingly caused the young man to come forth from the sea, his garments covered with white shells. Thus the cockleshell became the symbol of Spain’s patron “saint” and of the pilgrims who traveled to his shrine.
The Magic Behind the Myth
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, relics of famous “saints” were what moved men and monarchs. They were trusted to protect the pious from harm—William the Conqueror had several relics strung around his neck at the Battle of Hastings, in which he defeated King Harold of England. Pilgrims were assured that contact with venerable “saintly” bones would guarantee divine favor.
Relics were worth more than gold, and no cathedral in Christendom was complete without them. A flourishing trade in relics developed, and there were some cases of blatant fraud. A 12th-century abbot protested that if two heads of John the Baptist were conserved in two different churches, either John was two-headed or one must be a fake.
Nevertheless, the relics were what the common people believed in and fought for. In the name of “Saint” James, the Spanish armies warred against the Moors and other European powers. They colonized the New World in his name, and cities named Santiago sprang up all over Latin America.
The Medieval Package Tour
One historian observes that during the Middle Ages, “pilgrimages to the sites of important relics . . . became the chief motive for travel.” Not surprisingly, the supposed shrine of such a miracle worker as “Saint” James attracted the faithful from far and wide. Thus, during Santiago’s medieval heyday, Spain experienced its first tourist boom.
“Kings and commoners, bishops and monks, saints and sinners, knights and squires”—half a million of them every year—flocked to Santiago from all over Europe, converting “The Way of St. James” into one of Europe’s busiest highways. This was an enormous number, considering that the total population of Europe in the 11th century was only about 30 million and that the journey through Spain took several months.
After crossing the Pyrenees from France, the pilgrims still had to walk another 600 miles [1,000 km] across the rugged mountains and dusty plains of northern Spain. Those who endured this marathon would muster what little energy remained to break into a final sprint. The first to see the cathedral spires of Santiago shouted, “Mi gozo!” (My joy!) and was elected “king” of the group he traveled with. Thus the surname of many families was coined. Not a few of those called King, König, Rey, Leroy, or Rex may well owe their name to some ancient forebear who still had the stamina to run and shout after several months on the road to Santiago.
Today some might admire the spirit of those hardy travelers who sacrificed so much of their time, health, and money on what for many became their last journey. Doubtless the majority were moved by sincere belief, belief in a relic they never saw—the bones were encased in an ornate casket behind metal bars. In fact, for three hundred years, the bones were missing. They were hidden away when the shrine was threatened and were not restored until 1879.
Basis for True Faith
Jesus’ apostles traveled considerably, not to establish or visit shrines, but rather to preach the gospel. They devoted much time to the study of God’s Word, something that would really build up lasting faith. Such a faith, based on accurate knowledge, can protect us from falling prey to myths and traditions of men, which still mislead many.—Matthew 15:9; 1 Timothy 2:3, 4.
However quaint religious traditions and legends may be, they are no substitute for true faith. Scripturally, there is no reason to believe that James ever visited Spain. (See box.) Even if he did and his bones were interred in Santiago, that would be no reason to venerate them. The Scriptures urge us to put our faith in the living, invisible God and in his Word, the Bible, and not in relics.—2 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; compare Matthew 23:27, 28.
a “Our Lady of the Pillar” is still widely venerated in Spain and Latin-American countries. Some Catholic sources admit that there is a total absence of references to this shrine in the writings of the first seven centuries C.E.
[Box on page 24, 25]
Was James Ever in Spain?
1. There is no Scriptural record of the apostle James ever having preached outside Palestine. It was Paul, whose missionary service started in 49 C.E., who came to be known as “an apostle to the nations,” not James.—Romans 11:13; see also Acts 9:15; Galatians 2:7.
2. In the year 55 C.E., Paul, when writing to the Christians in Rome, expressed his “aim not to declare the good news where Christ had already been named.” However, he planned to go to Spain because there was no more “untouched territory” for him in Asia Minor and Greece. This implies that Spain had still not significantly received the Christian message at that date.—Romans 15:20, 23, 24.
3. In his Historia de la Iglesia Católica (History of the Catholic Church), Jesuit professor Bernardino Llorca admits that for Catholic experts, regarding James’ being in Spain, “the fact that no certain news about it is found until six centuries after the events turns out to be a great difficulty against the authenticity of the fact.”—Pages 122-3.
[Map on page 24]
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Santiago de Compostela
[Pictures on page 23]
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and (inset) James on a white charger