Going to the end of the earth

How St. James got from Jerusalem to Spain and became the patron of a very long walk

This summer, you might want to get away: to the beach, the cottage, the end of the earth.

You aren’t alone in that desire. People have been traveling to the end of the earth since the ninth century except that the end of the earth is in Spain.

Cape Finisterre is a peninsula on the west coast of Galicia, Spain. The Romans called it Finis Terrae (“end of the earth”), and for centuries it was believed to be the westernmost point in the Iberian Peninsula. Now we know that honor goes to Cabo da Roca, Portugal, but the name has stuck.

Follow the stars

The Romans considered this a special place and there is evidence of them having a shrine there to one of their gods. But Finisterre really became famous thanks to a shepherd (or hermit, the story varies), who saw a shower of stars falling from the sky over the forest in the area. Following the stars to a mountain, he found lights and heard angelic singing. These led him to a forgotten mausoleum.

The shepherd went for his bishop, Theodomire of Iria, who came to see. Inside the tomb they found the remains of beheaded man, with his skull beside him. The bishop determined that this was the body of St. James the Great, whose feast day is July 25.

How did St. James — one of the apostles, who was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa in the first century — end up in western Spain?

Tradition says that, after Jesus’ ascension, James spread the Gospel to the West and ended up in Spain. A vision of the Blessed Mother called him back to Jerusalem, where he was soon martyred. However, since the Jewish leaders refused burial for him, James’ followers returned his body to Spain by boat.

Bishop Theodimir had a church built on the site of the tomb and, before long, a city began to grow around the shrine. We know that city now as Santiago de Compostela.

It is generally felt that the name “Compostela” comes from the Latin “campus stellae” for “field of stars.” While that may be, it is also known that the pilgrimage path that leads across France to this site in Spain is aligned with the Milky Way in the night sky. And the 500-mile route from France (at least along “the French Road”) is sometimes called “voie lactée” — “Milky Way” in French.”

Today, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela is well-known. In 2014, nearly 240,000 people made the journey there from France (sometimes from Spain or Portugal), by foot or bicycle, to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.


More popular than Jerusalem

This route was heavily travelled throughout the Middle Ages, when pilgrimages to holy sites were popular. In fact, Santiago de Compostela became even more popular for pilgrims than the holy sites in Jerusalem and Rome, because it was easier to reach. During the time of the Crusades, starting in 1095 up to the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, it became almost impossible to reach the Holy City in Palestine. So people turned to Spain and “The Way of St. James” became what is now recognized as one the first thoroughfares of Christian Europe. Santiago de Compostela became a meeting place for people from a variety of backgrounds and nations. Pilgrim hospitals and hostels grew up near the site and then along the main routes, creating a series of stops that still exist in various forms today. Modern pilgrim hostels, known as albergues, are very simple with beds and perhaps a kitchenette and usually cost about 10 euros a night per bed.

Until the 16th century, pilgrims from across Europe gathered in Santiago de Compostela in great numbers. However, a combination of plagues (the Black Death especially) and pressure from Protestant Reformers led to a decline in pilgrims to the site. This continued into the 1980s.

However, in 1987, “The Way” was declared the first “European Cultural Route” by the Council of Europe in 1987 and, in 1993, it was certified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. With these, interest in this venerable pilgrimage route took off again.

Hugging a saint

Today, you will find the pilgrims — arrayed in their traditional broad-brimmed hats with walking staff and scallop shells — arriving for the Pilgrims Mass at noon each day. After Mass, they will visit the tomb of the saint in the crypt and there embrace his statue standing beside the main altar. This marks the official end of their journey and they can then get their pilgrim passport (credencial) stamped for the last time. (The passport is stamped at official sites along the road as proof of their journey). Finally, they receive their compostela, a certificate of completion, from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

The legend of the scallop shell — which adorns not only markers all along The Way of St. James — but is also worn by pilgrims — involves the tradition of the return of St. James’ body to Spain. The story goes that, as the ship carrying the saint’s body passed by, a knight on a cliff fell into the sea and drowned (or prayed for the saint’s help or both). He and his horse rose from the water, alive, but covered in scallop shells.

Today, the ridged back of the seashell (a scallop shell) reminds people of the various routes that lead from Spain, Portugal and France (and other places, since The Way’s route traditionally starts at each pilgrim’s door) and all ending in one spot.

As you take your own journeys this summer, whether or not they are to the end of the earth, remember how we are all on a journey to one end: heaven.

Sources: spiritualtravels.info; whc.unesco.org; marypages.com; viacompostela.com; ricksteves.com; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”