Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

07 The Way of Santiago of Compostela

The most travelled highway in history

At the beginning of the ninth century, the wilds of Galicia in northern Spain were inhabited by many hermits who dwelt in caves and spent their days and nights in prayer and meditation. The most famous for holiness was one Pelayo.

One night early in A D. 813, Pelayo saw a star burning bright over a spot in a field. Clearing away some overgrowth, he discovered a small shrine, and underneath it a marble sarcophagus. After much fasting and prayer, and, as the tradition goes, after deciphering a piece of parchment near the bones in the tomb, he convinced himself that there lay the body of the Apostle Santiago; St. James the greater, brother of St. John, who had been beheaded in Jerusalem some time about the year A.D. 44.

Word immediately spread that the apostle had preached the Gospel in Spain, and that, after his execution, his remains had been taken back there by a band of faithful Spanish disciples. While they approached the coast of Galicia, the relics saved the life of a man who had been carried out to sea on a frightened horse. Man and horse emerged safe from the sea, covered with scallop shells, which ever after became the emblem of St. James. The miraculous sarcophagus was then buried near the coast. And it was forgotten until the hermit Pelayo found it. Then a church was built over it by King Alfonso II, and the spot was named Compostela.

In 813 Galicia was the only part of Spain that had retained its independence from the Moors who had invaded the peninsula over a century before. The news of the relics brought hope to Christians that the advance of Islam could be checked. They girded themselves for action. So enthusiastically, in fact, that during the legendary battle of Clavijo, they saw the apostle. He came down on a white charger, carrying in one hand a snow-white banner on which was displayed a dagger-like, blood-red cross, and in the other a flashing sword. Terrible slaughter ensued: 60,000 enemies were slain and the remnant routed with appalling losses. The reconquest of Spain had begun it would not be completed until 1491, but after Clavijo, there would be no real turning back.

The discovery of the relics of St. James caused a sensation throughout all of Western Christendom, and began a movement that had a most profound effect on the history of the next eight centuries.

The attention of Europe was naturally attracted to the shrine. St. James, Iying in his tomb at Compostela, was a gallant personality that knights could address in the moment of battle. But he soon acquired another reputation as well. He was a quick, courteous and sympathetic worker who knew how to look after his friends well.

So began the pilgrimages.

The Way of St. James soon became what it would not cease to be for centuries: a living bridge between one western European nation and another and the single most significant experience of Christians of the Middle Ages.

The Way was thronged. Kings, queens, the Empress Mathilda, bishops, warriors and saints, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, and Peter the Hermit, all passed along the way with their cavalcades of courtiers, soldiers, stone-masons, artisans, and minstrels. So did the humble masses: peasants, privates, crooks, harlots, and cynical travellers who were just taking a holiday.

They came from Paris and London, Rome, Strasbourg, and Cologne, a continuous stream. By the year A.D. 1000 they came on an average of 500,000 a year. In 1350, they were a million. And the Way of St. James had become the most-travelled highway in history.

The Way also became a large avenue of culture. Epics, chronicles, hymns, Iyric poems, songs, and tales of adventure all accompanied the pilgrims in French, English, Spanish, German, Flemish or Latin. Music was there. And Romanesque then Gothic sculpture. And over all, prayer.

The Way was spiritual. The tomb and the Iegends encouraged credulity and ignorance. But the myths and the pilgrimage demanded spiritual dedication to a purpose and generous steadfastness. Pilgrims followed the Way in faith. Weary, hot, thirsty, and footsore -- millions of shoes worn out, infinities of feet blistered -- they witnessed to the spirit of Santiago. They found the beauty of the world. But, what is more, they proclaimed its fulfilment.

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