July 25th is the Feast of St. James the Greater, one of the Twelve Apostles and the first of them to be martyred. Acts of the Apostles records that he was killed at the command of Herod Agrippa, a descendent of the tyrant king Herod who is named in Matthew’s Gospel as the sociopath that orchestrated the massacre of the children of Bethlehem.
The scriptures provide us with a few details about St. James, but where they fall silent, popular piety has many tales to tell. St. James is reputed to have been the first Christian missionary to Spain, and after his execution, his remains were brought from Jerusalem to Galicia for safekeeping. A shrine was built to honor his memory, which was destroyed by the Romans during a persecution of the Church. St. James’s relics were lost until they were rediscovered under miraculous circumstances in the year 814 AD. These relics quickly became a focal point of pilgrimage, and in the year 1075 AD, the construction of the grand cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was begun. The shrine was consecrated in the year 1128, though the building that we see today is the result of architectural and artistic embellishment that took place over many centuries. The edifice rises like a great ornate mountain of granite over the city that bears its name. The magnitude of the cathedral is testimony to not only the esteem in which the Galicians hold their Saint, but also serves as a reminder that for hundreds of years, the cultural and economic life of European civilization was powered by a vast network of shrines and pilgrimage destinations.
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has been a constant since the Middle Ages, and thousands have walked the sacred way to the cathedral, which stretches about 500 miles from Biarritz in France all the way to Compostela. Upon arriving in the church, pilgrims complete their journey by climbing a staircase behind the main altar of the cathedral, where a gilded and bejeweled image of St. James is displayed. Pilgrims embrace the statue as if they are meeting a friend, placing their arms around the saint’s shoulders and delivering prayers that during their long pilgrimage were held as treasures in their hearts. On great feast days pilgrims can appreciate the spectacle of the famed “Botafumiero,” an enormous thurible that is acclaimed as the largest censor in the world. Once lit, the swinging and smoking brazier emits clouds of aromatic incense as it swings across the length of the nave.
The idea of walking 500 miles to a religious shrine may not be viewed by many as the ideal vacation. But this is precisely the point—a pilgrimage is not a vacation. A pilgrimage is directed by a spiritual itinerary rather than an agenda of leisure. Pilgrimages are about the hard work of conversion, and this interior crucible is externalized in the demands of the journey. The grace offered and accepted in the course of the sacred way is not easy; it is meant to further the transformation of the pilgrim—the fulfillment of which is not simply to view the relics or marvel at the splendor of a shrine, but to become a saint oneself. It is through the journey that one learns that sanctity is a possibility, not just for those men and women of renown who have had great shrines raised in their memory, but for all who would risk following the Lord, trusting in his Provident care, and surrendering to him mastery over one’s life. In these respects, a pilgrimage is a concrete display of the intentionality with which all Christians are invited to live: to be called, commissioned and sent, to be a bold witness to the Gospel in word and in deed, and to remain faithful to one’s mission in all circumstances.
The culmination of this endeavor called discipleship is our arrival in the Heavenly Jerusalem. This eternal city and temple is represented by the great shrines like Santiago de Compostela. Their purpose is to prepare the followers of Christ in the here and now for what is one day to come. It is in the Heavenly Zion where we hope to take our place alongside the Saints who have gone before us, join them in worship, and adore together the Lamb of God, who for us and for our salvation, cleared out a path, making our life in this world a sacred way that is meant to lead us to Him who takes away the sins of the world.