Sometimes we are so busy reporting on the moral decline of Europe that more encouraging news goes unnoticed. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, is receiving record numbers of pilgrims this year. Because of the pandemic, Pope Francis extended the Holy Year (when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday) from 2021 to 2022. More than half of those visiting the remains of St. James the Apostle come from outside Spain—with Italy, Germany, and the United States being the main countries of origin. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) continues to be the spiritual highway of the Old Continent. As Goethe allegedly observed: “Europe was born in pilgrimage”—that is, Christian Europe, Old Europe, so far from the artificial and rootless Union made up inside Brussels offices. John Paul II, as the first “pilgrim pope” to visit the tomb, was responsible to a great degree for revitalizing the Way.
This revival of the Jacobean itinerary is not just a religious phenomenon. Countries along the network of routes, especially Spain, have invested a lot of money in recent years to improve signage, hostels, and encourage businesses and support services for pilgrims. Of course, while this was done chiefly to promote tourism, not to bring people closer to God, the truth is that the investment has paid off in more ways than one—thousands of new pilgrims join in this ancient tradition every year, and many who do it for reasons that have nothing to do with faith end up discovering God nonetheless. Friends of mine who have undertaken this journey say that there is a supernatural halo all along the Camino de Santiago, and that they were overcome by an immense inner peace when they finally found themselves, after many days of walking, in Obradoiro Square, contemplating the majestic baroque facade of the cathedral.
I spoke to some of the priests who hear confessions from pilgrims all day long, in more than a dozen languages. They told me countless stories full of beauty and hope—impossible conversions, overcome addictions, mended marriages. There are couples who meet along the route itself. God is using—quite sneakily, it sometimes seems—the old route to embrace many of his lost children again.
While many visit pilgrimage sites in Europe in search of healing, pilgrims come to Santiago for another reason: They walk in gratitude for having achieved something. It is therefore perhaps one of the largest centers of thanksgiving in the world. Soccer coaches and businessmen walk the Camino, to thank God for a competition they won, or for a successful economic operation. In our relationship with God, it is easy to forget gratitude. Santiago is a sanctuary of gratitude for Christians and non-Christians alike.
The big question remains: Is the apostle James really buried in the crypt? Textual references to St. James’s evangelization of Hispania, and how the first Christians brought his remains to the country by sea after he was martyred in Jerusalem, first appeared in the seventh century (Breviary of the Apostles). Today, we know that the remains belong to a man who lived between the first and third century. The discovery of the tomb is a fascinating story. One night, at the beginning of the ninth century, an anchorite saw a bright light above a forest, near what is now the city of Santiago. Bishop Teodomiro of Iria Flavia was alerted. He went to the place to investigate and discovered the Roman necropolis. The bishop did not hesitate: This must be the arca marmárica, the legendary tomb of the apostle James. Pope Leo III endorsed the finding, which led the locals to build a small church that, over the centuries, turned into the current cathedral.
If you think it too miraculous that the remains of an apostle beheaded in Jerusalem in A.D. 44 should appear in some remote location in the Spanish countryside centuries later, you should visit Santiago de Compostela—a town off the beaten track in the northwest of Spain that has become the great European center of pilgrimage it is today. Now that is a miracle.
The faith that can be felt among the ancient stones of Compostela is not a coincidence. When St. James converted Hispania to Christianity, he drove a wave of faith throughout Europe. Today, the blessed paths of the Camino de Santiago are perhaps the last great hope of religious fervor in the Old Continent. And it must be God-given, because not even the politicians have managed to spoil it.
Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist and the author of nine books.
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