Feast Day: July 25th | Patronage: Spain, Compostela, Veterinarians, Equestrians, Furriers, Tanners, Pharmacists, Oyster Fishermen, Woodcarvers | Iconography: Carrying Book as author of Letter of St. James, Wearing Red as a martyr, Adorned with pilgrim-hat, staff, or shell as a pilgrim, Riding white horse into battle against the Moors, Clubbed to death in Jerusalem
Throughout Christian history, there has always been an emphasis on the importance of Christians going on pilgrimage to the places associated with Our Lord. We are a fundamentally historical religion, claiming that God set foot on this planet for a definitive period of years, consecrating those roads of the Holy Land, and with them our entire world. From the beginning of the Church, even as it spread out to the edges of human civilization, there was always a draw for Christians to try and make their way to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, seeing for themselves the places where their Lord and God had set foot.
Of course, it has not always been easy to get to Jerusalem, whether that be simply the arduous nature of travel throughout most of human history, or the wars and persecutions that cut Christian nations off from Israel. For this reason another place of pilgrimage, Rome, sort of symbolically because a stand-in for Jerusalem. In Rome the greatest apostles, Peter and Paul had died and were buried in their respective basilicas, but even more importantly it was in that Eternal City there you would find the magnificent basilicas dedicated to Christ’s birth (St. Mary Major), passion (the Basilica of the Holy Cross), and glorious reign (St. John Lateran).
But what if you couldn’t make it to Rome? Was there a third option? Yes, as it turns out, there was one other great place of pilgrimage for the Christian world: Santiago de Compostela. This is the spot in North-West Spain where the tomb of St. James the Greater was miraculously discovered in 813 AD. Legend tells of his appearing to rally Christian troops beleaguered by invading Moorish armies around this time and the discovery of his tomb near to that event after a holy hermit had a vision of stars and angels surrounding an otherwise nondescript field. Over the ensuing centuries, ever-grander basilicas would be built (and lost) and rebuilt over the site of this tomb, and then early written accounts of pilgrims who made the trip there would slowly spread out across Europe, attracting more and more Christians to make the trek.
In 2013 about 200,000 people walked at least 100 kilometers along one of the many routes that now culminate at St. James’ basilica, in 2017, 300,000, and in 2022, the number crested 400,000 for the first time. Here’s the deal, Jerusalem, Rome, Compostela are all just stand-ins for the real pilgrimage that we are all on: towards the heavenly Jerusalem and the New Heavens and New Earth where Christ will remain with us forever. We’re all on pilgrimage whether we go to Compostela or not! The problemhappens when we forget that and start putting too much stock in our lives here. Here’s a few mental-exercises to ask ourselves if we have the right disposition: On pilgrimage, you carry everything you need on your back. What size pile of things do you, or I, consider essential? Do I treasure the simple and silent moments of my life, or just the exciting highlight-reel? On pilgrimage, you befriend and protect otherwise random strangers because you’re together on the journey towards the same destination. Do you or I really care for those that are alongside of us in our journey towards heaven? Do I pray for those that I’m “on mission” with by name? On pilgrimage, the point is not leisure but conversion; not self-actualization but self-transcendence. Do you or I seek more opportunities for holiness, or pleasure? Do I ask God to show me each day where He is giving me the chance to serve, sacrifice, and surrender?
– Fr. Dominic did the Way of St. James during the summer of 2015 with his mom, dad, and brother. You can see us dwarfed by the basilica in the picture below. And yes, we got to see the world’s largest thurible swung by a team of acolytes and suspended from the ceiling of the basilica. There also was the memorable occasion when, for the only time in my life, I went to Confession in Spanish.