A Walk To Remember

St. James the Pilgrim by Juan de Juanes

St. James the Pilgrim
by Juan de Juanes

This past summer parishioner Michael Haynes left behind the comforts of  home to undertake a 400 mile excursion along the Camino Frances, one of the paths that lead to the tomb of St. James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  Pilgrimages have been undertaken since the earliest days of the Church, begun by those who wished to see the places where Jesus lived and taught.  As the history of the Church continued pilgrims journeyed to venerate the relics of great saints and the sites of Marian apparitions around the world. One of the longest standing pilgrimage routes, the Camino de Santiago, has been travelled by pilgrims since the 12th century to reach the relics of St. James the Greater which lie in rest in the Cathedral Basilica of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. 

St. James and his brother, St. John the Evangelist, were the sons of Zebedee and Salome. James is called “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other apostle of the same name who was bishop of Jerusalem and surnamed “the Less” because he was shorter in stature and younger than James “the Great.”  It is believed that James was born 12 years before Christ and was many years older than his brother, John.

The Gospels record that James and John were fishermen and together they were called by Jesus to follow him. We also know from the Gospels that Jesus nicknamed James and John, boanerges, “the sons of thunder,” perhaps justified by the story in Luke, 9:51-56, which recounts that they wished to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village that had refused them hospitality.

James and John were present at the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1: 29) and at the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51). They are described in conversation with Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Mark13:3) and were also present at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1) and again, called apart from the others, to be with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

Their mother, Salome, asked Jesus to accord her sons, James and John, places on his right and his left when he came into his kingdom (Matthew 20: 20-28; Mark 10: 35-45).  The sons of Zebedee are specifically mentioned as present at one of the post-resurrection appearances on the lakeshore of Tiberias (John 21:1-2) and were among those gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:13). The only certain fact recorded of James after these events is his martyrdom reported in Acts:12:1-3 at the hands of Herod Agrippa in 41/44 AD.  Herod, wishing to curry favor with the Jews, condemned James to death for openly proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. When the man who had brought James to the tribunal witnessed the courage with which the Apostle accepted his sentence, he too confessed his belief in Jesus and was beheaded along with James.  As they were being hurried to execution, he implored James’ forgiveness. The apostle kissed him, saying, “Peace be with you.” St. James was the first apostle to be martyred.

After the ascension of Jesus St. James preached in Judea and Samaria. Soon afterward he set out for Spain and there, won many converts to Christianity.  Among these were seven men who were later consecrated as Bishops.  St. James returned to Jerusalem at which time he was arrested and beheaded. His body was transported to Iria Flavia in northwest Spain. The site of his tomb was forgotten for some 800 years. On July 25, 812, a hermit named Pelagio (Pelayo) received a vision revealing the tomb of St. James. The location was indicated by a bright light.  Because of this, it has since been known as Compostela, which means “Field of Light.” The relics in the rediscovered tomb were authenticated by the bishop of Iria Flavia, Theodomir.  Later, in 1095 under Pope Urban II, the see of Iria Flavia was transferred to Santiago de Compostela. In 1884/5, Pope Leo XIII declared in a papal bull that the remains of St. James were indeed at Compostela.

St. James is also known as “Matamoros,” Spanish for killer of the Moors.  It is believed that it was through his intercession that Spain was victorious in their fight against the Moors. In the course of the celebrated battle of Clavijo, St. James suddenly appeared on a milk white charger, waving aloft a white standard and led the Christians to victory. For this reason, St. James is often pictured on a white horse holding a white flag. This miraculous vision was granted in response to the soldiers’ invocation of his name, “Sant lago!”, the battle-cry of the day.  Hence the name of the ancient city, Santiago.

The English name “James” comes from the Italian, “Giacomo,” a variant of “Giacobo” derived from Iacobus (Jacob), in Latin.  In French, Jacob is translated “Jacques”. In eastern Spain, Jacobus became “Jacome” or “Jaime:” in Catalunya, it became ”Jaume”; in western Iberia it became “lago” which when prefixed with “Sant” became “Santiago” in Portugal and Galicia.  James’ emblem is the scallop shell or cockle shell and pilgrims to his shrine often wore that symbol on their hats or clothes.

Relics of saints were believed to possess great power and those of the Apostles were especially venerated: Peter and Paul were known to be buried in Rome; John at Ephesus. In the year 800, James was the most senior member of the intercessory hierarchy whose relics remained undiscovered.  However, upon the rediscovery of his tomb, Santiago came to rank with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destinations of medieval pilgrimage. 

The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as The Way of St. James, Camino di Santiago de Compostela, has been the most popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the early Middle  Ages onwards. The Camino was proclaimed the first European Cultural Itinerary Route by the Council of Europe in 1987 as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The international pilgrimage route played a fundamental role in facilitating the interchange of cultural developments in Europe during the Middle Ages. Some 1800 buildings along the route, both religious and secular, are of great historic interest. There is no comparable Christian pilgrimage route of such extent and continuity anywhere in Europe. There are at least 12 paths through France, Spain and Portugal. Of these, 5 lead to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

The Camino Frances, “the French Way”, is the most popular of all the Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The Camino Frances begins in St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrennes and finishes about 780 km later in Santiago. During most years more than 100,000 people walk this particular Camino. The route is very well supported by the government.  There are many pilgrim-only hostels along the way. These hostels or albergues are mostly staffed by volunteers who wish to give something back to the Camino.

Pilgrimages have been an essential part of the spiritual quest since time immemorial. But why do people go on pilgrimages, enduring hardships and discomfort?  To be sure, many embark on a pilgrimage for religious reasons, others for the physical challenge.  Of the former Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “different from a wanderer whose steps have no established final destination, a pilgrim always has a destination, even if at times he is not explicitly aware of it.  And this destination is none other than the encounter with God through Christ in whom all our aspirations find their response.”  Pilgrimages to shrines and other holy places recall that our entire lives on earth are a pilgrimage to reach heaven. By taking a pilgrimage we recognize that the ultimate goal of our life is union with God, thus our entire life is prayer in action.

The feast day of St. James is celebrated on July 25.





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