The Camino’s past, present and future
The Camino is one of the most popular pilgrimage route in the world. The route is 800 km long and it starts from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and leads to Santiago de Compostola, the capital of Galicia region in Spain, through the major cities like Pamplona, Burgos and León. The Camino or the St. James way was named after the martyred St. James apostle, whose body – according to the legend – was buried in Santiago de Compostola.
St. James is the patron saint of Spain, as well as of pilgrims, merchants and pharmacists.
Year after year, more and more pilgrims from all over the world walk the St. James way, seeking the inner route or spiritual purification.
The importance of the road is even inceased by the recognition that UNESCO placed the Camino on the World Heritage List in 1993.
While there may be no historical evidence to support the contention that St. James preached in Galicia, there is some anecdotal testimony to that effect. It appears that some years after Christ’s crucifixion St. James sailed to Galicia (probably Padrón and Finisterre) and commenced his ministry amongst the pagan population there. It is reasonable to assume that he and his followers would have known about the importance of Finisterre as one of the foremost places of Druidic ritual and initiation. It was common practice for the
early Christian church to seek out such sites on which to graft its own message.
It appears that St. James’ mission met with only limited success and he returned to Jerusalem where he was summarily beheaded by Herod in 42 A. D. Following his martyrdom, St. James disciples brought his body back via Padrón in order to be buried at World’s End Finis Terre. The legendary Queen Lupa conspired with the Roman Legate based at Dugium (present day Duyo in Finisterre) to destroy St. James body and that of his disciples. In a story reminiscent of the Biblical Red Sea flight into freedom, they managed to escape over the river Tambre with the bridge collapsing just after they had passed over. Libredon (now Santiago) was not far away and it was here they finally laid St. James body to rest. This period marks the beginning of the San Tiago story in Spain but the mists of time grew over these remarkable events, until they finally disappeared from collective memory.
Two centuries of rampant materialism have resulted in a spiritual aridity unparalleled in human history. Statistics reveal a collapse in church attendance matched by a significant fall in the numbers entering the priesthood. Recent surveys indicate that Spain, until recently seen as a deeply religious society, now has less than 20% of its population actually practising Catholicism.
In this same period the numbers entering the Camino de Santiago have soared and the pilgrim figures have risen tenfold in a decade.
How do we interpret these trends? There seems little doubt that there is a great thirst for genuine spiritual experience and a deep desire to refresh and enliven our religious life. It has been suggested by a leading Christian moderator that we have become bored and disillusioned with the religion we have been fed since childhood and this is leading to a collapse of formalised religious practice.
We are awakening to a new spiritual age – one less dependent on an outer authority and more attuned to the God within. Conjecture is rife, but we cannot deny the statistics that point, on the one hand, to collapse and, on the other hand, to renewal. Something is undoubtedly ‘astir in the land’ and what we are witnessing is, perhaps, a collective emergence to a new spiritual reality directing our lives. Of course, the more cynical might point to tourism, now the single largest industry in the world, as the reason for the sudden rise in the interest in the Camino de Santiago. Truth is relative and human nature such that we each will tend towards a theory that reinforces our individual belief systems.
Today, Santiago flourishes as a centre of both tourism and pilgrimage, but the ancient path itself is less susceptible to commercialisation. El Camino is rousing itself from centuries of slumber and its potential to exert a positive influence on the changes confronting us at every turn along the way is enormous. The spirit of St. James and the camino is alive and well and ready to assist each one of us in formulating a new and positive future quite unlike anything we have manifestedin the past.
For more information on El Camino history please click here or read the relevant chapter of John Brierley’s famous book.