An Ancient Religious Pilgrimage That Now Draws The Secular
A pilgrim walks the Way of St. James outside
Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain, on July 21, 2010. The
ancient religious pilgrimage is also attracting the nonreligious these
Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images
A 1,200-year old European pilgrimage route is experiencing a
revival. Last year alone, some 200,000 followed in the footsteps of
their medieval forebears on the Way of St. James, making their way some
750 miles from Paris across France to the Spanish coastal city of
Santiago de Compostela, and the relics of the eponymous apostle.
now, what was once a strictly religious affair has become a cultural
and social phenomenon that attracts the nonreligious as well. The
journey was captured in , a 2010 film made by father-and-son duo Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
For centuries, pilgrims crossed France into Spain on one of four
major routes, depending on whether they were coming from the north, east
or south from Italy.
American writer David Downie began his recent
pilgrimage as many did in medieval times, at the Tour St. Jacques in
"This was where thousands and thousands of
pilgrims would meet and start off to walk all the way down to Spain to
Santiago de Compostela," Downie says. "This was like 'Pilgrimage
Central' in Paris."
Downie has just written a book about his 3-month trek entitled .
In the past, he says, pilgrims went to St. Jacques de Compostelle, as
it is known in French, to pray for their sins or for others. The rich
even hired pilgrims to carry messages for them.
As we make our
way across Paris along the traditional pilgrims' route on ancient Roman
roads, we have to dodge a lot of traffic. But Downie assures me pilgrims
of yore had it much harder.
"I think it's difficult for us to
imagine just how dangerous it was, how horrible. Think of the footwear
they had. Think of the fact that there was often nowhere to get clean
water, or anywhere to eat," Downie says. "There were brigands and
murderers lurking. A lot of these people who went off on a pilgrimage
had no idea whether they'd make it back."
The pilgrimage to
Santiago de Compostela started in the 9th century when the martyred St.
James' bones are said to have arrived in a boat to the rocky Galician
coast; it fell out of fashion around the time of the French revolution.
It began to regain popularity in the 1960s when a French university
scholar wrote about it.
Over the past decades its popularity
has soared. In 1982 there were 120 pilgrims. Last year there were nearly
200,000 pilgrims, mostly from Europe.
"I always wanted to do this pilgrimage for
the adventure and spiritual growth," says Pascal Begin, a 55-year-old
French parish priest. "But whether you're religious or not, everyone is
looking for simplicity and getting to know themselves and meeting
others. It's just human."
The Burgundy town of Vezelay, whose church is said to hold Mary
Magdalene's bones, is on another French pilgrimage route. Buried in the
cobbled streets are brass plaques of scallops, the symbol of St. James.
shopkeeper Catherine Sauger wears a scallop shell on her backpack.
She's doing a 2-week leg of the route and will pick it back up again on
her August vacation.
She says it's a wonderful way to discover
the gastronomy and regions of France. And walking on a pilgrimage, she
says, gives you strength at every level.
For many Catholics,
the pilgrimage to Compostela is a profound religious experience. But
many pilgrims do it for nonreligious reasons, and the walk to Compostela
has morphed into a social and cultural phenomenon. Pilgrims stay in
special hostels and many carry cards that are stamped to show their
progress along the route.
Leaving Vezelay, I spot a lone backpacker on a busy road.
Begin, a 55-year-old parish priest, has taken off his shoes and socks
to reveal bandages all over his feet — and he's only been walking for a
"I always wanted to do this pilgrimage for the adventure
and spiritual growth," he says. "But whether you're religious or not,
everyone is looking for simplicity and getting to know themselves and
meeting others. It's just human."
Standing where the Paris
beltway now cuts through the pilgrims' route, author David Downie muses
about what he took away from months of walking in the sun, rain and
snow. He didn't have a religious epiphany, he says, but it did change
his way of looking at things.
"You get a very different idea of
what it means to be out in the elements, and distances, too. When you
drive, you have no idea what distances have meant to humans for, well,
since the beginning right?" he says. "Most people walked everywhere. And
if you wanted to cover a thousand miles, you had to walk."