MY CAMINO: The Way of St. James

MY CAMINO - THY CAMINO:  The Camino de Santiago and The Walk Before Us

MY CAMINO – THY CAMINO: The Camino de Santiago and The Walk Before Us


And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. – Matthew 4:21-22

As briefly mentioned in a previous post, the walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain that Dan and I are taking typically is referred to today as the “Camino de Santiago.” More precisely, that route or path that we are taking is referred to as the “Camino Frances” because it is “the way” from France – in fact, using the mountain pass between St. Jean Pied de Port in France and Roncevalles in Spain.

camino” means path or way or road. The word “camino” in Spanish is used to refer to being “on the road” or “along the way” or “on the right track” or “to go down the wrong path.”

Santiago” means or refers to Saint James, one of the first apostles called by Jesus.

Hence, the “Camino de Santiago” is the road to Santiago or “the Way of St. James.”  (Not to mention the  “Chemin to St. Jacques,” which of course is essentially the French translation of “Camino de Santiago.”  Thus, when looking for “the Camino” in St. Jean de Pied de Port -a French town- one needs to kept an eye out for the “Chemin.”)

But perhaps we should pause long enough to ask, who was St. James? Which James? The James of Santiago is the fisherman, son of Zebedee and brother of John. Sometimes this James is referred to as James the Greater. (There is a second, younger “James” who is also a disciple.). Tradition provides that James the Greater preached on the Iberian peninsula. The Bible recounts that this James was martyred at hands of King Herod Agrippa in 42 A.D.

Keep in mind, for purposes of “My Camino – Thy Camino,” James was one of the three disciples that Jesus asked to join him in the garden and who could not stay awake. Of course, it was at this time that Jesus said: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

In modern times, the Way of St. James is a walk or pilgrimage to the cathedral of St. James in Santiago, Spain. Walking the “Camino” recalls a medieval tradition of European Christians that undertook a spiritual journey to the shrine of St. James at the cathedral in Santiago. Walking the “Camino” also retraces the primary route medieval pilgrims took through northern Spain.

The Route of the Camino de Santiago

The Route of the Camino de Santiago

For Dan and me, “our Camino” began in St. Jean Pied de Port, which is the most common starting point today for people wanting to undertake the long walk to Santiago. In the Middle Ages pilgrims could not take planes, trains or automobiles. Thus, a pilgrim’s journey began as they stepped out of their town or village in Germany or Britain or Scandinavia. The routes they took, therefore, were varied and numerous, but they tended to converge at St. Jean Pied de Port because it offered the easiest pass through the Pyrenees and into Spain. From there, peregrines followed a very similar path to Santiago.

Background/History.  Church tradition provides that disciples of St. James brought his body to Galicia and buried them in Compostela (now, Compostela de Santiago) in the 8th or 9th century. Further, St. James is credited with appearing in a vision to help defeat the Moors (name given to Arab and Berber settlers in Spain from Morocco), which gave him one of his names, the “Moor-Slayer.” Pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome were popular by the 9th century. The first recorded pilgrimage was a French bishop in 950. King Alfonso VI abolished tolls on the route in 1072. The first church was built in Santiago in 829. The current cathedral was begun in 1075 and completed in 1120s.

The French helped to popularize the Camino for commercial and political reasons. Spanish kings saw the benefit as we’ll and commissioned the building of hospitals, religious houses and institutions along the route. Pilgrimages grew in the 11th century and exploded in the 12th century. Perhaps the most crucial step was late in the 12 century when Pope Alexander III declared Santiago a holy city equal to Jerusalem and Rome, offering a plenary indulgence for making the pilgrimage.

Travel increased. Religious military orders like the Knights Templar arose to protect pilgrims on the Camino. And in the 12th century a French priest produced the Codex Calixtinus, (named after incumbent Pope Calixtus II) which was literally a travel guide – a “Michelin Guide” – for people along the way.  Half a million “peregrines” a year in Middle Ages. Down to 30,000 in 18th century.

Taking a pilgrimage to Santiago  essentially died out in 19th century. The Camino saw a rebirth in 1980s. Parish priest (Don Elias) publishes guidebook in 1982 and is then commissioned to rebuild the Camino in 1985 as new albergues were built, signage improved and an official, modern route was established.  Pope John Paul II visited Santiago in the 1980’s and then UNESCO named the Camino as the “foremost cultural route in Europe.”

Interest in the Way of St. James continued to increase. Americans were better introduced to the Camino in 2010 with the release of the film The Way  starring Martin Sheen.  In 2013, 217,000 people completed at least the final 110 km of the route – the last leg – of the trip to Santiago. (You can also earn La Compostela (the completion certificate) by covering certain lengths of the Camino by horse back or bicycle.)

Day 1 - Bruce on the "Chemin de St. Jacque"

Day 1 – Bruce on the “Chemin de St. Jacque”


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  1. #1 by carlrmeyer on April 10, 2014 - 10:29 pm

    Great commentary on what this pilgrimage means. Thank you

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