One of the highlights of a parish pilgrimage to Spain some seven or eight years ago was our group's visit to the famous shrine of Santiago de Compostela, the supposed site of tomb the Apostle St. James the Greater (whose feast the Church celebrates today) and the traditional end of the great medieval pilgrimage route known still today as the camino. (There were in fact several different pilgrimage routes that constituted the camino, depending on one's starting-point, all of them eventually converging, of course, in Compostela in Galicia). The camino has experienced a certain resurgence in popularity in post-modern Europe, especially among the young. A New York acquaintance of mine recently told me how he will travel part of the camino next month prior to participating in World Youth Day in Madrid.
Like World Youth Day, the camino can be physically demanding and is presumably best done by the young. I did, in fact,go on to attend World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany in 2005, but, needless to say, I have never attempted the camino. Our group traveled to Compostella on a tour bus, and we were pilgrims only in regard to our destination, not the journey itself. Still, it was a wonderful experience to visit that shrine and to celebrate Mass there and to associate oneself, however tangentially, with what remains a living tradition, still capable of attracting adherents.
One of the more picturesque customs connected with the shrine at Compostela is the famous botafumeiro, the enormous thurible that swings through the air to the delight of all who watch it. My fondest memory of Compostela, however, is the silver statue of St. James behind the altar, which one ritually embraces as part of one's visit to the shrine. Not everyone has the physical strength or stamina to undertake the rigors of the camino, but pretty much everyone can express his or her devotion by hugging Santiago's silver statue!
Santiago (St. James) is, of course, the patron saint of Spain, a country that has been quickly transitioning away from its Catholic Christian heritage. (World Youth Day will, one hopes, serve as something of a shot-in-the arm for the beleaguered Spanish Church). But St. James was also the first apostle to be martyred - the only one whose martyrdom was recorded in the New Testament (Acts 12:2). As today's Gospel account (Matthew 20:20-28) of James and John's ambition reminds us, the Church's earthly pilgrimage is not about glory and honor and rewards, but is rather a time of struggle, suffering, and danger.