The culmination of the 800-km El Camino pilgrimage is the Catholic service at St. James Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims metaphorically and literally go from the darkness into the light, entering the Cathedral by the north entrance and leaving by the south. In earlier times, Benedictine monks would be positioned at the north entrance with a fresh set of clothes and the hikers would turn in their by then worn-out, filthy clothes to be burned.
We had been on many portions of the Camino and had become accustomed to the familiar scallop shell symbol denoting the route to Santiago de Compostela in Pamplona, San Sebastian, Oviedo, etc. There are many routes, starting in the Pyrenees of southern France, ending here at the westernmost tip of Europe at what — from at least Roman times until Columbus discovered the Americas — had been thought to be the end of the flat planet Earth. Imagine pilgrims making their way from all over Catholic Europe walking toward what was literally thought to be the end of the world.
There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela, some shorter than others, and many choose their route according to the magnificent cathedrals they want to pray in along the way. Others make the journey for self-discovery or physical challenge, but whatever the reason, the 7:30 p.m. Friday mass held at the St. James cathedral, filled with hikers from all over the world, weary faces, messed up, blistered or bandaged feet, some hobbling, others hugging or crying, was a spiritual, moving and inspirational experience.
We stood for an hour waiting for the hour-long service to begin and watched as the pilgrims lined up to receive communion. They smiled, shook our hands, and said in English, “Peace be with you.” The service culminated with the Butafumaria. I snapped some still shots but used the rest of the time to absorb the experience. You can link to the YouTube video of this incredible event on my Reading and Watch List page above.
In the 1960’s there were, on average, 60 pilgrims walking El Camino; in 2014, 260,000 participated in the long journey toward this magnificent cathedral.
I was merely a hitchhiker on this path, but it was a privilege to breathe in the incense, and the spirit, of these seekers as they completed their amazing journey.