What to expect on The Way?

Credentials or Pilgrims Passport

Most pilgrims carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the “pilgrim’s passport”, the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides walking pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey is accomplished according to an official route. The credencial is available at refugios, tourist offices, some local parish houses, and outside Spain, through the national St. James organisation of that country. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.

Most often the stamp can be obtained in the refugio, cathedral or local church. If the church is closed, the town hall or office of tourism can provide a stamp, as well as nearby youth hostels or private St. James addresses. Outside Spain, the stamp can be associated with something of a ceremony, where the stamper and the pilgrim can share information. As the pilgrimage approaches Santiago, many of the stamps in small towns are self-service due to the greater number of pilgrims, while in the larger towns there are several options to obtain the stamp.

St. James pilgrim passport stamps in Spain for the Camino Frances

Compostela

The compostela is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. In practice, for walkers, that means starting in the small city of Sarria, for it has good transportation connections via bus and rail to other places in Spain. Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela who have walked at least the last 100 km, or cycled 200 km to get there (as indicated on their credencial), are eligible for the compostela from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

The compostela has been indulgenced since the Early Middle Ages and remains so to this day. The full text of the certificate is inLatin and reads:

CAPITULUM hujus Almae Apostolicae et Metropolitanae Ecclesiae Compostellanae sigilli Altaris Beati Jacobi Apostoli custos, ut omnibus Fidelibus et Perigrinis ex toto terrarum Orbe, devotionis affectu vel voti causa, ad limina Apostoli Nostri Hispaniarum Patroni ac Tutelaris SANCTI JACOBI convenientibus, authenticas visitationis litteras expediat, omnibus et singulis praesentes inspecturis, notum facit : (Latin version of name of recipient) Hoc sacratissimum Templum pietatis causa devote visitasse. In quorum fidem praesentes litteras, sigillo ejusdem Sanctae Ecclesiae munitas, ei confero. Datum Compostellae die (day) mensis (month) anno Dni (year) Canonicus Deputatus pro Peregrinis

The pilgrim passport is examined carefully for stamps and dates. If a key stamp is missing, or if the pilgrim does not claim a religious purpose for their pilgrimage, the compostela may be refused. The Pilgrim Office of Santiago awards more than 100,000 compostelas a year to pilgrims from over 100 countries.

Pilgrim’s Mass

A Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. The musical and visual highlight of the mass is the synchronisation of the beautiful “Hymn to Christ” with the spectacular swinging of the huge Botafumeiro, the famous thurible kept in the cathedral. Incense is burned in this swinging metal container, or “incensory”. As the last chords die away, the multitude of pilgrims jostle happily as they crowd forward to reach the spiritual highlight of the Mass, the rite of communion. Priests administer the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in many languages, permitting most pilgrims to complete the indulgence attached to the pilgrimage upon satisfying the other canonical conditions. In the Holy Year of 2010 the Pilgrim’s Mass was exceptionally held four times a day, at 10 a.m., noon, 6 p.m., and 7:30 p.m., catering to the greater number of pilgrims arriving in the Holy Year.

As tourism

The Xunta de Galicia (Galicia’s regional government) promotes the Way as a tourist activity, particularly in Holy Compostelan Years (when July 25 falls on a Sunday). Following the Xunta’s considerable investment and hugely successful advertising campaign for the Holy Year of 1993, the number of pilgrims completing the route has been steadily rising. Following the Holy Year of 2010, the next Holy Year will not be for another 11 years, and over 200,000 pilgrims were expected to make the trip during the course of 2010.

Below is a table detailing the numbers of pilgrims recorded as arriving at the cathedral at Santiago each year from 1985. The figures are sourced from the cathedral’s records.

Green bars are holy years

In television and film

The Way of St James was the central feature of the film Saint Jacques… La Mecque directed by Coline Serreau in 2005.

Art critic and journalist Brian Sewell made a journey to Santiago de Compostela for a television series The Naked Pilgrim for UK’s Channel Five in 2003. Travelling by car along the French route, he visited many towns and cities on the way including Paris, Chartres, Roncesvalles, Burgos, Leon and Frómista. Sewell, a lapsed Catholic, was moved by the stories of other pilgrims and by the sights he saw. The series climaxed with Sewell’s emotional response to the Mass at Compostela.

The pilgrimage is central to the plot of the 1969 film The Milky Way by surrealist director Luis Buñuel. However, the film is intended to be a critique of the Catholic church, as the modern pilgrims encounter various manifestations of Catholic dogma and heresy.

Part of the pilgrimage route is walked and described in the American food and travel television series produced by PBS Spain… on the road Again, in episode 2, “Pilgrimage to Galicia”. It originally aired September 27, 2008.

Emilio Estevez has written, directed and starred in the film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen, his father. The film was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010, and premiered in Santiago in November 2010.

Name in other languages

The Way of St. James is most often referred to by the names used in the areas it passes:

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