Tomb of St. James the Great in Santiago de Compostela

Notes for a Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Which James is buried in Santiago de Compostela since there are two? It is James the Great, the brother of John the Apostle, who is buried in Compostela. The other James, James the Less, is called the brother of the Lord in the New Testament. (explanation of the brothers and sisters of Jesus)

Firstly let us look at James the Great in the New Testament. James and his brother John were sons of Zebedee and Salome. The family made their living from fishing on the Sea of Galilee and had men employed (Mark 1:20). Salome is mentioned as one of the women who used to minister to Jesus and is one of the women mentioned at the crucifixion and going to anoint Jesus’ body on the first Easter day (Matt 27:55-56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). Salome is sometimes identified as the same woman as Mary of Cleopas (John 19:25) who is a sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. If that is correct that would make James and his brother John first cousins of Jesus.

Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20 and Luke 5:1-11 give us an account of the call of the first four disciples; Peter, Andrew, James and John. The evangelists present them as model disciples who left everything and followed Jesus (Matt 4:22). You remember some of the incidents about James in the Gospels. He and his brother John were given the nickname “Sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). We can understand why when we read in Luke 9:54 that they wished to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans when they did not make Jesus welcome. In Mark 10:35-40 the two brothers asked Jesus for a place for each of them on either side of him when he came in glory while in Matt 20:20-23 we read that it is their mother who made the request on their behalf.

Peter, James and John were the only apostles present with the Lord for three special events, the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43; Matt 9; Luke 8), Jesus’ Transfiguration, and they were close to Jesus during his agony in Gethsemane. The fact that James is always mentioned before John in the Gospels probably indicates that he was older than his brother. Also the fact that the other James is called James the Less probably indicates that the other James was shorter in stature.

Why is James buried in Compostela? After Pentecost the apostles went far and wide preaching about Jesus. Tradition says that James came as far west as what we now call the Iberian Peninsula, at that time called Hispania. According to tradition, Our Lady appeared to James when he was in Zaragoza saying that Jesus desired James to return to Jerusalem to be martyred there. In Acts 12:1-2 we read of the martyrdom of James in Jerusalem by Herod. According to tradition his disciples took his body to Spain and buried him in a tomb in Libredón near a castro or prehistoric fortified settlement which has a street in Compostela called after it today, Calle del Castro. Two of James’ disciples were Theodore and Athanasius who are said to have been buried one on either side of him. Gradually the tomb was forgotten and became overgrown due to Roman persecutions of Christians and the barbarian invasion of Christians in the fifth century and the Moors conquering the area in the 8th century. We are told that early in the 9th century a hermit named Pelagius saw and heard inexplicable lights and sounds coming from a nearby wood. He was aware that this spot, Libredón, was said to have been the place where James was buried. He went to the local bishop, Theodomir of Iria, informing him that he believed it was a sign of the location of James’ burial place. The bishop ordered the area to be cleared of shrubs and they discovered what might be called a tiny chapel with an altar and a crypt beneath containing three tombs, the central one attributed to James, and one on either side attributed to his disciples Theodore and Athanasius. The King of Asturias, Alphonsus II, came from Oviedo and ordered a basilica to be erected over the tomb and arranged for the building of a monastery nearby. (He is also the king who had the Camara Santa built for the Sudarium in Oviedo) Twelve Benedictine monks came from Oviedo and this was the beginning of the town of Compostela. The earliest explanation of the meaning of the word Compostela is that it comes from the Latin Campus Stellae meaning ‘field of stars’ referring to strange lights near the tomb though other explanations have since been given.

How much of all this tradition is actual fact? Since 1955 much more credence is given to the tradition since excavations beneath the Cathedral in Compostela discovered the tombstone of Bishop Theodomir of Iria, the bishop who discovered James’s tomb, since he had said he wished to be buried near James and not in his episcopal see Iria, and the date on his tombstone, 847 AD, agrees with the tradition.

You may venerate the tomb of James in the crypt beneath the high altar in the Cathedral, descending steps, passing through, and ascending again at the other side. In the Cathedral you may also see the Holy Door which is opened on Holy Years. Holy Years in the Cathedral occur whenever the feast of St. James on July 25th falls on a Sunday which happens every 6,5,6 and 11 years.

Since the discovery of St. James’ tomb early in the 9th century there has been a continuous stream of pilgrims. The pilgrimage was at its height from the 11th to the 15th centuries then it declined and since the 20th century has seen a great revival again. Because the pilgrimage was harsh and the journey to the western tip of Spain so long pilgrims would join up with others along the road for support. Pilgrims purchased two proofs of their pilgrimage, a shell which they sewed onto their clothing, and a document called the Compostela, which they received from the chapter of the Cathedral giving them the status of pilgrim. Today you know that parts of various European cities are called St. James’ Gate, having acquired this name due to the fact that pilgrims going to Compostela used to assemble there to begin their pilgrimage.

St. James, pray for us.

This was delivered when I was Spiritual Director for a pilgrimage while engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.