SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — For centuries during the Middle Ages and beyond, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims, often barefoot, moving in groups to strengthen their resolve, wearing their uniform of a coarse cloak and a wide-brimmed hat adorned with scallop shells, would trek across the Pyrenees Mountains and through some of the harshest land of northern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela.
The way to Santiago became one of the grand routes of Christendom. A pilgrimage to Santiago in those days ranked in holiness with a march to Rome or Jerusalem. In their act of penance, the pilgrims were celebrating the divide between Christianity and Islam, making their way to the awesome land where Christians had finally stopped the onslaught of the Moors.
The romance of the old pilgrimage lingers on. In Holy Week this year, the Don Bosco School of Nice, a Catholic vocational school for boys with learning problems, sponsored a group of 90 students, friends, teachers and parents on a modern pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They left Nice on the southern coast of France in cars, but each one of them ran on the road for about three miles every day, passing a baton to the next runner before getting back into a car.
Not a Uniform of Old
The Don Bosco pilgrims, like those of medieval times, wore a uniform, but it did not resemble the old one. Instead, they sported gold-colored jackets with the legend "Nice-Compostela 1,702 kilometers."
They covered the 1,702 kilometers (1,058 miles) in six days. Jean Eugene Chabaudie, a Nice fireman with a son in the school, was ecstatic after their arrival in Santiago. "The weather did not matter," he said. "If it rained, and it did rain, we ran anyway. What is our aim? We want to do something together, something in the outdoors, something that is physical. But, of course, it is a religious experience. Our baton contains a message from the archbishop of Monaco. Last year, we made a pilgrimage to Rome and were received by the Pope. In two years, we are going to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem."
There are more echoes here from the past. In the 13th and 14th centuries, courts sometimes punished criminals by sending them on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. The condemned prisoner from France, Belgium or the Netherlands would walk barefoot to Santiago, permitted to eat only vegetables, bread and water except on Sundays and holy days, allowed to stop no more than one night in any town. Murderers would have to lug a huge hoop attached to their neck, arm or waist, the hoop made of metal melted from the murder weapon.
In 1982, the medieval practice of sentencing offenders to make the pilgrimage was suddenly revived. Two 17-year-old Belgian delinquents and their guard showed up in Santiago after walking almost 2,000 miles in four months. A court in Ghent had sentenced them to nine months in a Belgian reformatory but suspended the sentence on condition that they make the pilgrimage. For one delinquent, identified only as Marcuise, the pilgrimage proven a religious experience. But the other, identified as Marc, told a local newspaper, "The pilgrimage interested me by showing me so many different landscapes, but I did not like all the churches and cathedrals."
More Pilgrimages Ordered
Their guard said the pilgrimage "did far more to develop and rehabilitate them than a stay in prison." The judges in Ghent evidently agreed. In 1983, the Belgian court sentenced four more young delinquents to a pilgrimage to Santiago. In 1984, the court sentenced eight others to a pilgrimage. More are expected this year.
None of this means that the great treks of the Middle Ages are being repeated. Tens of thousands of tourists do come to Santiago de Compostela every year. Spain, after all, brimming with magnificent art, often basking in sun, charging little for sumptuous hotels and long meals, is one of the great tourist attractions of Europe. But, according to Jose Maria Ballesteros Rua, the director of tourism in Santiago, only 200 to 400 visitors a year can be described as pilgrims.
"We count visitors as pilgrims only if they come by foot, by bicycle, or by horse," he said. "A pilgrim must arrive with effort. Of course, when a pilgrim comes by horse, the real pilgrim is the horse. Not every one who shows up is a Catholic. Even Anglicans come as pilgrims. Some people make the trip for historical reasons rather than religious reasons. And we have even had those like the Belgian youths who come here as a form of civil punishment."