St. James the Greater

Sarah Metts

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Credit: Vasco Roxo via wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Today, July 25, is the feast of St. James the Greater. St. James is the patron saint of Spain, and the pilgrimage to his burial place, called the Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago in Spanish, is one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world.

One might wonder, “how did James the Apostle become the patron of Spain?” or “how did the pilgrimage across northern Spain each year to Santiago de Compostela begin?” In order to answer those questions it is necessary to go back to the 1st Century. Before his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D., St. James, who with his brother St. John had been nicknamed “sons of thunder” by Christ, traveled to Spain to preach the Gospel. Legend has it that after his death his body was transported to Iria Flavia (present day Padrón), on the northwestern coast of Spain, where he was buried. The exact location of his grave was lost for hundreds of years, until 812, when a hermit named Pelayo saw a bright star shining over an empty field. He reported this to his superiors, and when the field was excavated St. James’ incorrupt body was found buried in the field. St. James became the patron of Spain, and his burial place, Compostela (from the Latin campus stellae, which means “countryside where the star shone”), became the destination of one of the three major pilgrimages in all of Christendom—Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela.

Up until this time Christian Spain had remained fairly isolated from the rest of Western Europe, but the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela would change that. By the 1100s pilgrims from all over Europe were visiting his shrine—including King Alfonso II, El Cid, Louis VII of France, and later St. Francis of Assisi.(1) At the height of its popularity during the Middle Ages more than half a million people made the journey each year.(2) The popularity of making the pilgrimage brought French merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen into Spain. The French influence on architecture and literature can be seen in Spain during this time. The chapels, hospitals, hotels and cathedrals that were built along the pilgrimage route show the evolution from Romanesque to Baroque architecture, and they demonstrate the close link between faith and culture during the Middle Ages. According to the UNESCO world heritage website:

“Some 1,800 buildings along the route, both religious and secular, are of great historic interest. The route played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. It remains a testimony to the power of the Christian faith among people of all social classes and from all over Europe.”(3)

Given the enduring significance of the Way of St. James for over 1,000 years one cannot help but think of Christ’s words to the Apostles:

“and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

There is a place called Cape Finisterre, about a 50 mile walk from Santiago de Compostela. The name comes from the Latin finis terrae, meaning “end of the earth,” and it was considered to be the edge of the world during Roman times.

***A train accident outside of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday night, on the eve of this major feast day, killed at least 78 people and injured up to 131. The city's tourism board has said that all celebrations, including the traditional High Mass at the cathedral, have been cancelled as the city goes into mourning. Please join me in praying for those who have died, for the injured, and for all who have been affected by this tragedy.


(1) James A. Michener, Iberia (New York: Random House, 1968), 721.
(2) Michener, Iberia, 722.
(3) http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/669/

Topics: Church history , Culture , Current Events , Saints

Sarah Metts is a freelance writer, copy editor, and aspiring Spanish historian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She and her husband Patrick reside in the Atlanta area with their sons Jack and Joseph.

View all articles by Sarah Metts

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