St-Jacques in Chatellerault

The wooden statue of Saint-Jacques in the church of the same name in Chatellerault is one of the most beautiful images on this Catholic pilgrimage route.  It is relatively modern, made in the 17th century, and bears witness to this pilgrim route’s popularity at the height of the reformation.  While Christian Europe was in theological and ecclesiastical conflict, pilgrims carried on walking down this Catholic pilgrim route, the Via Turonensis, heading for Compostela.

It has been my view, and it remains my view, that there are only Catholic pilgrims on the roads to Santiago de Compostela.  From time to time, on the well-populated Compostela pilgrim forums, I have put forward the view that ‘pilgrimage’ is a term with a specific meaning: it is walking (or cycling or travelling on horseback) with a particular devotion as the focus of the journey, and the hope of a certain grace to be obtained from God at the end of it.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is not a journey undertaken for touristic motives, nor a journey pursued for sporting prowess. The biggest forum for Compostela pilgrims is http://www.caminodesantiago.me  which is a ‘pilgrim forum’ subtly run as part of the commercial interests of the site’s owner.  Pilgrimage is always a money-spinner!  I have now been excluded from that site – mainly for consistently advocating a Catholic view of pilgrimage since 2008; a view which I have since been told is too ‘controversial’ to air on a ‘pilgrim’ forum…  That’s fine by me, so I’ll put my cards on the table now and cease trying to be diplomatic and accommodating.  There is pilgrimage and there is tourism.  There pilgrimage and there is having a nice long walk.  There is pilgrimage and there is racing by bicycle across Europe for fun with a popular destination in mind.  Pilgrimage is a particular way of doing a journey: it revolves around prayer and devotion; it has a focus other than on myself; it has a God-centred intention and is not a branch of the leisure industry.  Pilgrimage, if it is to retain any meaning at all, must be recovered before it becomes meaningless and the activity simply seen as a fun journey along a route where you meet like-minded people who are travelling similarly aimlessly.

The devil is watching and waiting for all pilgrims on the road, ready to distract them from listening to God on the journey, and he does not need to try very hard.  Large numbers of pilgrims – as many as a couple of thousand every day arriving in Compostela in this Holy Year – have very little knowledge of the Catholic pilgrimage tradition in which they become aimless participants.  Often, if the subject of the church arises in conversation on the road, many pilgrims will shrug and say, “I don’t believe in organised religion.”  Never let that go unchallenged!  What dim and stubborn ignorance is this?  Who provided the infrastructure for the pilgrim routes, if not ‘organised religion’!

I met a German cyclist two days ago in the pilgrim accommodation in Chateau Renault.  I had taken three days to reach there from Chartres but he had left Chartres that same morning.

“Did you go to the cathedral?” I asked.

“No, there was not time.  I arrived late last night and was on the road again early today.  I must get to Santiago for my flight home in two weeks.”

As he hurried around in the pilgrim hostel on early on Sunday morning, I said “Good morning!  Happy feast!”

He looked bewildered, so I explained: “Today is the Feast of Saint James!  Saint-Jacques!  Santiago de Compostela!  It is the 25th of July, in the Holy Year when the feast falls on a Sunday.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” my German ‘pilgrim’ friend said, before packing the last of his lightweight cycling gear into the small pannier bags and speeding off down the main road to Tours.  This is the sporting ‘pilgrim’.

The day before that, I met two Australians who had set out from Chartres that morning, having taken the train from Paris to begin riding the pilgrim route through France.

“Did you see the cathedral?” I asked.  No, they had ‘not had time’ to visit the cathedral, and they asked whether it was a ‘good’ cathedral.  These are the tourist ‘pilgrims’, who have not got time to see anything as they quickly ride their bicycles from A to B, with no regard for A and only seeing B as the place to get the flight home again.

Pilgrimage is not doing a journey along an ancient pilgrim route.  Pilgrimage is the activity of being on pilgrimage.  In this Holy Year when the feast of St James falls on a Sunday, thousands of ‘pilgrims’ are on the road to Santiago de Compostela.  How many of them know anything about St James or have any sense of religious pilgrimage would be interesting to know.

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About Gareth Thomas

A fairly mixed career starting as an aircraft technician and later Franciscan friar eventually led into secondary school teaching. I settled in Spain where I teach Geography part-time and spend the rest of my time looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I have three blogs: a geography blog and a donkey blog begun in 2015, plus an old donkey blog which ran from 2010 to 2015.
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