Spain’s ‘Field of Stars’

Santiago de Compostela Continues to Draw the Faithful, Including a First-Time Pilgrim

A procession on St. James' feast day, July 25
A procession on St. James' feast day, July 25 (photo: Tim Drake)

“If you build it, they will come.” Such was the refrain of the popular film Field of Dreams. It could also serve as a fitting motto for the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago, Spain.

For more than 1,000 years, Santiago de Compostela (Compostela means “field of stars”) has attracted pilgrims from Europe and elsewhere to walk the Way of St. James, ending at the cathedral that holds the apostle’s relics.

There’s no better time to visit the cathedral than on St. James’ feast day, July 25, especially when the feast falls on a Sunday.


Apostolic History

According to tradition, after Christ’s ascension, St. James the Greater set out to evangelize those living on the Iberian Peninsula (which includes Spain). After some time there, the Blessed Mother apparently appeared to him, saying that he needed to return to Jerusalem to become the first apostle to be martyred. He did so; and as Scripture tells us, he was beheaded by Herod in the year 44. The apostles then brought his remains back to Iberia, where he was buried.

Over time, the remains became forgotten and lost. Then, in 813, a shepherd was guided by a “field of stars” to the burial place of St. James. Through the assistance of Bishop Teodomiro, the remains were authenticated, and King Alfonso II had a church built at the location. Soon after, pilgrims from throughout Europe began making their way to visit St. James’ relics — a pilgrimage that some historians say shaped Europe, and a pilgrimage which continues to this day.

Today, according to the Pilgrim Office, approximately 1,000 pilgrims receive their compostela (a Latin document certifying that a pilgrim has walked at least from Sarria, a city located 110km away — or 68 miles) each day. The actual number is perhaps higher, as many pilgrims do not register to receive the compostela.

There are many paths to Santiago. My own two-week Camino pilgrimage began in Astorga on July 13, following the Camino Frances, and ended in Santiago on the vigil of the feast of St. James.

The Camino pilgrimage contains many crosses for pilgrims. Among my own were extreme heat, full albergues (hostels), sleepless nights, the need to carry extra water, sore heels and more. These, however, were forgotten the moment I arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago. There, in the dawn light, I knelt in thanksgiving on the stones in front of the cathedral’s square and gave thanks to Christ and St. James for bringing me safely to my goal.


Rivaling St. Peter’s

The Santiago Cathedral rivals St. Peter’s in both beauty and grandeur. Incorporating a unique mixture of Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical elements, it stands as a monument to one of Christ’s closest disciples.

The Church has been added to over time, becoming the spectacular cathedral that today sits at the heart of Santiago. The city’s streets radiate from the cathedral and the square that sits in front of the massive church. Even today, restoration and renovations continue. During my visit, the front façade of the cathedral was covered by scaffolding, as restoration was being done to the church’s towers.

Pilgrim-visitors to the cathedral follow several customs upon their arrival. These include taking in Maestro Mateo’s fabulous Medieval Portico of Glory, which greets visitors as they first walk into the cathedral. The stone sculpture depicts the Nativity, Old Testament prophets, the Apocalypse of St. John, the Final Judgment and a statue of St. James and the Tree of Jesse. It used to be that visitors were invited to place their hands in the tree, but this is no longer allowed.

Visitors also are invited to descend a narrow staircase to venerate and pray before the relics of St. James, contained in a silver urn located in a crypt below the high altar. Visitors can also venerate or embrace the back of a statue of St. James as a pilgrim that sits above the high altar. A staircase accessible via the ambulatory allows visitors to ascend directly behind the statue, with many visitors touching their foreheads to the back of the head of the statue of St. James.

The high altar itself is a masterpiece of Spanish Baroque art, featuring a baldachin held up by polychrome angels. Atop the golden baldachin sit polychromed sculptures depicting the cardinal virtues. Truth be told, the baldachin is so detailed that it’s difficult to truly take in all of the detail.

In addition to the main altar, the various side and nave chapels of the cathedral are well worth visiting. In particular, I found that the Eucharistic adoration chapel was illumined with a brightness not found elsewhere in the cathedral. Also, the Our Lady of Soledad Chapel, where an English-speaking Mass is held daily, evokes great emotion. It features a realistic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary crying, with her heart being pierced by seven swords. Her statue is surrounded by numerous polychromed cherubs with faces of sadness, as they hold the instruments of Christ’s passion. After suffering the crosses of my own Camino, they seemed nothing in comparison to what Christ suffered for us.

The feast of St. James is a festive time to visit the city and the cathedral. The city is filled with a variety of events, including concerts in the week leading up to the feast day and a spectacular sound-light-and fireworks show on the cathedral’s façade on the vigil of the feast.

This July 25, an invitation-only Mass was celebrated in the morning. In attendance were Spain’s new king and queen.

Pilgrims and local Spaniards filled the cathedral to overflowing during the noon “Pilgrim Mass,” not only to celebrate, but also to see the famous botafumeiro (incenser) in action. At the end of Mass, the 3.5-foot-tall silver incenser was elevated by the tiraboleiros (men who operate the rope) and swung along the transept of the church, nearly touching the cathedral ceiling. I was blessed to see the botafumerio in action after a fourth Mass I attended while I was there; fittingly, it was the “Pilgrim Mass” on the feast of St. James.

It was the perfect culmination to a profoundly religious pilgrimage.


Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Planning Your Visit

An English-speaking Mass is held in the Our Lady of Soledad/Holy Spirit Chapel each day at 10:30am, followed by coffee at a local café. The Cathedral Museum (with English-speaking audio tours) and guided tours of the roof and archaeological excavations are also available and well worth the time and cost of 15 euro.