Is the Camino de Santiago a religious pilgrimage? Good question. Many pilgrims prefer the less controversial term, spiritual pilgrimage. Which is correct?
The short answer is that it depends on the particular pilgrim. The Camino de Santiago is replete with a great irony. For this great Christian pilgrimage takes place in Europe and is dominated by Europeans (although Americans and Asians have begun to arrive in significant numbers). Yet Europe is far and away the most secular, least religious, of the seven continents. What gives?
For starters, the Camino is many things. In some respects, it is the Appalachian Trail of Europe–a trail for the European masses. This makes it especially interesting froma tourist standpoint. Rather than having to visit a dozen-and-a-half European countries, one only need go to the Camino to see the pageantry and glory of the famed European Continent, all in one place. There is a great social element to the Camino pilgrimage.
But, it also remains indisputable that many pilgrims choose to walk the Camino for profound spiritual, and even religious, reasons. “Catholicism in France isn’t so much a religion, as a birthright,” writes Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. Since medieval times, the French have been one of, if not the, main nationalities represented on El Camino. All of them show great reverence for the religious shrines that pilgrims pass on a daily, and even hourly, basis. But most of them are not regular churchgoers. Yet many explain that this doesn’t mean that they aren’t believers.
Relics are a much bigger part of the Catholic religion than Protestantism. And more than any place I’ve ever been, relics hover on, around, and over the Spanish landscape. They are a sign of different times, with a different culture, and a greater devotion to organized religion. But that does not mean they have no significance to modern pilgrims, and the frequent glimpses of them adds to the Camino journey. They should be respected, and have much to teach us, regardless of one’s leanings. For this reason, Spain is the best place imagineable to do a pilgrimage on foot.
Bill Walker is the author of The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.