Talking to some folks who haven’t yet made a walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela but would like to do so this year, I found myself needing to clarify the concepts of holy years, indulgences and the Compostela, the document that the Pilgrim Office at the cathedral grants to pilgrims who have made the journey on foot to the tomb of St. James. Since it is likely that there are other folks confused about the same thing, I’ll explain it here, and then include this information in a separate FAQ section about the pilgrimage here on the blog.
First, let’s explain the Holy Year and the Jubilee Indulgence. Every 6, 5, 6 y 11 años is a Holy Year in Santiago de Compostela. Where, you ask, did they they come up with those goofy numbers, and what’s a Holy Year all about?
The numbers simply refer to the intervening number of years between those years in which the Feast of St. James the Greater, 25 July, falls on a Sunday. So, 2010 is a Holy Year because the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday.
The idea of a Holy Year (also known as a Jubilee Year) is defined by St. Isidore of Seville as a “year for the remission of sins” (Etymologies V, 37, iii). Consequently, in Holy Years Catholics making a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela can receive a plenary indulgence, which means the full remission of the punishment due for one’s sins.
In order to receive this indulgence, the following conditions must be satisfied:
- Visit the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
- Offer some prayers, at the very least, the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father and a prayer for the intentions of the Pope. It is also recommended to attend the 12:00 p.m. Pilgrim’s Mass if possible while there.
- Receive the sacraments of penance (which can be done in the 15 days prior to or after visiting the cathedral) and Holy Communion.
Some people mistakenly believe that in order to gain the Jubilee indulgence, they also must walk the final 100 kilometers of the Camino on foot. This is incorrect. The plenary indulgence can be obtained by any Catholic fulfilling the conditions outlined above, irregardless of whether or not they have made their pilgrimage on foot.
The Compostela, on the other hand, can only be obtained by pilgrims who have satisfied the following conditions:
- Make the pilgrimage motivated by religious faith or devotion to the Apostle. At the very least, making the pilgrimage for “spiritual reasons” or in an attitude of openness and searching.
- Walk the final 100 kilometers on foot (200 kilometers by bicycle or on horseback).
- Complete the distance indicated in a continuous fashion, i.e., on consecutive days and not spread out across two or three weekend excursions.
The Compostela is not an indulgence and grants no remission of the temporal punishment due for sin. It is simply a document certifying the pilgrim’s arrival at the cathedral. It has its roots in the Middle Ages, when the pilgrimage was frequently imposed as a punishment for civil crimes or as a condition for obtaining the absolution of certain grave sins, such as murder, patricide or the killing of a cleric. The document served as testimony to the pilgrim’s having satisfied the conditions imposed by the ecclesial or civil authorities. In its contemporary form, it simply a document that certifies the pilgrim’s arrival at the cathedral as an act of devotion. While it can be requested by Catholics or non-Catholics alike, making the pilgrimage for reasons of faith or devotion is an indispensible condition for receiving the Compostela. Folks walking the Camino for sport, or for educational or cultural reasons are not entitled to receive the Compostela.
I have witnessed firsthand the hard feelings that this sometimes causes among walkers who have made the journey on foot for many weeks and were denied the Compostela in the Pilgrim’s Office, but the Compostela is not a simple souvenir of one’s holiday in Spain. Though it may have little practical valueor use in contemporary society, it is still a document that attests to the religious or devotional motivations of the one bearinfg it. It can be hardly viewed as an injustice when the staff in the Pilgrim’s Office decline to grant one to someone who professes no faith at all. But then I guess that’s just me. 😉