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Ultreia! Et Suseia! – Reflections of a Camino Pilgrim

Ultreia! Et Suseia! – Reflections of a Camino Pilgrim

Marianne Rozario reflects on her time walking the Camino de Santiago. 07/12/2022

In August I walked the Camino de Santiago (or The Way of St James), a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where tradition holds that the remains of St James the Great, one of Jesus’ Apostles, are buried. This pilgrimage continues to grow in popularity, with reports that this year will see a record number of pilgrims with both religious and non–religious motivations. Is this an indicator of spiritual yearning? And what does that show about the significance of pilgrimage? 

According to tradition, St James was martyred by beheading in the year 44 AD and his relics were rediscovered in 814 AD by a monk guided by a star to the place that now sits the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Declared by Pope Alexander VI as one of the three great pilgrimages of Christendom, alongside Jerusalem and Rome, this European centre of pilgrimage continues to grow in popularity. The first official statistic by the Pilgrims Office in Santiago recorded 179,944 pilgrims in 2004. In 2019, this peaked to 347,598 pilgrims. Records are expected to be surpassed this year.  

What is interesting about these increased numbers, is how they compare to the rapid decrease of those who identify as religious in the West. According to the official statistics, in 2004 75% of pilgrims recorded ‘religious’ reasons as their primary motivation, with 20% noting ‘religious and other’ and 5% stating that their motivation was ‘not religious’. In 2021, 43% stated ‘religious and other’, 36% ‘religious’ motivations, and 20% ‘not religious’ reasons. These statistics reflected the conversations I had – some people were there as a pilgrimage of faith, others inspired by the 2011 film ‘The Way’ with Martin Sheen, and others for a time of peace and solace. The decline of purely religious reasons should not be a surprise, but its increased popularity by both religious and non–religious people is a sign of hope. It is a good example of the argument presented in Theos’ ‘Nones’ report that having ‘no religion’ does not mean having no beliefs, or no religious beliefs.  

A pilgrimage is more than simply traveling to historic sites or visiting religious places – it has a deeper spiritual purpose. Even the 20% walking the Camino in 2021 who recorded ‘no religious motivation’ are unlikely to call it trekking. Rather, walking the Camino brings with it a deeper purpose whether identifiably religious or not. Despite the plethora of other walking options, why do many thousands chose a pilgrimage steeped in religious sites, practices and symbolism? 

My pilgrimage started in León, 306km away from Santiago de Compostela. The route directing pilgrims to the tomb of St James is sign–posted by yellow arrows, or ‘flechas’ in Spanish, painted on the road or on street signs. It became daily routine to walk in darkness from 6am, walk for around 25km (of course enjoying Spanish cuisine along the way!), and visit numerous Churches before arriving to the next albergue, a hostel designated for pilgrims. Pilgrims continuously greeted one another with ‘Buen Camino’ or alternatively ‘Ultreia!’ (Let’s go forwards!) followed by the response ‘Et Suseia!’ (Let’s go higher!). I reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the fourteenth day and was greeted by hundreds of other pilgrims. It is there that you receive the Compostela, the official accreditation proving that you made the pilgrimage for religious reasons, walked at least the last 100km, and collected stamps on the ‘Credencial del Peregrino’. 

Reflecting on my Camino, following the yellow ‘flechas’ symbolised for me our earthly journey towards Heaven with inevitable moments of great joy and those of struggle. Joys. Glimpses of Heaven on earth were felt as I stood in awe of being so close to the tomb of one of Jesus’ apostles, and as I marvelled at God’s timing witnessing the swinging of the thurible by eight monks spreading incense across the width of the Cathedral. Struggles. Walking in almost complete darkness hoping not to trip on a rock. Strained, inflamed and very sore feet. Getting irritated by fellow pilgrims. For me, the joys and struggles of a pilgrimage help nourish our spiritual journey and assist us in fine tuning ourselves in preparation for our eternal resting place.  

Ultimately, pilgrimages are a great tool of discovery and renewal no matter where you sit on the spectrum of belief. The increased popularity in this pilgrimage shows glimmers of hope of a spiritual yearning. This yearning may be as a result of, whether religious or not religious, we are all in a sense, on pilgrimage on earth – we are all following a yellow ‘flecha’ even if we disagree on where the destination is or what it may hold. Our pilgrimage on earth needs to be nourished and sustained, and pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago offer excellent ‘food’ for the journey.  

So, I say to you – Ultreia! Et Suseia!


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Image by David Uribe

Marianne Rozario

Marianne Rozario

Dr Marianne Rozario is Senior Researcher and Projects Lead at Theos. She is the co–author of Ashes to Ashes: beliefs, trends, and practices in dying, death, and the afterlife. She has a PhD in International Relations exploring the notion of Catholic agency in international society through the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews. She is a Lecturer on the MA Social Justice and Public Service in the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s University.

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Posted 7 December 2022

Catholicism, Christianity, Faith, Pilgrimage, Pilgrimage


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