Catholic trek turns secular

For centuries, Catholic pilgrims made this sacred journey across Spain for heavenly rewards. This summer, the throngs arriving in Santiago de Compostela have found more-immediate gratification: concerts by Lou Reed, The Cure, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Welcome to Xacobeo, the festival honoring the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which finishes here in the rolling green hills of northwestern Spain. Once the domain of devout Catholics, the 420-mile trek across the country to honor the Apostle James has been transformed into a pop-culture spectacle.

Jenna Bush did it. So did the Queen of Spain. Even Bob Dylan performed. For a country steeped in Catholic tradition, the times they are a changin'.

While the pilgrimage has become especially popular in this Jubilee year, many now walk the journey for reasons quite different from those that compelled medieval pilgrims intent on fulfilling religious vows or receiving plenary grace.

Miguel Angel Martínez, an engineer from Castellón who completed the pilgrimage Wednesday, says his reasons were complicated.

"It might have been something spiritual," he admits, "but I also wanted to be out walking, seeing nature, seeing the towns." As sociologist Diego Comas explains, "New Age spirituality, the desire to challenge yourself, ecological interests, and simply for the fun of it - these all are motives."

Similarly, the celebration that greets the weary travelers who arrive in Santiago this summer is also mixed - as much pop culture as religious ritual.

As Spaniards - like many other western Europeans - replace their traditional Catholic worldviews with an inclusive, non-institutional "spirituality," official religion no longer provides the glue that has long served to define national identities, and structure public mores.

Indeed, as was evident in the European Union's recent decision to purge reference to Europe's "Christian heritage" from its constitution, "secular religion" is now widely accepted as the norm in communal and public life. Released from the dictatorship's obligatory Catholicism when Francisco Franco died in 1975, Spain has gradually become more secular over the past twenty-five years, and today the country has, after France, the second lowest percentage of religious practice in Europe.

Questions about religious devotion emerged at the pilgrimage office in Santiago earlier this week, as recently-arrived travelers requesting the "Compostela" - the official Latin document certifying completion of the pilgrimage - waited eagerly in a line stretching out the door and down a flight of stairs.

To receive the prized document, candidates must attest to undertaking the pilgrimage for "religious reasons." But interviewers have urged candidates denying religious motivations to reconsider whether their reasons might in fact have included "spiritual" aspects. Father Genaro, the office's director, admits that the Church allows a broad definition of "religious."

Carlos, a 20-something accountant, admitted that he fudged the truth when he insisted to his interviewer that he was driven by "spiritual" reasons, even though he later confessed to walking the Camino for "the adventure."

Indeed, the very name of the celebration reflects a religious conflict. Although the Church refers to the celebration as a Jubilee, or Holy Year, almost everyone else uses the name the regional government gave it in 1993: the Xacobeo. The government made the change for largely commercial reasons; the event has become an important source of revenue.

Though plenty of believers still make the pilgrimage out of religious devotion, the secular celebrations appear to be absorbing the religious ones. Even traditional rituals seem to have lost much of their religious significance, notes Teresa García Sabell, a local councilwoman.

"People clap when the Botafumeiro [a formidably large incense burner swung from the cathedral's ceiling during certain services] comes out - something you don't usually do during Mass," she says. "It's become a performance."

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