Christian pilgrimage is booming, not just for the faithful

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As the Roman Catholic Church suffers paedophile scandals and falling congregations, Pope Benedict XVI will on Saturday spotlight one centuries-old Christian tradition whose popularity is soaring.

The Way of St. James pilgrimage route, which ends in the medieval Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, is attracting record numbers.

And it's not just those seeking religious salvation who are embarking on what is known in Spanish as the Camino de Santiago, as has been the case since the Middle Ages, but also growing numbers of non-believers in search of spiritual renewal.

"In Western society there is an absence of moral values, people are looking for something, something different, capable of filling this void," said Father Jenaro Cebrian Franco, who has run Santiago's pilgrimage centre for the past six years.

"People come to the Camino to make sense of their lives," said the 76-year-old priest.

He said he could relate "countless experiences" of people who have had a religious or spiritual awakening on the walk.

The Camino is in fact not one route but several, which start at different points in France and Spain and all end in Santiago, where the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral is believed to hold the remains of St. James the Apostle.

Considered the third most holy place in the Roman Catholic world in the Middle Ages after Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago, in the rugged northwestern region of Galicia, has drawn pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.

A 12th-century French monk and scholar, Aymeric Picaud, even wrote a guide, including descriptions of villages along the way -- and warnings about what he considered some of the unsavoury inhabitants. It is now thought to be one of the world's first ever tourist guidebooks.

Renewed interest in modern times was sparked by visits to Santiago by the late Pope John Paul II in 1982 and 1989, said Father Jenaro.

He said the number of pilgrims rocketed from almost 10,000 to some 99,000 from 1992 to 1993, the first real "boom year."

In 2004, the last Holy Year -- which is whenever July 25, the name day of St. James, falls on a Sunday -- some 180,000 people took the Camino.

Since January 2010 -- another Holy Year -- the number is already around 260,000.

And a new surge is expected from the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who will say mass in the vast Plaza Obradoiro outside the cathedral's main facade in the city's medieval core.

The pilgrims arrive exhausted but exultant at the pilgrimage centre, an old house on one of the city's narrow cobbled streets, many limping with bandaged feet or carrying heavy backpacks, and swapping stories about their experiences.

They stand in line, sometimes for hours, on two flights of stairs to receive their Compostela, or certificate, proving they have walked at least the last 100 kilometres (60 miles) or cycled twice that distance.

In the crowded entrance, abandoned walking sticks fashioned from tree branches are piled high.

Many pilgrims queue again outside the cathedral to embrace the statue of Saint James.

But not all are true believers, or even Christians.

From 2004 to 2009, the percentage of those undertaking the Camino for purely non-religious reasons has nearly doubled from 5.61 percent to 9.81 percent.

One of those, Julien Jouanolle, a 23-year-old unemployed electrician from France, decided to take the Camino after reading best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho's book describing his own pilgrimage in 1986.

"It was a sort of voyage within myself, a way to sort things out," said Jouanolle, who walked 777 kilometres over 35 days with a friend.

Others see the trip as a sporting challenge, or a chance to share time with friends or to meet like-minded people.

Luis Real, 62, a Spanish photographer and an agnostic, said he and 12 friends walked or cycled 267 kilometres to Santiago, just "because we like sport."

On the Camino, "people are ready to share and help each other, in a society in which there is a great lack of solidarity, a great lack of communication," said Father Jenaro.

Be they "believers or non-believers" the Camino leads people "to the mystery of something that is at the heart of all human beings and which only has to be in the right conditions to appear."

He said the visit to Spain by the pope, who is also consecrating Barcelona's Sagrada Familia basilica on Sunday, "responds to his desire to be a pilgrim at the tomb of St James."

© 2010 AFP

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