The Compostela

On arrival at the Cathedral in Santiago, pilgrims take their credencial or Pilgrim Record, duly stamped along the way, to the nearby Pilgrim Office and complete a short form which asks some brief personal details and your motivations for undertaking the pilgrimage.  You may also be asked a few questions by the office staff, especially if there are any gaps in the stamps in your credencial.  Please remember that walkers and pilgrims on horseback must have completed at least the last 100km and cyclists the last 200 km, in one stretch, to qualify.


New Style Compostela

Subject to Pilgrim Office approval that you fulfil the necessary requirements, you will receive a final stamp in your credencial and will receive either:

  • a Compostela certificate (still written in Latin, and confirming the completion of the pilgrimage) if you state ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ as part of your reason for making the pilgrimage            – or –
  • a different document, known as a certificado, if you do not state ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ as part of your motivation, to attest to your having completed it.  A certificado can sometimes be granted to those who do not meet the strict requirements of the Compostela, for example, children around the age of 7 or younger who have accompanied their parents on pilgrimage.

See the Pilgrim Office website for details about how to qualify for a Compostela and translation of the Latin text.

The Compostela and certificado are free, but you may make a donation if you wish.

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Certificate of Distance

In addition you may purchase a Certificate of Distance to record exactly how far you have walked or ridden (€3), and a tubo (€2) (a cardboard tube to protect your compostela or certificado).

Alternatively, shops nearby will laminate your Compostela in plastic for a small fee.

The Compostela (take a photocopy, which the hotel staff will retain) may be presented at the Hotel de los Reyes Católicos who provide 10 free pilgrim meals three times a day. Pilgrims may take such meals for up to 3 days. Don’t apply at the main entrance however: pilgrims queue at the garage door, down the ramp to the left, collect their meals on trays from the kitchen, and sit in a small comedor or dining room set aside for them.

It also gives you reduced-price access to the Cathedral museum, and is supposed to give access to the refugios for those making the return journey the way they came.

For anyone on pilgrimage to the Cathedral but travelling by air/road/rail etc, it is now possible to buy a Certificate of Visit from the Archicofradia Offices in the Plaza de la Quintana (€3) to commemorate your visit there – please see the Cathedral website.

The history of the Compostela

Compostela of Michael Krier, who took many of the photographs appearing on these pages

Compostela (original style) of Michael Krier, who took many of the photographs appearing on these pages

The idea of the Jubilee or Holy Year, the plenary indulgence, and the compostela, are historically linked. The Jubilee goes back to the Old Testament (“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year … it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession … ” – Leviticus 25,10). Taken into Christian theology, it is defined by Isidore of Seville (Etymologies V, 37, iii) as “a year of remission of sins”. Indulgences, or remission of all or part of the time to be spent in purgatory, were at first general and partial, but by the C11th the Church was offering particularly generous indulgences to those participating in the reconquest of Spain, or making especially long and arduous journeys to the shrines of the saints. Plenary indulgences were first offered in 1095 to pilgrims to the Holy Land who died on the journey.

It is widely claimed that in 1122 Pope Calixtus II gave Compostela the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to those who visited the shrine of the Apostle in each year when the saint’s day fell on a Sunday, and while there made their confession, attended Mass, gave a donation for the upkeep of the shrine, and undertook to perform good works. The papal bull of 1179 making the privilege perpetual is now thought to be a C15th forgery. The earliest documented account of indulgences granted to jacobean pilgrims by the Papacy dates from the mid-C13th, and the earliest jubilee year identified by Constance Storrs is 1395. In any case, the gaining of the plenary indulgence became a dominant motivation for the pilgrimage (in the C15th few pilgrims sailed from England except in Holy Years).

Confession and communion remained essential to the granting of the certificate of having completed the pilgrimage, first called la autentica. Originally hand-written and sealed, with slips of paper attesting confession and communion pasted on, it became in the C17th (printing reached Galicia very late) a printed document which included the confirmation of confession and communion. These two elements appear to have been dropped from the compostela in the mid-C18th, and the text as we now have it is little changed since then.

The plenary indulgence – never, as far as we know, a printed document – is still granted to those who visit the Cathedral and the tomb of the Apostle at any time during a Holy Year, make their confession, attend Mass, pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, and undertake some charitable work (this can include a charitable donation). It is not also necessary to fulfil the conditions for the granting of the Compostela. Additionally is available on St James’s three feast days (23 May – the Apparition; 25 July – his martyrdom; and 30 December – the translation of the relics).

(For current Catholic teaching on the subject of indulgences, search Google for “Enchiridion of Indulgences” or visit the website of Steven Rossi.)

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