The doubts of a Bohemian priest travelling to Rome on pilgrimage in 1263 led Our Lord to manifest Himself in the famous Eucharistic miracle of the tiny village of Bolseno, near Orvieto, Italy. As a result, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Universal Church and commissioned a Mass and Office for the Feast from St. Thomas Aquinas. A scant thirty-seven years later, the doubts of another priest in a remote mountain pass on the pilgrim’s road to Santiago led to a similar prodigy.
Tucked away in the remote hamlet of El Cebrero (O Cebreiro in the regional Galician language), atop a 1293-metre pass some 150 kilometres from the tomb of St. James, is the church of Santa María la Real (St. Mary the Royal).
This unremarkable clutch of gray, slate-and-stone buildings comprised of the church, various stone houses, and four, traditional dwellings called pallozas—circular stone houses with a thatched roof comprised of a single room built by pre-Roman Celtic inhabitants of the region—is one of the most enchanting places on the Camino.
Frequently shrouded in a foggy mist that obscures it from view and accentuates its mystical ambience, when the clouds withdraw and the sun spills over the mountain top, the views from the summit of the pass are breathtakingly magnificent: jagged mountain peaks to the north, the more rounded profile of the ones to the south, and deep, green valleys stretching out in every direction.
The heart rises effortlessly to God in a burst of praise. What better setting for Our Lord to dispel the mists of doubt clouding the human heart and manifest His Hidden Presence in the Eucharist?
Like the Colegiata of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees, the origins of the little church and monastery of O Cebreiro grew out the necessity of providing shelter and relief to the growing number of pilgrims drawn by the rediscovery of the Apostle’s tomb in Compostela. There is evidence of a pilgrims’ refuge here from the middle of the ninth century, only decades after the rediscovery of the tomb of St. James in AD 813.
In 1072, King Alfonso VI of León and Castile elevated the humble refuge to the status of hospital and entrusted it to the care of Benedictine monks from the abbey St. Geraud d’Aurillac in France.
(Others credit the holy French count, St. Geraud of Aurillac, with personally founding the little church and Benedictine monastery here. This is unlikely given that the saint wasn’t born until about 855, around the same time to which archaeological investigations date the remains of the earliest church.)
The miracle that made this tiny hamlet famous throughout Europe occurred over 400 years later. The most well-known account of the event comes from the quill of Fray Antonio de Yepes, a Spanish Benedictine monk and chronicler who lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, who included it in his General Chronicle of the Order of St. Benedict.
Sometime around the year 1300, a certain farmer name Juan Santín, from the nearby hamlet of Barxamaior, “having such great devotion to the Holy Sacrifice that no labour nor inclemency of weather” could prevent him from hearing Mass, battled his way through the ice and snow of a furious winter storm up the steep mountain pass to the little Benedictine monastery and church of Santa María of Cebreiro.
Exhausted and soaked through to the skin, he reached the church just as one of the monks was preparing to offer the Mass.
The priest, little anticipating that anyone should make their way to the church to hear Mass in such violent weather, had lost faith in the Sacrifice he was preparing to offer. “Who would come all this way in such weather just to gaze upon a bit of bread and wine?” he thought to himself.
He belittled the poor man’s faith, admonishing him for what he deemed a foolhardy sacrifice.
Confronted with this scandalous lack of faith, the humble farmer offered no response to the priest’s uncharitable rebuke. The priest, in turn, proceeded to offer the Mass, albeit in a careless and hurried fashion. Fray Antonio continues:
Then it was that the Lord, who works His wonders in the depths of the earth and in the hidden places of the world, so revealed His glory in that church that, transforming the Host into flesh and the wine into blood, He opened the eyes of that miserable minister who had doubted and rewarded such great devotion as that good man had shown in coming to hear Mass with so many discomforts.”
As he pronounced the words of the Consecration, the faithless priest was astonished to find that the Host in his hands had perceptibly changed into flesh, drops of blood falling from his fingers and staining the corporal, while the wine in the chalice had been visibly transformed into blood.
Terrified and overwhelmed with remorse for his lack of faith, he fell to his knees before the altar and exclaimed like St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” The faith of the humble Juan had been confirmed, his devotion rewarded, and the monk cured of his disbelief.
The remains of the monk and the peasant Juan Santín are buried inside the church, their modest mausoleums located at a side altar between a Romanesque image of the Virgin and Child on the wall of the church and the sealed reliquary containing the relics of the Eucharistic miracle and the chalice and paten used at the Mass.
The gaze of the Blessed Virgin, her head gently inclined, appears to be directed towards the church’s main altar; popular local tradition holds that the image’s head did not originally appear so, but bowed in adoration at the moment the Eucharistic miracle, the Child on her lap likewise opening His eyes to gaze at His doubting minister.
The story of the miracle spread rapidly throughout the whole of Europe, carried by returning pilgrims, ecclesiastical documents, minstrel songs, and tales.
In the popular imagination, O Cebreiro became associated with Montsalvat, the mountain of Arthurian legend, and the chalice of the miracle with the Holy Grail which Galahad finds there.
German pilgrims returning from Santiago would have carried the story home with them, leading some scholars to believe that Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem about the Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail—which in turn inspired Richard Wagner’s 1882 opera, Parsifal—were inspired by the miracle of O Cebreiro.
An image of the Host, chalice and paten was incorporated into the coat of arms of Galicia, still forming part of the region’s flag today.
The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel travelled to Compostela as pilgrims in 1486, halting for the night at the monastery. According to popular tradition, the devotion of Queen Isabel was so profoundly impressed by the story of the miracle that she determined to move the relics to a more suitable location, regarding the simple monastery atop a remote mountain pass too poor and isolated a home for relics of such tremendous value.
But the royal procession had gone no more than a few kilometres when their horses stopped, refusing to travel any further. Seized with fear and reverence, the entire royal entourage dismounted and returned on foot to the doors of the church. There, the monarchs ordered the relics to remain, subsequently donating the sealed reliquary that still houses them.
They also petitioned Pope Innocent VIII not only to restore the pilgrims’ inn and hospital there, but also to transfer responsibility for the monastery from French Benedictines of San Giraldo d’Aurillac to the Benedictines of Valladolid, in Castile, in order that they might place it under their royal protection.
Royal decrees and papal bulls bestowed numerous other privileges on the monastery over the course of the centuries. The Benedictines there remained faithful to their charge of caring for the sanctuary and the pilgrims until 1853, when the Spanish government expelled the monks. The government also confiscated the monastery and its property as part of the expropriations set in motion by a Spanish freemason and anticlerical liberal, Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, who briefly served as prime minister under the Queen Regent María Cristina.
Work to restore the church began in 1962 under the guidance of Fr. Elias Valiña. Then O Cebreiro’s parish priest, Fr. Valiña was one of the principal architects of the contemporary revival of the Camino de Santiago’s fortunes. His tireless work researching, preserving, and promoting the ancient pilgrim’s trail has earned him a well-deserved place amongst the most important figures in the Camino’s long history.
Among his numerous contributions was the idea for the now-famous flecha amarilla, the simple yellow arrow that has become an internationally recognised emblem of the pilgrimage, something the humble parish priest likely would never have imagined when and his friends first set out along the path on foot, buckets of yellow paint in hand, to paint it on trees, stones, fence posts, farmhouses and street corners from the Pyrenees to the cathedral in Santiago.
He died in 1989.
For 21st century pilgrims, the Eucharistic miracle of O Cebreiro continues to be an enduring and powerful testimony to the presence of the Risen Christ—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—in the Blessed Sacrament.
It is also a sign of contradiction to the curious and sceptical drawn to walk the pilgrim’s road.
If, like Queen Isabel, we find our faith straining to believe that Christ might manifest Himself so gloriously, in such a remote and insignificant hamlet tucked away in a corner of Europe, in response to the faith of a simple farmer, we only need to recall His first manifestation to the equally simple shepherds, in a similarly remote and hidden village tucked away in a corner of Judaea, in response to their hopes for the coming of the Messiah.
In the words of the psalmist: For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he knows from afar (Psalm 138:6)
Curtis Williams is a longtime resident of Spain and veteran leader of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, who is writing a monthly series of articles taking readers on a jaunt to the crossroads of history, legend, and devotion during the Jubilee Year of St James, underway in 2021. Previous items in the series are here:
Roncesvalles: The Crossroads of History and Legend
The 2021 Holy Year of Jubilee in Santiago
The 2021 Holy Year of Jubilee in Santiago
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