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Camino pilgrims prepare with shell ceremony

SMOM Pilgrim

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April 2015, April 2016, October 2017, June 2023
Question: In recent years group shell ceremonies have increased in the news, most have ties back to American Pilgrims on the Camino chapters. Is this a recent phenomena or something with real history on the Camino?
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I first learned of them about twenty years ago, when Tom Friesen of the London (Ontario) pilgrims held them for those completing the hospitalero training course he ran with Mary Virtue. Unless someone has a specific earlier source, I think that this is the point of origin. Many of the first hospitalero course graduates were from the US and involved in APOC, so this might be how the practice spread south of the border.

As a recently-devised tradition, it seems to have meaning for recipients and, in any case, beats the burn-your-socks-at-Finisterre tradition dating from the 1980s.

Edited to note that my dates were wrong-- about 15 years ago.
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How to Successfully Prepare for Your Camino
The focus is on reducing the risk of failure through being well prepared. 2nd ed.
Without knowing anything at all about it, and at a wild guess, I would say 'group shell ceremonies' are a recent and totally made up phenomenon with no historical basis. Perhaps someone will pounce on me and prove me wrong.
That was my guess also.
Interesting! I'd never heard of this. I wonder if there's a historical precedent, of sorts, in priests blessing a pilgrim's staff / walking stick / hiking pole before setting out on pilgrimage? I once met a European pilgrim who had their staff blessed at their home parish before leaving. Maybe it's a modern version of that practice, which seems to date from the Middle Ages? More can be read here by searching for the word "staff."
We have been holding Shell ceremonies for almost 15 years in London, Ontario and in other Canadian chapters. This was really the concept of one of our chapter founders, Wanda Sawicki, who felt that receiving a shell prior to departure was important. (I felt that the idea of picking the shell at the beach in Finisterre as a representation of completing the pilgrimage had more personal meaning). Wanda solicited the permission of Macrina Weiderkehr for permission to use her poem "Pilgrim Blessing." We ask recently returned pilgrims to stand and our chapter volunteers to read, "Pilgrim You are Blessed" (found in Santo Domingo de la Calzada in celebration of the Saint's life). The returned pilgrims then turn and read "Pilgrim Blessing" to the new intentional pilgrims. These new pilgrims then receive their shell. We do this for our Spring and Fall meetings as well as our St James Day celebration.
I shared these materials with Cherie Padgett from American Pilgrims in 2011 and these are a basis for the shell ceremony they now hold at their Gatherings.
I feel strongly that in having this "ceremony", there is a benefit in creating ethical pilgrims and not just "cheap tourists".
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Clearing out some books before my move to the new office in a few weeks.
Shell ceremonies
Thank you, @tomfriesen, for adding this bit of contemporary Camino history to our collective forum knowledge ☺️. I have often wondered how and where this originated. I think such ceremonies are practically absent in Spain and in most of Europe but may perhaps catch on there too eventually …
I have a small collection of blessings from the 12th and 13th centuries. They include blessings of pilgrims, their backpacks and their walking sticks. I’ve never found a blessing of scallop shells, which is no surprise, since you received them, in the medieval world, in Santiago, not in your starting place.

The blessings can be found at
Just FYI - having moved from South Florida back to Northern Virginia last November, I am now back in the National Capitol Area Chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino. Here is an excerpt from the April e-mail newsletter:


Shell Ceremony
Last Sunday we were so excited to see so many pilgrims preparing for a camino this year. There were nearly 30 pilgrims who received a shell and blessing at our annual ceremony at Fort Hunt Park. We would like to thank Father David for giving the blessing to the pilgrims as well all the veteran pilgrims who came to show their support.



Hope this help to explains things. In Florida, we did a similar ceremony, but with a member reading the largely secular prayer for the successful completion of a coming Camino, and recitation of the beatitudes of the Pilgrim.

I think, given the origins of the Camino, that having a local parish priest, himself a Camino veteran offer a prayer is appropriate.

It was MUCH colder in Virginia on that date than it was in Florida - I can assure you of that. We even had snow flurries at one point.

Hope this helps.

My local Roman Catholic priest read a pilgrimage blessing from a current edition of standard prayer book. It was not specific to the Camino, but suggest the tradition of a pilgrimage prayer was there long before the modern version of the Camino from the 1970's.

He seems excited to use a blessing that he had never used before.

A sample a text often used for such a blessing (translated from French):
"Almighty God,
You do not stop showing your goodness to those who love you, and you let yourself be found by those who seek you be favorable to your servants who go on pilgrimage and direct their way according to your will. Be for them a shadow in the heat of the day, a light in the darkness of the night, a relief in fatigue, so that they arrive happily under your care at the end of their journey."
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It was not specific to the Camino, but suggest the tradition of a pilgrimage prayer was there long before the modern version of the Camino from the 1970's.
Well of course there are pilgrim blessings in the Catholic Church's liturgy. People are going on pilgrimage to Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, the Holy Land, Częstochowa, or Villa de Guadalupe in huge numbers and have been doing so for many, many years, as well as to pilgrimage sites that are lesser known globally and with often an uninterrupted centuries old tradition. It's just that it's not important whether they go on foot and with a backpack or not. And they don't carry shells.

From what I read on Wikipedia, the reference to staff and scrip (not a backpack, more like a small bag with the volume of a contemporary fanny pack or bum bag) and/or cross was dropped from the liturgy about four hundred years ago. Shells were never in this picture, as already mentioned.

The shell ceremonies are secular events.
The shell ceremonies are secular events.
That's especially true of the chapter of American Pilgrims that I co-founded in my area. We do a short and sweet entirely unreligious shell ceremony that new pilgrims seem to enjoy and appreciate. If they want a blessing I suggest that they ask their pastor.
I believe that my local parish priest read a pilgrimage blessing from the standard Roman Missal, the same book as the Eucharistic and other prayers.

I've also been to several inclusive Shell Ceremonies both with and without a priest. The priest was happy to bless both Catholic and non-Catholics.

If you are practicing Roman Catholic, I encourage you to get both blessings.

A modern phenomenon mostly found in the USA and Canada. In medieval times the scallop shell was received on arriving in Santiago - not when setting out from home.
In medieval times the pilgrims walked to Finisterra and took a shell back to Santiago to prove they had walked all the way I am told😊
Question: In recent years group shell ceremonies have increased in the news, most have ties back to American Pilgrims on the Camino chapters. Is this a recent phenomena or something with real history on the Camino?

@SMOM Pilgrim, hi and an interesting question.

From the replies above my surmise is a recent north American phenomena. My tuppence worth is it comes from a near universal desire for recognition/acceptance as normal of an undertaking that is not an everyday event from those who do not otherwise have a sacramental religious connection.

@Linda V, at post #19 above, nails the generally understood original purpose of the scallop shell (the symbol for the apostle Saint James) as proof of having arrived at Compostela.

As others have said above, those with even a slight connection to their local parish, Anglican or Roman in particular, will find a priest content to give a blessing before setting out. And possibly an invitation to talk with a parish group on your return.

I was so blessed each time before setting out from home and at the start point for each route - Le Puy-en-Velay, again at Saint-Jean and Roncevalles and at Canterbury Cathedral (at the early morning eucharist using both the Cathedral's text and the Gaelic blessing) and at various (mainly evening) Eucharists on the way.

But for me the most significant blessing was at the evening Eucharist in the parish church at Logrono. At the peace, as a neighbour and I greeted one another, I felt something fall into my hand. Glancing, I saw a 1 Euro coin. The coin itself was of no particular practical value. The meaning, the blessing, was invaluable. Without words we both exchanged a heartfelt moment.

So @SMOM Pilgrim, for your journey ahead I say, kia kaha, kia māia, kia mana'wa'nui (take care, be strong, confident and patient)
How to Successfully Prepare for Your Camino
The focus is on reducing the risk of failure through being well prepared. 2nd ed.

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