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St. James the Greater

Fr. Scott Haynes

St. James the Greater and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee. Though they were fishermen, it seems they were a little bit wealthier than the norm, for there is mention that their father had servants. Nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” for their impulsive temperaments – James was one of the three disciples closest to Jesus Christ. He was with the Lord at the Transfiguration and he was there in Gethsemane’s Garden on the night Jesus was betrayed. He was a witness of the resurrection.


After the death of Christ, the ever passionate and impetuous James formed a part of the initial group of the early Church of Jerusalem. When the apostles went into the uttermost parts of the world to preach the good news, St. James went to Gallaecia or northern Spain. We are told seven men were ordained by St. Peter to assist St James in this mission.


Preaching the Gospel is hard work, especially when people reject the love of our Lord. St. James and his companions had preached faithfully. But there was little success. It looked as if James' mission was destined to be a failure. In a moment of reflection, he stopped in Zaragoza to take a rest. He sat there on the bank of the Ebro River, discouraged and heartsick at his lack of success in bringing Christ to these people. But then he prayed to heaven for help. And the good Lord saw fit to send His own Mother, Mary, to intercede.


Suddenly, a flash of light lit up the night sky and heavenly music was heard. Our Lady appeared to St. James seated on a throne surrounded by angels, and she told him she had come to help. Our Lady asked that a church be built on the spot in her honor, where the faithful would receive all the graces they asked of her Son through the invocation of her name.


She then gave St. James a small wooden statue of herself with the child Jesus in her arms, on top of a six foot tall column of Jasper stone. Our Lady then said, “This pillar will remain here, and on it my own image, which in this place where you will build my temple, will last and endure with the Holy Faith until the end of time.”[1]


St James then built a chapel. It was to become the first church in the world that was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The six foot tall jasper column and the wooden statue can still be seen at the church even today. Before long, the chapel became a center for the conversion of pagans. While many chapels were built on the site of the apparition over the years, being enlarged to accommodate ever-growing crowds of pilgrims, the statue of Our Lady has always remained in the same place since St. James placed it there about the year 40 AD.

The statue, affectionately known by the Spanish people as La Pilarica (the little pillar), has survived wars with the Romans, Goths, and Moors. Miraculously, although it is over 1,900 years old, it shows no sign of decay. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) three bombs were dropped on the Basilica, but none of them exploded. These bombs are on display in the Basilica, and they are a vivid testament to the power of Our Lady’s promise.


The feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar is celebrated in Spain on October 12 each year, and it is one of the biggest religious celebrations in the country. Our Lady of Pillar came to international prominence when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World on her feast day of October 12, 1492. She was subsequently named patroness of the New World.


One may wonder why Mary gave St. James such a big pillar on which to place a small statue. When God performs a miracle through Our Lady, every detail teaches us something. Consider that a sacred pillar was placed in Salomon's temple in Jerusalem. The pillar was near the Ark of the Covenant. The Old Testament types point toward the spiritual fulfilment in the New Testament, and so the Book of Revelation proclaims, “The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”


Let the thought and the image of Our Lady of the Pillar be a forceful reminder that we walk in the footsteps of St. James and the early Christians of Hispania in following Christ in our own times. May she be for us a pillar of faith as she was to St. James.

[1] Allardyce, “Historic Shrines of Spain,” 9.

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