Today, January 2, is the 1,978th anniversary of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. James the Greater at the pillar in Zaragoza, Spain in the year A.D. 40.
I never have been particularly devoted to St. James the Greater, but for some reason, he seems to be devoted to me.
I heard somewhere that the desire to do the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James, which ends at the church at Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Greater are kept — is actually a call from the apostle himself. Around ten years ago, I read about the Camino de Santiago in a book about hiking. Since then, I became obsessed with it, researching about it on the Internet and dreaming about being able to walk it someday. At that time, walking the Camino de Santiago was a wild dream which I never thought would come true. Back then, I did not know if I could fit it in with my other big plan at that time, which was to take further studies in either the United States or the United Kingdom.
However, my priest-uncle-spiritual-director – who happens to be named “Father Jim” – convinced me to go to Spain instead for further studies, which I did. The university he recommended happened to be along the route of the Camino de Santiago. During my studies, I got excited every time I saw pilgrims – with their identifying scallop-shell pendants – crossing the campus.
Unfortunately, while I was able to hike some legs of the Camino de Santiago, I was not able to trek the last 100 kilometers required to qualify one to receive a compostela certificate. This was because I could not find a willing and available companion. Although women have been known to walk the Camino de Santiago alone safely, I did not want to take any chances.
Still, the opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela came. I realized that flying to the place instead of walking did not make me less of a pilgrim. (In fact, flying proved to be more penitential, as I would have enjoyed a hike through the Spanish countryside more than an interminable wait for a delayed flight at the airport.)
While praying in the church, I realized that I owe to St. James a lot more than I thought.
I am a Catholic because most Filipinos are cradle Catholics. The Philippines – and many other countries — got the Catholic faith from Spain where, according to tradition, St. James preached the Gospel. This means that I am a direct spiritual heir to St. James, who preached the Catholic faith that he received from Christ Himself.
Very little is known about St. James the Greater, but from what is known about him from the Gospels, he was certainly suited to his special mission of preaching in Spain. He and his brother, St. John the Evangelist, were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” for their fiery spirit that made them ask Jesus to bid fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritan towns that did not want to receive Him. They had drive, ambition, and a can-do attitude that made them give an affirmative response to Jesus when He asked them if they could drink from the cup from which He was to drink.
As energetic and driven as he was, St. James the Greater was not immune to temptations to give up.
According to tradition, on January 2, in the year A.D. 40, while he was preaching the Gospel in Caesaragusta (now Zaragoza) in the Roman province of Hispania (now Spain), he felt discouraged because very few of those to whom he preached accepted the Gospel. While he was praying by the banks of the Ebro River, the Blessed Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to him atop a pillar. (Miraculously, because at that time the Blessed Virgin Mary was still living in either Ephesus or Jerusalem; thus, she appeared through bilocation.) The Blessed Virgin Mary assured him that the people he was preaching to would eventually embrace the Gospel, and their faith would be as strong as the pillar she was standing on. She gave him the pillar and a wooden image of herself, and instructed him to build a chapel on the spot where she left the pillar.
St. James thus built the chapel, which is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Del Pilar. He continued preaching, with better results. Then, he and some of his disciples returned to Jerusalem, where they were martyred under Herod Agrippa. His disciples, however, brought his body back to Spain.
I like this story of St. James and Our Lady of Del Pilar. It shows that God chooses each of us for special missions suited to our individual traits and aptitudes. At the same time, it shows that our natural aptitudes are not enough, for us to become effective instruments of God. Christ had to correct and purify St. James’ fiery temperament before St. James could channel his energy to preaching the Gospel. Then, in the course of his preaching, his natural energy proved insufficient to sustain his motivation.
But he did the right thing and prayed, and the Blessed Virgin Mary encouraged him. He allowed her to encourage him, and his preaching bore fruit.
The story of St. James and Our Lady of Del Pilar teaches us to exert all our efforts to fulfil the mission God gave us, using the best of our skills and abilities, while relying on the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She will encourage us when our strengths fail us, and with her help, we will do a lot of good. Our encounters with her will pave the way for more encounters between Christ and others – just as the encounter between her and St. James paved the way for my own encounter with Christ.