Saint James

Who is St. James, our patron saint?   His name is familiar enough, but many of us have only a vague idea of him as one of the apostles.   There seems to be little to inspire devotion:   He said little that the Gospels record and left none of his writings behind.  (The New Testament's "Letter of James" is attributed to another disciple of the name.)   But over the centuries this saint has inspired an ardent devotion that has drawn millions from all corners of the earth to his great shrine in Spain, where countless miracles have been attributed to his powerful intercession.

His Ministry With Jesus

Saint James the Greater was one of the first apostles called by Jesus.   At the time, James and his younger brother, John, were in a boat mending their fishing nets (Matthew 4: 18 - 2 2).  The two responded without hesitation and were inseparable throughout Jesus' ministry.

The Gospels make it clear that James and John were, with Peter, the most trusted of Jesus' disciples.    On certain occasions, Jesus called only Peter, James and John to accompany him.   James was with Jesus at the Transfiguration, during the Agony in the Garden, and in the house of Jairus when Jesus raised Jairus' daughter to life.

Acknowledging the zeal of James and John, the Lord called the brother Boanerges, or "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17).

James also was the first apostle to shed his blood for Christ.   He was martyred in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2) in Jerusalem.   His martyrdom won him the title by which we distinguish him from the other apostle of the same name: "Saint James the Greater."   His feast day is July 25.

The Pilgrimage and the Seashell

Little else is known of St. James' life.   The only certainty is that a tremendous devotion to him grew up around a tomb in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.   The mystery, however, is how James came to be buried there.   According to legend, he had traveled to Spain in the early years of his brief ministry and met with little success, winning over only a handful of disciples.   Legend also tells us that two of these (Theodore and Athanasius) accompanied him back to Jerusalem, where he was martyred at the hands of Herod.   It is believed these disciples stole his body and with it climbed into a rudderless boat.   They begged God to be their pilot; the boat drifted to northern Spain, and there James was buried.

His tomb apparently was forgotten for centuries, until his relics were rediscovered in the 9th century.   At the magnificent ancient cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the relics of St. James now are housed in a silver casket below the high altar, which his statue presides over the cathedral.

During the Middle Ages, Compostela became one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in the world.   One legend that may explain how this came about is related in the Song of Roland.   In one scene of this famous narrative of the crusades against the Moors, the emperor Charlemagne, in a dream, is blessed with a visit from St. James.   The apostle promises that Charlemagne will conquer the Moors throughout Spain.   He then shows Charlemagne a vision of a starry road in the sky, telling him to follow this path to the saint's tomb.

True or not, the tale of St. James' role in Charlemagne's victory made celebrities of both the emperor
and the saint.   The apostle's fame as a miracle worker spread, and more and more pilgrims began to
make the journey to visit his tomb and ask for his intercession.   
Miracles often were worked for the faithful who endured great hardships and traveled great distances to pray there.

Upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims of the Middle Ages collected their long-anticipated souvenirs:

  • †  A "compostela," a certificate verifying that the pilgrim had made the journey and earned a plenary indulgence.
  • †The coveted scallop seashell, a symbol unique to the pilgrimage of St. James.   This scallop shell was greatly treasured and worn proudly on the breast or hat.

The scallop shell became the equivalent of a passport identifying travelers as pilgrims.   Homes along the route would invite shell-wearing pilgrims to stay overnight, and to this day, pilgrims to Compostela identify themselves with a seashell.

The Shell and Our Church

The belief in the miracle of how St. James' body traveled to northern Spain and the symbolism of the shell at Compostela have been incorporated in a number of ways at the new St. James church building.   From the altar to the baptismal font to the holy water fonts and cornerstone, parishioners will be reminded of St. James, apostle and friend of Jesus.