The martyr who became patron saint of Spain


People of the Book: St. James

I leave tomorrow for a few weeks in Spain, to stay with friends on the island of Mallorca, to eat Manchego and drink sangria and hierbas, as well as to visit both the relics of the Jesuit porter, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, venerated in one of my favorite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the Palma cathedral exhibiting the work of famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Thus for me it seems appropriate to reflect this week on Spain’s patron, also the local parish of historic Alcudia where I will be staying, St. James (Sant’Iago or, in Mallorquin, Sant Jaume), a fascinating figure increasingly discussed in current scholarship.

There are two James’ mentioned in the Gospels, James the son of Zebedee (called James the Greater) and James the son of Alpheus (called James the Less, James the Just, or James, the brother of the Lord). The Spaniards have adopted the former, James the Greater, as their patron and dedicate perhaps the most famous pilgrimage in all of Europe, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, to him each year. Fascinatingly, this pilgrimage is held in such high esteem, that in a vestige of medieval piety, if one were to make an unconditional vow before God to participate it in it, technically only the pope himself (or his official delegate) could dispense him or her from the moral obligation to do so.

James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, were named by Jesus Boanerges, the “sons of thunder,” (Mk 3:17) probably due to their hardy peasant stock and fiery temperament. Along with Peter and Andrew, they were Galilean fishermen who abandoned their family’s nets to follow the call of the itinerant preacher and become fishers of men. The favored triumvirate of Peter, James and John were alone present at the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:37, Lk 8:51), the Transfiguration (Mk 9:1, Mt 17:1, Lk 9:28), and the agony in the garden, where they were memorably too overcome with drowsiness to accompany the Lord in his most heartrending moments of trepidation and despair (Mt 26, Mk 14).

Before the Passion unfolded, in a typically maternal exhibition, which probably mortified the brothers, the mother of James and John approached Jesus, paid him genuine homage, and immediately sought to elicit a privileged position for her favored boys.

She demands of the incarnate Son of God, “Command that my sons will remain, one at your right hand and one at your left, when you come into your kingdom” (Mt. 20:20).

Jesus, who knows his mission from the Father as the Anointed One well, realizes better than she what this request entails. When Jesus comes into his kingdom and enters into his glory, it is certainly not defined in earthly terms. When he is raised to the heights and draws his subjects to himself, it is not on a throne or sedia gestatoria, but on a gnarled tree, with iron nails driven through his flesh. Those to his right and left are not princely vice-regents adjudicating his temporal power over Israel, as Zebedee’s wife envisions, but convicted criminals sharing the same tortuous, humiliating and defiling death as the condemned “blasphemer.”

James will in fact drink of the same cup as his Lord, but instead of the finest vintage in a luxurious Mediterranean palace, it is the bitter chalice of martyrdom he is called to imbibe. Whether or not this development satisfied his mother’s original ambitions has been lost to history, but my guess is that it did not.

However, as eloquently stated in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, the honors and esteem of worldly power inevitably fade. The tyrant who says through his temporal grab at immortality, “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair,” ends up with his monument in ruins, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay, Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The system which would put the first first and the last last are inverted by Christ’s victory on the cross. Instead now he tells James and the others, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Mt 20:26-7). Our treasure is not stored up in this life and our priorities ought not to reflect such skewed aspirations. Put more simply in my father’s terms, “You can’t put saddlebags on the coffin.” Those things we stubbornly cling to with vice-grips are those most unable to satisfy us, and the relinquishment of the most desired almost always bring us true freedom and friendship with God.

Supposedly the accuser who led St. James to the sword was converted along the way to the place of execution and died with him. And although Pope Leo XIII’s 1884 apostolic letter Omnipotens Deus defends the authenticity of the relics in Compostela, the Vatican remains rather silent on the veracity of this claim in modern times, but does continue to encourage participation in the pilgrimage for wider spiritual aims, like those discussed above. St. James’ feast day is celebrated throughout the world, especially in Latin America and Spain on July 25. Santiago Apostol, intercede para que volvamos a la amistad con Jesucristo!

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.