St. James the Greater
St. James the Greater is patron saint of Spain and of pilgrims—even today, hundreds of thousands of people journey by foot to visit his tomb in Compostela, Spain.
James was son of Zebedee and Salome, brother to St. John, and cousin to Jesus. He is known as “St. James the Greater” or “St. James Major” only because he was older than another disciple who was also named James (referred to as “Lesser” or “Minor”), and was called by Jesus before him.
James the Greater was one of the first disciples to follow Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel describes him on a boat near the seashore mending his fishing nets when Jesus called him and his brother, John; “immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (4:21-22).
Even among the Twelve, James held a special place close to Jesus. He was one of the three disciples with Jesus during the Transfiguration, and he was one of the few present when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter (Mt 9), even though everyone thought the girl was dead.
James was the first of the disciples to be matyred—he was beheaded by King Herod in the year 44. Jesus called James “son of thunder” because of his fiery temper, and his proclivity to angry outbursts could have been what got him killed so early.
Tradition holds that James traveled to Spain after Pentecost to preach the risen Christ. He was struggling with this mission until Mary appeared to him upon a pillar (which is still preserved in Zaragoza, Spain) and ordered a church built on the site. After that apparition, James returned to Judea and was killed by Herod. The disciples took his body by boat from the Holy Land back to Spain, and carried it inland to Compostela, where it now rests.
During the Muslim conquest of Spain, his relics were lost, but were recovered in the ninth century and venerated at Compostela. The popularity of St. James grew throughout Spain and beyond, and a network of roads and trails leading to Compostela emerged as pilgrims streamed there. Santiago de Compostela became a pilgrimage site that rivaled Rome and the Holy Land, and hundreds of thousands of faithful still make the pilgrimage today.
The symbols of pilgrims and of Compostela became symbols for St. James as well—the cockle shell (as pictured here in a stained glass window in the Morrissey Hall chapel) and pilgrim’s staff. He is depicted as a pilgrim in this painting by Rembrandt.
St. James is also patron of those who suffer from arthritis, and his relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica.
St. James the Greater, the first disciple to give his life for the faith, and the patron of pilgrims, pray for us!