Relatively nothing is known of St. James the Great’s early life, though it has been accepted by most scholars that he was the son of Zebedee and Salome and brother of Apostle John. The Church appended the title “Great” to St. James’ name to distinguish him from the apostle, St. James the Less. The title does not imply that the former was more important than the latter, it simply accentuated a fact, theformer was older than the latter. Accordingly, some refer to the two apostles by the titles James the Elder and James the Younger. St. James the Great was one of the first disciples that Jesus called to follow him. He was fishing with his father, brother and Simon [later named “Peter”] when the Lord came to the shores of the Galilee. Jesus called the fishermen, who were flustered after a night of catching nothing, and instructed the apostles to cast their nets off the other side of the boat. As they obeyed the Lord’s instructions, they found their nets full. Impressed by the authority of Jesus and the size of their catch that, upon Jesus’ invitation to “come and follow,” they abandoned their nets and remained with Jesus from that day forward.
We are also told in Scripture that James, whose feast the Church celebrates on July 25, was one of only three called by Jesus to witness his Transfi guration, and when he and his brother wanted to call fire upon a Samaritan town which enraged Jesus, both disciples were rebuked by our Lord.
Following the Ascension of Jesus, tradition holds that James set off for the Iberian Peninsula where he evangelized the pagans living there. In short, James is responsible for bringing Christianity to Spain and Portugal.Later, the apostle returned to Jerusalem but was imprisoned and martyred for his faith by King Herod. Scripture alludes to James as the first apostle to suffer martyrdom. As the Emperor prohibited James’ burial following his execution, his disciples brought his head and body back to Compostela, a mountainous town, close to the coast, in the Galicia province of northern
Spain. Later, he would be disinterred and his remains would be enshrined in the crypt located behind the altar in the Cathedral of Santiago [which is Spanish for “St. James”]. From the ninth century until today, the shrine draws countless pilgrims, many of whom walk there on foot following a “Camino” or “Way,” some from Italy, others from France and still others from southern Portugal. It is the third most visited holy site, after Rome and Jerusalem. The symbol of St. James the Great is the conch shell, which legend holds, were attached around the base of the boat which brought the saint from the Holy Land back to the land to which he brought the Good News of God’s love made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most fitting way to end this homage to St. James the Great is with a prayer: “O glorious Apostle, St. James, who by reason of your fervent and generous heart was chosen by Jesus to be a witness of his glory on Mt. Tabor, and of his agony in Gethsemane; you, whose very name is a symbol of warfare and victory; obtain for us strength and consolation in the unending warfare of this life, that, having constantly and generously followed Jesus, we may be victors in the strife and deserve to receive the victor’s crown in heaven. Amen.”
Father Comandini is managing editor of “The Catholic Spirit.”