The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

Feast of Saint James the Greater, Apostle—July 25

High Altar of St. James

Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella venerate the statue of Saint James above the high altar.

Let us today hail the bright star which once made Compostella so resplendent with its rays that the obscure town became, like Jerusalem and Rome, a center of attraction to the piety of the whole world. As long as the Christian empire lasted, the sepulcher of Saint James the Greater rivaled in glory that of Saint Peter himself.

Among the Saints of God, there is not one who manifested more evidently how the elect keep up after death an interest in the works confided to them by Our Lord. The life of Saint James after his call to the apostolate was but short; and the result of his labors in Spain, his allotted portion, appeared to be a failure. Scarcely had he, in his rapid course, taken possession of the land of Iberia, when, impatient to drink the chalice which would satisfy his continual desire to be close to his Lord, he opened by martyrdom the heavenward procession of the Twelve, which was to be closed by the other son of Zebedee, Saint John. O Salome, who didst give them both to the world, and didst present to Jesus their ambitious prayer, rejoice with a double joy: thou art not repulsed; He who made the hearts of mothers is thine abettor. Did He not, to the exclusion of all others except Saint Simon Peter, His Vicar, choose thy two sons as witnesses of the greatest works of His power, admit them to the contemplation of His glory on Thabor, and confide to them His sorrow unto death in the garden of His agony? And today thy eldest-born becomes the first-born in Heaven of the sacred college; the protomartyr of the Twelve Apostles repays, as far as in him lies, the special love of Christ Our Lord.

But how was he a messenger of the Faith, since the sword of Herod Agrippa put such a speedy end to his mission! And how did he justify his name of son of thunder, since his voice was heard by a mere handful of disciples in a desert of infidelity? This new name, another special prerogative of the two brothers, was realized by Saint John in his writings, wherein as by lightning flashes he revealed to the world the deep things of God; it was the same in his case as in that of Simon, who having been called Peter by Jesus Christ, was also made by Him the foundation of the Church; the name given by the Man-God was a prophecy, not an empty title. With regard to James, too, then, eternal Wisdom cannot have been mistaken. Let it not be thought that the sword of any Herod could frustrate the designs of the Most High upon the men of His choice. The life of the Saints is never cut short; their death, ever precious, is still more so when in the cause of God it seems to come before the time. It is then that with double reason we may say their works follow them; God Himself being bound in honor, both for His own sake and for theirs, to see that nothing is wanting to their plenitude. As a victim of a holocaust, He hath received them, says the Holy Ghost, and in time there shall be respect had to them. The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds. They shall judge nations, and rule over peoples; and their Lord shall reign forever (Wisdom 3: 6-8). How literally was this divine oracle to be fulfilled with regard to Saint James!

Nearly eight centuries, which to the heavenly citizens are but as a day, had passed over that tomb in the north of Spain, where two disciples had secretly laid the Apostle's body. During that time the land of his inheritance, which he had so rapidly traversed, had been overrun first by Roman idolaters, than by Arian barbarians, and when the day of hope seemed about to dawn, a deeper night was ushered in by the Crescent. One day lights were seen glimmering over the briars that covered the neglected monument; attention was drawn to the spot, which henceforth went by the name of Compostella—field of stars. But what are those sudden shouts coming down from the mountains, and echoing through the valleys? Who is this unknown chief rallying against an immense army the little worn-out troop whose heroic valor could not yesterday save it from defeat? Swift as lightning, and bearing in one hand a white standard with a red cross, he rushes with drawn sword upon the panic-stricken foe, and dyes the feet of his charger in the blood of 70,000 slain. Hail to the chief of the holy war! Saint James! Saint James! Forward, Spain! (Battle of Clavijo, under Ramiro I, about 845.) It is the reappearance of the Galilean fisherman, whom the Man-God once called from the bark where he was mending his nets; of the elder son of thunder, now free to hurl the thunderbolt upon these new Samaritans, who pretend to honor the unity of God by making Christ no more than a prophet. Henceforth Saint James shall be to Christian Spain the firebrand which the Prophet saw, devouring all the people round about, to the right hand and to the left, until Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place (Zach. 12: 5).

Santiago Matamoros

Atop the high altar at Compostella is the figure of Santiago Matamoros.

And when after six centuries and a half of struggle, his standard bearers, the Catholic kings, had succeeded in driving the infidel hordes beyond the seas, the valiant leader of the Spanish armies laid aside his bright armor, and the Matamoros became once more a messenger of the Faith. As fisher of men, he entered his bark, and gathering around it the gallant fleets of Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Alfonso de Albuquerque, he led them over unknown seas to lands that had never yet heard the Name of the Lord. For his contribution to the labors of the Twelve, Saint James drew ashore his well-filled nets from west and east and south, from new worlds, renewing Saint Peter's astonishment at the sight of such captures. He, whose apostolate seemed at the time of Herod III to have been crushed in the bud before bearing any fruit, may say with Saint Paul: I have no way come short of them that are above measure apostles, for by the grace of God I have labored more abundantly than all they (2 Cor. 12: 11).

Let us now read the lines consecrated by the Church to his honor:

Saint James, the son of Zebedee, and brother of Saint John the Apostle, was a Galilean. He was one of the first to be called to the Apostolate, together with his brother, and, leaving his father and his nets, he followed the Lord. Jesus called them both Boanerges, that is to say, sons of thunder. He was one of the three Apostles whom our Savior loved the most, and whom He chose as witnesses of His Transfiguration, and of the miracle by which He raised to life the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, and whom he wished to be present when He retired to the Mount of Olives to pray to His Father, before being taken captive by the Jews.

After the Ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven, Saint James preached His Divinity in Judea and Samaria, and led many to the Christian Faith. Soon, however, he set out for Spain, and there made some converts to Christianity; among these were seven men who were afterwards consecrated as Bishops by Saint Peter, and were the first sent by him into Spain. Saint James returned to Jerusalem, and, among others, instructed Hermogenes, the magician, in the truths of the Faith. Herod Agrippa, who had been raised to the throne under the Emperor Claudius, wished to curry favor with the Jews; he therefore condemned the Apostle to death for openly proclaiming Jesus Christ to be God. When the man who had brought him to the tribunal saw the courage with which he went to martyrdom, he declared that he too was a Christian.

As they were being hurried to execution, he implored Saint James' forgiveness. The Apostle kissed him, saying: "Peace be with you." Thus both of them were beheaded; Saint James having a little before cured a paralytic. His body was afterwards translated to Compostella, where it is honored with the highest veneration; pilgrims flock thither from every part of the world, to satisfy their devotion or pay their vows. The memory of his natalis (eternal birthday) is celebrated by the Church today, which is the day of his translation. But it was near the feast of the Pasch that, first of all the Apostles, he shed his blood at Jerusalem as a witness to Jesus Christ.

Tomb of St. James

Reliquary tomb of Saint James at Compostella.

Who but He that numbers the stars of the firmament could count the Saints, the penitents, the kings, the warriors, the unknown of every grade, the ever-renewed multitude, ceaselessly moving to and from the field of stars, whence Saint James shed his light upon the world? Ancient accounts tell us of a mysterious vision granted to the founder of Christian Europe. One evening after a day of toil, Saint Karl the Great (Charlemagne), standing on the shore of the Frisian Sea, beheld a long belt of stars, which seemed to divide the sky between Gaul, Germany, and Italy, and crossing over Gascony, the Basque territory, and Navarre, stretched away to the far-off province of Galicia. Then Saint James appeared to him and said: "This starry path marks out the road for thee to go and deliver my tomb; and all nations shall follow after thee." And Saint Karl, crossing the mountains, gave the signal to all Christendom to undertake those great crusades, which were both the salvation and the glory of the Latin races, by driving back the Moslem plague to the land of its birth.

When we consider that two tombs formed, as it were, the two extreme poles of this movement unparalleled in the history of nations: the one wherein the God-Man rested in death, the other where thy body lay, O son of Zebedee, we cannot help crying out with the Psalmist: Thy friends, O God, are made exceedingly honorable! (Ps. 138: 17). And what a mark of friendship did the Son of Man bestow on His humble Apostle by sharing His honors with him, when the military orders and Hospitallers were established, to the terror of the Crescent, for the sole purpose, at the outset, of sheltering and protecting pilgrims on their way to one or the other of these holy tombs! May the heavenly impulse gather once more at Compostella the sons of the former clients of Saint James. We, at least, will imitate Saint Louis before the walls of Tunis, murmuring with his dying lips the collect of today's Feast; and we will repeat in conclusion: "Be Thou, O Lord, the Sanctifier and Guardian of Thy people; that defended by the protection of thy Apostle James, they may please Thee by their conduct, and serve Thee with secure minds."

On November 1, 1884, Pope Leo XIII reconfirmed the authenticity of the relics of Saint James at Compostella in the Bull Omnipotens Deus.

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