25 July 2020

Saint James and following
the pilgrim route to
Santiago de Compostela

Saint James the Great … an icon in the Chapel at Saint Columba’s House, Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today [25 July 2020] in the Calendar of the Church is the Feast of Saint James, the son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve Disciples.

The English name James comes from Italian Giacomo, a variant of Giacobo, which is derived from Iacobus in Latin and Ἰάκωβος in Greek. It is the same name as Jacob in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. In French, the name is Jacques, in Spanish it is Jaime, and in Catalan it is Jaume. Variations include Diego in Spanish, giving us San Diego and Santiago, and Diogo in Portuguese.

This Saint James, traditionally regarded as the first apostle to be martyred, is said to have been a son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of Saint John the Evangelist. He is also called Saint James the Great to distinguish him from Saint James, son of Alphaeus, and Saint James, the brother of the Lord, or Saint James the Just.

His father Zebedee was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, and probably lived in or near Bethsaida in present Galilee, perhaps in Capernaum. His mother Salome was one of the pious women who followed Christ and ‘ministered unto him of their substance.’ But James and John are also known as ‘the Sons of Thunder’ (see Mark 3: 17).

This Saint James is one of the first disciples. The Synoptic Gospels say James and John were with their father by the seashore when Christ called them to follow him (see Matthew 4: 21-22; Mark 1: 19-20). James was one of the three disciples, along with Saint Peter and Saint John, who witnesses to the Transfiguration, which we remember on Thursday week (6 August 2020).

Saint James and Saint John, or their mother, ask Christ to be seated on his right and left in his glory. They also want to call down fire on a Samaritan town, but they are rebuked for this (see Luke 9: 51-6).

The Acts of the Apostles records that Herod (probably Herod Agrippa) had Saint James executed by sword, making him the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament (see Acts 12: 1-2).

The site of martyrdom is said to be marked by the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of Saint James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, where his head is said to be buried under the altar, marked by a piece of red marble and surrounded by six votive lamps.

The silver reliquary in the crypt in Santiago de Compostela is said to hold the relics of Saint James and two of his disciples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Spanish legends claim that Saint James preached the Gospel in Iberia and that after he was martyred his disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, and took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela. But these legends date from the eighth or ninth century and no earlier.

Saint James became the patron saint of Spain, and Santiago de Compostela became the end point of the popular pilgrim route known as the Camino. The emblem of Saint James is the scallop, which has become a general symbol of pilgrims and pilgrimage.

The history of the Camino de Santiago dates back to the early ninth century and the discovery of the tomb of Saint James in the year 814. Since then, Santiago de Compostela has been a destination for pilgrims from throughout Europe.

Legend says that the body of Saint James was carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela – the name Santiago is a local Galician form of the late Latin name Sancti Iacobi, Saint James.

The Way of Saint James became one of the most important pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, alongside those to Rome and Jerusalem. With the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and later during the Crusades, the Camino became a safe and popular alternative to pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and one of the pilgrim routes on which a plenary indulgence could be earned.

The flow of people along the Camino brought about a growth in the number of hostels and hospitals, churches, monasteries and abbeys along the pilgrim route.

The scallop shell has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Two legends seek to explain the origin of scallop as the symbol of Saint James, who was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 AD.

According to Spanish legends, he had spent time preaching the gospel in Spain, but returned to Jerusalem after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on the bank of the Ebro River. One version of the legends says that after his death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, it washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.

A second version of the legend says that after Saint James died his body was transported by a ship piloted by an angel, back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in Santiago. As the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse took fright and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, both horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

Along the Camino, the shell is seen frequently on posts and signs to guide pilgrims, and the shell is commonly worn by pilgrims too. Most pilgrims receive a shell at the beginning of the journey and either sew it onto their clothes, wear it around their necks or keep it in their backpacks.

In Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, the South Transept was known as the Chapel of Saint James and Saint Mary Magdalene – we celebrated the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene three days ago (22 July 2020). The chapel was probably built along the lines of the cruciform design favoured by the Cistercians, and seems to have been strongly influenced by the design of Mellifont Abbey in Co Louth.

A monument on the west wall of Saint James’s Chapel commemorates Cornelius O’Dea, Bishop of Limerick (1400-1426). His beautiful mitre and crozier are among the exhibits in the Hunt Museum in Limerick.

Bishop O’Dea’s mitre (left) and crozier (right) on display in the Hunt Museum, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Readings: Jeremiah 45: 1-5; Psalm 126; Acts 11: 27 to 12: 2; Matthew 20: 20-28.


Merciful God,
whose holy apostle Saint James,
leaving his father and all that he had,
was obedient to the calling of your Son Jesus Christ
and followed him even to death:
Help us, forsaking the false attractions of the world,
to be ready at all times to answer your call without delay;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

we have eaten at your table
and drunk from the cup of your kingdom.
Teach us the way of service
that in compassion and humility
we may reflect the glory of Jesus Christ,
Son of Man and Son of God, our Lord.

An icon of the Transfiguration in Piskopiano in Crete … the three disciples in the icon are Peter, James and John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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