I write this “saint reflection” on the Apostle St. James the Greater knowing full well I am not an expert or scholar on his life. But I have had a personal encounter with this Apostle in my own priestly life.
No, I have not had a “vision” of him, sad to say, or have been brought up into the seventh heaven as his brother John had when he was receiving the mystical revelation called the Book of Revelation. Yet, I know him a little better since I knelt and wept in gratitude before his tomb in Compostela, Spain, after walking a part of the “El Camino” in 2013. My certificate is dated September 21, 2013 which certifies I walked at least 100 kilometers of “The Way” of St. James the Greater. But honestly, who cares about a certificate? This pilgrimage was not about an earthly accomplishment or success.
First, it is important to know a bit about this Apostle of Jesus Christ as someone more than the “brother of John the Evangelist.” James and his brother John are the sons of Zebedee. They were fishermen, like their father before them. After Jesus “called them,” James immediately followed him, not worrying about what earthly rewards were awaiting him. He got up in haste, like Mary, and followed the will of the Father for them. Priests, like me, need to follow his example of following the will of God in haste, dropping all our earthly desires (their nets) and following the Christ and the will of the Father. James, like his brother John, instantly dedicated his life to Christ and became His disciple, even without truly understanding the depth of who Jesus truly was.
Tradition tells that St. James is called the “Greater” because he may have been larger in stature than James the “Less” or more probably because he joined Jesus earlier than James the “Less.” St. James the Greater probably traveled at some point to Spain to spread the Gospel after the Resurrection and Descent of the Holy Spirit. At some point in the early 40s A.D., St. James returned to Jerusalem just as Herod Agrippa was beginning his persecution of the Christians. No doubt it was Herod who ordered his arrest and temporary imprisonment. Herod also ordered his death by the sword, but accounts say that St. James never lost his faith or courage. All bishops, priests and men preparing for the priesthood have to understand this may very well be our fate in this life, especially in this intolerant culture towards Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church. Will we falter or remain faithful and steadfast to Christ?
St. James’ priestly identity was certainly with Jesus Christ the High Priest, and he was imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit, anointed by Christ, as we are, which fostered a deep, intimate, apostolic priestly prayer life with our Lord. His missionary work to Spain and then back to Jerusalem was focused no doubt on the Gospel and the evangelistic mandate of Christ, which St. James heard when Jesus instructed the Apostles, and which the future martyr took to heart and prayer since he trusted in the Christ.
It is reported that the man who arrested St. James was so impressed by St. James’ commitment and witness to Jesus Christ that he himself became a Christian and was later killed for turning to Christ. St. James the Greater (+44 AD) is the first Apostle to be martyred for Christ. It is reported that after his death, his followers cast his body into the sea, and centuries later a vision was given to the hermit Pelayo to the location of St. James’ burial site. The word iago is Spanish for James and became a war cry for Christians later battling the Moors in Spain. “Santiago de Compostela” or “El Camino” – The Way of St. James – has attracted millions of pilgrims over the centuries for all sorts of different reasons.
In mid-September 2013, I and about 30 pilgrims made our “way” to Spain and walked a somewhat abbreviated “el camino,” only about 1 week of walking 10-18 miles a day for a total of about 90 miles. My spiritual and human experience was astounding. I walked with people from age 18-79; I offered daily Mass in local Catholic chapels and churches, heard confessions, prayed the rosary, and gave spiritual direction while walking and running. I found that people were doing “the way” for personal penance and penance and sacrifice for others: loved ones, children, grandchildren, friends, and strangers. It was heart-wrenching finding out that two fellow pilgrims died just an hour ahead of us crossing the street, both struck accidentally by a car. We weren’t walking to lose weight, get fit, or look good – “the way” is a microcosm of life, a journey to persevere on our earthly pilgrimage amidst physical pain, exhaustion, and emotional stresses.
This Jesus did (and much more) to redeem us, and St. James lived to win the crown of Martyrdom for the Gospel. How can I do any less for them, especially as a priest? Why do I desire a comfortable, easy priesthood when Christ, the High Priest and the Apostles did not have one themselves? Jesus said, “pick up your Cross and follow me, for I Am the Way, truth and life to the Father.”
Along the “way” I was privileged to walk through some of the most beautiful grounds and farmland I have ever seen. Our guide’s name was (you guessed it) “Jesus,” and my good friend’s name, who accompanied me, was (you guessed it) “James.” They were both with me the whole way spurring me on, to help motivate those who needed it. Shouldn’t that be our “way” of our Christian life and priesthood on this earth
As we entered the town of Compostela, people were congratulating us; it was so beautiful, spiritually uplifting and very human, a sense of being in communion with us. As we got into the square and saw the large Basilica, people were crying, hugging, taking pictures, but mostly I noticed the sense of silence and awe of God’s goodness, mercy, and generosity to all of us. As I knelt before the tomb of St. James, I prayed for many and thanked him a lot and the Blessed Trinity for this great privilege and honor. I have knelt before the tombs of St. Peter, Paul, James the Greater, James the Less, Philip, Bartholomew, St. Catherine of Siena, St Therese of Lisieux, St. Theresa of Avila, and St. Pio, and I have been to the Holy Land. It’s not about kneeling in front of the tombs of the Apostles and viewing it as a vacation place or accomplishment. It’s paying homage to the One, the Way, who allowed them to become who they truly were meant to be, godly men and women of Jesus Christ.
This is what St. John Paul II teaches us in Theology of the Body and through the example of his “martyrdom” he suffered at the end of his life. What a good life our Father wants to give us priests. The best “Way” is the way of St. James the Greater because it is the Way of Jesus Christ. Amen.
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: St. James the Greater
Father Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima for the Archdiocese of New York. Father Tom served as the Theology of the Body Institute’s first full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development from 2013-2016. Father Tom now serves as the Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard in Manhattan.