sklbaSome 17 years ago, a remarkably delightful and generous aunt left me a bequest in her will with the wonderful stipulation that I should travel to places I couldn’t go otherwise!  As a result, I have been blessed each year with the opportunity to make a personal Lenten retreat at some exotic and treasured location in the history of Western Christianity.

This year I chose to visit the traditional tomb of the James the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern corner of Spain (of all places). The site has been a major pilgrimage destination for some 1,200 years, third in importance only after the Holy Land and Rome. It was popularized earlier this year by Martin Sheen’s film “The Way.”

The Latin word used in the annals of ninth century church history claims that Theodomirus, the bishop of neighboring Iria-Flavia, was responsible for the “inventio” of the apostolic tomb in 815 A.D.

The phrase could refer to a “discovery” or to some more creative and imaginative action on the bishop’s part. There had been a longstanding and free-floating popular tradition about James as an early missionary to Spain prior to his return to head the early community in Jerusalem where he suffered martyrdom in 44 A.D. under Herod (Acts 12:2).

At the time of Theodomirus, his flock was caught between the armies of Charlemagne’s energetic new empire to the north and the forces of the Muslim Caliphate in Cordoba to the south. A neighboring monk hermit had a vision of the long forgotten tomb amid a field of stars and Theodomirus claimed it was surely that of James the Great who then became a heavenly patron for his Christian flock of that time.

Pilgrims came on foot, some all the way from Paris, to do penance as they climbed the Pyrenees Mountains, to sort out the mysteries of their spiritual lives as they viewed the expansive landscape or simply to find perspective amid the challenges of their daily lives.

In the early medieval centuries, St. James, or Sant’ Iago as he was called in Spanish, was their protector against the armies of Islam.

Later a Crusader’s red cross was emblazoned on the round scalloped cockle shell which had become the symbol of the pilgrimage. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gladly invoked his apostolic patronage for their political ambition to reunite all of Spain under their control, even by expelling the Jewish and Muslim communities from their realm. James the Apostle, Evangelizer and Pilgrim, unfortunately, and sadly for us of a more religiously respectful age, became the “Matamoros / Moor Slayer.”

The shell became a symbol for the pilgrimage: decorated with converging lines like the many pilgrimage paths, useful for drinking from mountain streams and a symbol of the baptism which they sought to embody by their journey on “the Way.”

In recent decades, by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, many traditional popular Catholic devotions have been purified of their no longer appropriate historical “baggage,” and thus have been enabled to become more truly Catholic, namely universal in usage.

The rosary, for example, with its 15 decades (now 20 since Pope John Paul II’s expansion) has been extricated from its once tight association with the victory of Christians over the hated Turks at the battle of Lepanto (1571). Once again, the devotion has been restored to a means of popular meditation on the mysteries of redemption patterned after the 150 psalms used by the early Christian monks.

Similarly, even devotion to Our Lady of Fatima is being “universalized” after the fall of Soviet Communism and the Catholic Church’s acknowledgement of the rightful place of Orthodox Christianity in re-evangelizing the ancient lands of Russia.

In the great Jubilee Year of 2000, Pope John Paul II and the then-Cardinal Ratzinger presided over a solemn Lenten penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica, asking for forgiveness, among other things, for imposing our Catholic faith on others by violence over the centuries and for not respecting their genuine religious conscience. It was intended as a universal “purification of memories.”

So we, like the modern pilgrims who even today plod wearily into the great square before the Cathedral in Santiago, step aside from seeing the clothing placed on the Apostle James by medieval piety to reclaim his pristine biblical character.

James was called by Jesus from the fishing nets of his father Zebedee, (Mk 1:19), nicknamed by Jesus with his brother John as “Boanerges” apparently for their volatile tempers (3:17), and probably embarrassed by the ambitions of his mother who sought a special place for her sons in the kingdom (10:35).

James was chosen by Jesus for membership among the Twelve (3:17), remembered as one of their inner circle who witnessed the raising of the daughter of Jairus (5:37), experienced the Transfiguration on Tabor (9:2), asked questions privately about the end time (13:3), and witnessed his painful prayer in Gethsemane (14:33).

After the Ascension, James was mentioned by name as being in the Upper Room (Acts 1:13), and was noted as the designated recipient of the news of Peter’s miraculous release from prison (12:17). It was James who spoke up forcefully to approve St. Paul’s welcome of Gentiles without imposing circumcision or kosher dietary rules (15:13ff).

Thus, it was James of Compostela who became the patron of welcoming Gentiles among the differing ethnic groups of early Christianity as well as the facilitator of the Council of Jerusalem’s plan for reconciled diversity in Christ!

This is the biblical James whose patronage is now invoked by contemporary pilgrims: Apostle, Evangelizer, Pilgrim and Agent of Reconciliation … and perhaps eventually by creative extension, an implicit Friend of Islam? We are all pilgrims into God’s truth.