In the year 40 A.D., St. James the Greater (the son of Zebedee and the brother of John) was preaching the Gospel in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain) and he was making very few converts. He was quite discouraged and found himself praying one day (January 2, 40) on the banks of the Ebro River in the Roman city of Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza). It was right then and there that James received the first Marian apparition.
Our Blessed Mother, who was still living, appeared to him by bilocation, consoling and encouraging him in his apostolic endeavors. She was standing on a pillar, surrounded by angels, and she promised him that the faith of the Spanish people would be as strong as the pillar upon which she stood. As a pledge of her maternal care, Our Lady gave to him a small wooden statue of herself and a pillar made of jasper. She instructed him to build an oratory at the place as a sign of her special love where great miracles would be worked throughout the ages.
Today is the feast of that first Marian apparition, known now as “Our Lady of the Pillar.” Our Lady of the Pillar is the special patroness of Spain and she is the Mother of all the Hispanic peoples. Sponsored by the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus discovered America on her feast day in 1492. In our own Archdiocese of San Francisco, we have a parish dedicated to her in Half Moon Bay (originally called Spanishtown).
St. James was so successful in converting Spain after the apparition that, after he was martyred in 44 A.D. in Jerusalem, his disciples carried his body all the way back to Spain for burial. Today he is famously venerated in Compostela, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe. Our Lady of the Pillar is the Mother of all the pilgrims of “El Camino de Santiago.”
The experience of St. James with Our Lady of the Pillar teaches us the vital lesson that we must have recourse to prayer when we are discouraged. This is especially true in the case of discouragement in the apostolate, in the work of making disciples for Christ. When we feel overwhelmed or powerless, we run like children into the loving arms of our Mother, who takes care of our work for us and makes it fruitful by her prayers.
Our Lady of the Pillar also teaches us that the Pentecost experience, re-lived in Spain with her apparition, is the basic dynamic of the apostolate in the Church. On Pentecost, the Apostles gathered around Our Lady, who was interceding for the Holy Spirit to be poured into their hearts. Having received the Divine Gift, they went out to preach fruitfully, making 5,000 converts in one day. Our Lady of the Pillar is another instance of that same phenomenon. In organizations like the Legion of Mary, this basic dynamic continues today. We gather in prayer with Our Lady and she makes our work prosper for Christ.
Today, in the Month of the Holy Rosary, we look to our Blessed Mother, Our Lady of the Pillar, and we ask her intercession for ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Like St. James, we beg her to make us fruitful in the apostolate so that the converts we make will have faith as strong as her sacred pillar.
Fr. Joseph Previtali