St. James and his disciples adoring Our Lady of the Pillar
Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar -- the Blessed Virgin Mary's first apparition in history. The Blessed Mother appeared to Saint James the Apostle, the brother of Saint John the Evangelist, on the bank of the river Ebro in Saragossa, Spain. Unlike every other recorded apparition, this one took place during the earthly life of the Mother of God. Our Lady of the Pillar is the patroness of Spain and all Hispanic peoples.
Seven years after the death of Jesus, St. James reportedly traveled as far west as Spain to the village of Saragossa in northeast Spain. St. James became disheartened because of the failure of his mission. Tradition tells us that on January 2, 40 A.D. while he was deep in prayer, the Blessed Mother appeared to him and gave him a small wooden statue of herself and a column of jasper wood and instructed him to build a church in her honor: "This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build."
The jasper column and the wooden statue can still be seen on special occasions at a church that houses them. About a year after the apparition James arranged to build a small chapel in Mary's honor, the first Church ever dedicated to the honor of the Virgin Mary. After James returned to Jerusalem, he was executed by Herod Agrippa in about 44 AD, the first apostle to be martyred for his faith. Several of his disciples took his body and returned it for final burial in Spain. The local queen, observing several of the miracles performed by James' disciples, converted to Christianity and permitted James' body to be buried in a local field. Eight centuries later, a cathedral in honor of St. James was erected after his grave site was rediscovered by a local hermit. The hermit found the burial site after noticing an unusual star formation. The site for the cathedral was called Compostella (starry field) and it is a major pilgrimage site to this day.
It is interesting to note that the German Augustinian stigmatist and visionary of the early 19th century, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, comments on Mary of the Pillar’s appearance to James and with rich detail describes the Saragossa apparition in chapter 14 of The Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our Lady of the Pillar has a special place in the lives of many, not the least of which are those who bear her name. In Spain and in Latin America the name 'Pilar' is commonly given to girls at baptism. At one time in Spain almost everyone wore a medal of Nuestra Senora del Pilar. Our Lady of the Pillar is also immensely important in the history and mission of several religious congregations and movements, especially the Marianist Family founded by Blessed William Joseph Chaminade.
The feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, also known as "Las Fiestas del Pilar", is celebrated on October 12 in Saragossa. Since it coincided in 1492 with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, that day is also celebrated as El Día de la Hispanidad by Spanish-speaking people worldwide.
As we reflect on the apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar, let it be a strong reminder that we walk in the footsteps of St. James and the early Christians in following Jesus Christ. May Our Lady be a pillar of faith for each of us as we place our trust in Jesus.
Prayer to Our Lady of the Pillar
O Virgin Mother of the Pilar, deigning to appear to Thy beloved disciple, Saint James, promising him the victory over paganism, and blessing so abundantly his labors for the spread of the True Catholic Faith, secure for us also, who are the children of that same Faith, the victory over our many foes and the paganism that is laying waste the harvest of souls in our day.
Through the intercession of Thine Apostle, Saint James, the "Son of Thunder", may we as clouds flying through the air at the least breath of the Holy Ghost, establish everywhere the true devotion to Thy Immaculate Heart that Jesus wills for the conversion of all sinners. Amen.
“Today I have fulfilled my desire to kneel, as a devoted son of Mary, before her holy pillar… The Christians of Spain have seen in this pilar a clear analogy with the pillar that guides the journeying of the people of Israel towards the promised Land (cf. Nm 14:14), that accompanies the new Israel, the Church, in her pilgrimage towards the promised Land, Christ the Lord. Our Lady of the Pillar is a radiant beacon… The Pillar is considered a symbol of the Spaniard’s strong faith, and is also an indication of the journey that leads to knowledge of Christ through apostolic predication.”
-- Pope St. John Paul II In November of 1987, at the Basilica of Saragossa