Pope Benedict XVI met with 30,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on June 21. He continued his series of teachings on the 12 Apostles, focusing on St. James the Greater. In past audiences, he has offered his reflections on St. Peter and St. Andrew.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We will continue with our series of portraits of the apostles whom Jesus himself chose during his life on earth. We have spoken about St. Peter and his brother Andrew. Today we will meet James. The lists of the 12 Apostles in the Bible mention two people with this name: James, the son of Zebedee, and James, the son of Alphaeus (see Mark 3:17-18; Matthew 10:2-3), who are generally distinguished from each other by the nicknames of James the Greater and James the Less. These nicknames are certainly not meant to measure their holiness, but simply to note the different emphases placed on them in the New Testament writings and particularly within the framework of Jesus’ life on earth. Today we will devote our attention to the first of these two personalities with the same name.
The name James is a translation of Iákobos, the Greek form of the name of the well-known patriarch Jacob. The apostle called by this name is the brother of John and, in the New Testament lists, he occupies the second place right after Peter in Mark (3:17) and the third place after Peter and Andrew in the Gospels of Matthew (10:2) and Luke (6:14), while in the Acts of the Apostles (1:13) he appears after Peter and John. Along with Peter and John, this James belongs to the group of the three privileged disciples Jesus allowed to be present at the most important moments in his life.
Since it is very hot today, I
would like to shorten my talk and mention only two of these occasions at this
time. Along with Peter and John, James was present during Jesus’ agony in the
Surely the second experience was an opportunity for him to grow deeper in his faith and correct his one-sided, triumphal interpretation of the previous experience. He had to recognize that the Messiah, whom the Jewish people awaited as a conqueror, was, in reality, not only surrounded by honor and glory, but also by pain and weakness. It was on the cross that the glory of Christ was fulfilled by sharing in our suffering.
The Holy Spirit brought this
growth in faith to completion at Pentecost, so that James did not shirk when
the time came for his greatest testimony. As Luke tells us, in the early 40s of
the first century, King Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, “laid hands
upon some members of the Church to harm them. He had James, the brother of
John, killed by the sword” (Acts 12:1-2). On one hand, the terseness of the
report, lacking any narrative detail, reveals how normal it was for Christians
to give witness to the Lord with their very life; on the other hand, it shows
that James held a prominent position within the
A later tradition, which dates
back at least to Isidore of Seville, speaks about his
St. James’ Example
From St. James, therefore, we can learn many things: readiness in responding to the Lord’s call, even when he asks us to leave the “boat” of our human securities; enthusiasm in following him on the paths that he shows us over and above any illusory presumptions we may have; and a willingness to give witness to him with courage and, if necessary, with the ultimate sacrifice of our lives. Thus, James the Greater is presented to us as an eloquent example of generous loyalty to Christ. The very one who had initially requested through his mother to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom was the first to drink the chalice of the passion and to share martyrdom with the apostles.
Finally, to summarize, we can say that his journey, not only exteriorly but, above all, interiorly, from the mount of the Transfiguration to the mount of the agony, is a symbol of the entire pilgrimage of Christian life amid the world’s persecutions and God’s consolations, as the Second Vatican Council puts it. When we follow Jesus like St. James, we will know that, even amid difficulties, we are on the right path.