In the Footsteps of St. James

Pilgrims to Spain's Our Lady of Zaragoza shrine join in a great old tradition of popes, saints, kings, and queens

According to an old and venerable tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. James the Apostle as he journeyed to northwestern Spain after the death of Christ. Accompanied by celestial music, angels, and a brilliant light, Our Lady encouraged him and his disciples, as they journeyed westward to spread the Gospel. Unlike any of her other apparitions, when Our Lady appeared to James she was still living on earth, in Jerusalem. During the vision, the holy Virgin gave St. James a column of jasper with a small wooden statue of herself and said, “This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the church that you shall build.”

Following the Virgin's request, the saint soon built a chapel over the site where she appeared. Although this place of worship was eventually destroyed, another chapel soon replaced it. In the following centuries, the same cycle was repeated several times. Despite the changing conditions of the chapels, the local Christians always took great care in protecting both the pillar and the ancient statue.

Today the shrine of Our Lady of Zaragoza is Spain's second most popular pilgrimage destination. Building of the present-day basilica began in 1681. The entire design of the building was based around maintaining the sacred pillar of Our Lady in its original place. Inside the shrine, the pilgrim encounters an extraordinary treasury of art. With the latest restoration in 1979, the interior again exhibits its vast beauty and grandeur.

Through the centuries the shrine has received visits from the likes of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius, and all the kings and queens of Spain. In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine and recited the Rosary during a worldwide broadcast. So popular is the shrine, that many Spanish children make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of the Pillar at the time of their first Holy Communion.

As one of the largest basilicas in the world, Our Lady of Zaragoza features a vast array of chapels, artworks, and precious religious objects. The most cherished relic inside the immense church is, of course, the statue of the Virgin Mary given to St. James. Pilgrims can find the venerated image enthroned behind the main altar in the Holy Chapel — a sanctuary which is in itself a miniature church, made of marble, jasper, and bronze. The chapel also serves as the center of the religious life of the local people, many of whom come daily to “visit the Virgin.” As it is a place of intense holiness, visitors are requested to respect a rule of silence, and to say a prayer for the Pope and for the Churches of Spain and Latin America.

Behind the Holy Chapel, pilgrims can find the Niche of the Virgin. This is the place where the holy image of the Virgin is exposed, and where pilgrims can kiss the Pillar statue. Pope John Paul II venerated and kissed the Pillar in 1986 during his second visit to Zaragoza.

The wooden statue is a simple one of the Blessed Virgin. Smiling pleasantly, Mary is caressing the Christ Child in her left arm, as her right hand supports a mantle that drapes over both of them. Both figures are crowned with jewels. On certain days of the month, the statue is dressed with a cape and gold embroidery that partially conceals the pillar.

In the early part of this century, the shrine received two impressive honors. First, on May 22, 1904, the basilica was declared a national museum. Then, on May 20, 1905, the Church crowned the Virgin statue in a moving ceremony.

Other popular sites to visit in the basilica include the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, the “Coreto” of the Virgin, St. James’ Chapel, the Sacristy of the Virgin, the Chapel of St. Joseph, and the Main Choir. Also worthy of note are the precious paintings and sculptures of Christ on the Cross, the Visitation, the Miracle of Calanda, Our Lady as Queen of Virgins, and Our Lady as Queen of Marytrs.

Another important stop for any pilgrim visiting the shrine is the Museum of the Pillar. It is here where the jewelry collection used to adorn the state of the Virgin is kept, as well as other significant religious and secular items. Much of the collection is antique, including an 18th century ivory horn.

Pilgrims wishing to take home a souvenir will enjoy the gift shop located at the shrine. To obtain a panoramic view of the city, visitors can climb to the tower at the top of the basilica.

Every October, the church is the backdrop for an important festival devoted to Our Lady of the Pillar. Celebrations include parades, bull-fights, fireworks, flower offerings, and street dancing. On Oct. 13, the famous procession in honor of the Virgin of the Pillar takes place in the streets.

As Zaragoza is a rather large city, it is easily accessible by car, train, and bus. From Madrid, take N11 east to Zaragoza. By rail, most major Spanish cities have daily departures to Zaragoza. Once in the city, take the local bus to the shrine (located at Plaza de las Catedrals). Zaragoza is also accessible by long-distance bus service from major cities throughout Spain.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or contact the Zaragoza Tourist Office at: Oficina de Turismo de Zaragoza, Plaza del Pilar, s/n, 50003 Zaragoza, tel 011-34-976-20-12-12, fax 011-34-976-20-06-35, e-mail: [email protected]

Kevin Wright, the author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.