On July 25, Catholics will celebrate the feast day of St. James the Apostle, whose closeness to Jesus helped St. James overcome his flaws until his life was ended with courageous faith. 

St. James is sometime called “James the Greater.” Researchers say that is most likely because he was older or taller, rather than more important, than the other apostle named James. 

St. James, a Galilean, was one of Jesus’ first disciples. He and his brother, John, were mending their nets in a boat when Jesus called them, and they left their father Zebedee. St. James, St. John and St. Peter were known as Jesus’ “favorite three.” The three were at Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain (yet on the way back down the mountain Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus. 

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Yet St. James’s imperfections make him more “human” to Catholics. The Gospel accounts demonstrate it’s not so much about his virtues entitling him to heavenly reward. There is much in the Gospels about Jesus’ purifying the apostles of narrowness, pettiness and fickleness. There is more emphasis about God giving them the power to proclaim the good news. 

Two Gospel accounts testify that St. James and St. John were ambitious. St. Matthew wrote that their mother and St. Mark wrote it was the brothers themselves approached Jesus and asked that the two have seats of honor in the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus asked, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink from the same cup I am going to drink?” they audaciously answered, “We can.” Jesus said they indeed would share in the baptism of his pain and death but sitting at his right or left was for his father to give. When the other disciples became incensed, Jesus calmly taught them about humility. 

St. James also had a quick temper. He and John were ready to “call down fire from heaven” to consume the Samaritans who would not welcome Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus rebuked them and nicknamed them “sons of thunder.” 

St. James also sometimes “fell asleep on the job.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked St. James and his other followers to keep watch while he went off and prayed. After being in deep distress Jesus returned and St. James and the others were asleep. Jesus admonished them by saying, “Could you not keep watch with me one hour?” This question has challenged Catholics down the ages to spend an hour in an adoration chapel but some adorers also admit to having problems with nodding off as well. 

But St. James’ commitment to Jesus was ultimately so strong he was apparently the first of the apostles to be martyred. As written in the Acts of the Apostle: “About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James the brother of John killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter as well” (Acts 12:1-3). 

Tradition says that St. James’ body was taken to Compostela in Spain, which became a famous pilgrimage, “The Way of St. James,” also called the “El Camino.” Even today travelers challenge their bodies and spirits by walking the 500-mile route through Spain’s 15 regions. According to some legends, St. James traveled to Spain to preach before his death. He is the patron saint of Spain and pilgrims.