In the region of Aragon, northeastern Spain, approximately 150 miles south of Lourdes, France, lies the historic city of Zaragoza with its picturesque view of the Pyrenees mountains that soar almost 10,000 feet. A diverse territory with mountains in the north and south and a great valley in the center, it lies by the Ebro river, the second longest and one of the most important rivers on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a sunny city with a semi-arid climate, (averaging only 12.6 inches of precipitation annually) entirely surrounded by mountains that block off moist air from the Atlantic and Mediterranean. At times, temperatures in the summer reach 112. °F and the winters are cool due to fog or because of a dry northwesterly wind known as the Cierzo.
This strategic colony was conquered by Rome in 14 B.C. and named Caesaraugustus after the first Caesar who was reigning at the time. It became an important outpost as a defense against the advancing Visigoth Kingdoms and grew to a large city with an estimated population of 30,000 at its peak. The Muslims arrived in 714, seized the city and controlled it until the 12th century and it soon became a central point for them as they invaded the lands around the Ebro Valley and into France. It prospered and developed into an open, cultural and artistic haven, where intellectuals of all backgrounds and religions flocked.
Four centuries of Muslim rule were finally put to an end when the Christian King, Alfonso I, marched into town and conquered it in 1118. He renamed the city Zaragoza, and made it the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Aragon. This city was home to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile who would unite Spain as it is today.
It was to this picturesque land, a phenomenal 3,000 miles from Jerusalem, that St. James and some disciples were inspired to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the year 40 A.D. Jesus named St. James and his brother St. John “sons of thunder” because in their zeal they said: "Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?" (Luke 9:54). The Lord often selected Peter, James and John to be alone with him. James was privileged to be the first apostle martyred in 44 A.D. by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the great.
St. James had labored for some time in attempting to evangelize this Roman city without much success. He was unhappy that he was not able to share his love of Jesus with the citizens. Thinking that he should return home, he knelt in prayer along the Ebro River, most assuredly feeling the cool Cierzo wind. On the night of January 2nd, 40 A.D. suddenly, Our Lady, surrounded by angels, appeared to him while she was still living in Ephesus before her Assumption. "He heard voices of angels singing Ave Maria, gratia plena and saw the Virgin Mother of Christ, standing on a jasper pillar". She stood on top of the six-foot pillar carried by angels, holding a small 15-inch wooden statue portraying herself carrying the baby Jesus in her right arm as a dove sat on Jesus’ left palm. The particular jasper of which the pillar is made is not found in that area of the country. The statue of the Virgin has an miraculous and unusual astonishing quality – it never collects dust and for almost 2,000 years the statue has never been dusted. The Virginassured St. James that the people would embrace the faith due to his efforts and she asked him to consecrate a church in her name and said that the church would remain until the end of the world. He built the very first church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary - a small chapel incorporating the jasper pillar and the statue. As instructed by Our Lady, he returned to Jerusalem to preach the gospel for another four years until he was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa.
It was in this basilica that kings and queens came for their ceremonies; Queen Isabel often visited the shrine and she bequeathed precious jewels to the Virgin; the Emperor Charles visited Our Lady of the Pillar and laid his scepter at her feet before becoming a monk at Juste; Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, all left memorials at the shrine; and Don Juan of Austria (famous for his naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Moslems) loved the Virgin of the Pillar so much that he requested his heart to be buried in the crypt of the holy chapel. Here many saints prayed, such as: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius, Blessed Chaminade, St. Maria Escriva and St. John Paul II.
Today the shrine is a thriving center for the holy faith. Many Masses are offered throughout the day, and at evening the heavenly notes of the “Salve Regina” echo through the basilica as Her devotees sing good night to their Queen. Day and night a continuous stream of visitors file in to revere the little statue of our Lady and whisper a quick prayer to her. Occasionally a priest will wend his way through the crowds with a tiny baby in his arms, pressing the newly baptized child to the face of Nuestra Señora del Pilar – the only time when one is privileged to touch the statue. There are chaplains who serve at the church and four of them guard the vestments and jewels of the Virgin. No one else is allowed to touch the statue or to have access to the hundreds of mantles and the many priceless jewels.
Originally a very modest chapel, the basilica, overlooking the Ebro River, is now an extraordinary basilica, (measuring 430 feet long and 220 feet wide) with exquisite artwork, sparkling jewels, and awe-inspiring frescoes by Francisco Goya. Other Romanesque churches (one of which was burnt in a fire in 1434) were built on the site to replace the original chapel constructed by St. James. The present basilica, baroque in style was begun in 1681 and completed in 1711, with additions up until the 20th century when the towers were finally finished. It boasts eleven cupolas, four towers and ten lantern towers. Twelve enormous pillars support the vaults of the nave and aisles; the whole is topped by domes, as are the nine chapels which have light gleaming through the oculi. Upon entering the church, one is dazzled by the radiant golden reredos displaying a magnificent sculpture of the Assumption of Our Lady over the Tabernacle in the center.
On the right side of the Assumption is the Virgin Chapel that houses the miraculous statue of Our Lady that stands on the same six-foot high pillar she gave to St. James for the church. The crown adorning her head was designed by the Marquis of Griñi and made in forty-four days by thirty-three workmen; it contains: 2,836 diamonds cut triangularly, 2,725 roses, 145 pearls, 74 emeralds, 62 rubies and 46 sapphires. The crown of the Infant is identical with that of the Virgin, except in size. The image was canonically crowned in 1905 during the reign of Pope Pius X. The Pillar, now encased in bronze and then in silver, is adorned with a variety of skirts that number over 300 in the collection. There is an opening in the metal where pilgrims may kiss the jasper pillar and it is quite worn away by all the kisses and caresses over the centuries. The Spanish consider that “The pillar is a symbol of the duct connecting heaven and earth. It is the support of the sacred and everyday life. Mary, the gate of heaven, was the woman chosen by God to come to our world. In it the earth and sky have joined in Jesus Christ.”
Shrine Ceremonies and Feasts
Every morning, when dawn stretches out its first rays and the stars quietly disappear, the “Mass of the Infants” is sung gloriously by eight small boys, a well-trained angelic choir known as the “Infantes”. They wear a special uniform at Mass and at the various ceremonies and feasts that occur at the Basilica and their families consider it a great honor to have one of their own chosen to be an Infante.
The grand nine-day Feast of the Virgin of the Pillar is celebrated with great pomp and ceremony. Large quantities of flowers and fruit are brought to the Virgin's shrine in the basilica. On the day before the great feast, October 11, bands march through the streets and fireworks blaze through the skies signaling that the festival will soon begin. On October 12, the feast officially begins and the crowds flock to the church as early as 2:00 in the morning. The Mass of the Infants commences at four in the morning when they will sing the first divine notes of the Mass dedicated to Nuestra Senora del Pilar. There are so many faithful thronged in the church that it is difficult to move. The city joins in the festivities, all work is suspended and pilgrims pour in from all parts of Spain causing the population to triple. The roads are filled with processions, street performers, music, and dancing. Many flock to the special events of bullfights and theater performances.
Following are two famous miracles that have occurred at the Shrine:
The most prominent miracle associated with the shrine happened in 1640 to a poor beggar named Miguel Juan Pellicer who fell off a cart and the wheel ran over his right leg under the knee. The doctors were forced to amputate the leg and as Miguel was unable to work, he was reduced to begging. He had a great devotion to Nuestra Senora del Pilar and frequently went there to pray for Our Lady’s intercession. He often used the oil from the votive candles of the shrine to rub on his leg wounds. After a couple years, he moved back home with his parents. One night, after praying to the Virgin Mary, he fell asleep and woke to his parents call. They saw that he had two feet poking out from the blanket and realizing that he had two legs, they awakened their son. Amazingly, this was the very same leg that had been amputated two and a half years previously, bearing the scars of old wounds including the surgical removal of a cyst. The amputated leg, which had been buried in the cemetery of the hospital, was ordered to be exhumed but it was no longer there. In remembrance of the miracle, the people made a vow in 1642 to always honor Mary, as the patroness of Zaragossa. The miracle caused the construction of the present day basilica to be built over the original chapel.
The second famous miracle happened During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when two bombs hit and damaged the basilica in 1936 but neither exploded, proving the power of Our Lady. The event was considered a miracle, and the defused bombs have been on display to the right of the altar of Our Lady of Pillar ever since. Both bomb holes are still visible, one in the corner of the Goya fresco and the other by the top of the column overhead to the left.
Popes from earliest times have loved Our Lady of the Pillar and have issued Papal Bulls confirming the authenticity of the shrine and the appearance of the Virgin Mary to St. James. Pope Calixtus III issued a bull in 1456 specifically naming “Lady of the Pillar” that encouraged pilgrimages to the oldest Marian Shrine. It acknowledged the miraculous founding of the shrine and the miracles that had taken place there. In 1723, Pope Innocent III affirmed: "Of all the places that Spain offers for the veneration of the devout, the most illustrious is doubtless the sanctuary consecrated to God under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, under the title of our Lady of the Pillar, at Saragossa."
The statue of Nuestra Senora del Pilar received a Canonical Coronation by Pope St. Pius X on May 20, 1905, and Pope Pius XII declared her the Patroness of the Hispanic World when he elevated the cathedral to the status of a Minor Basilica. Pope St. John Paul II visited the Basilica on November 6, 1982, and with great emotion, removed his zucchetto from his head and left it and a beautiful rosary, as a remembrance of his visit. He said: "In my spiritual Pilgrimage of today, I wish to direct my thoughts to the Virgin of the Pilar in Zaragoza, Spain, whose basilica I had the pleasure of visiting, fulfilling my wish of kneeling as a devout son of Mary before Her sacred Column. This venerable Shrine, built on the banks of the Ebro River, is a great symbol of the presence of Mary since the beginning of the preaching of the Good News in the Iberian Peninsula.”
Pray to Nuestra Señora Del Pilar
In these times of urgency, when the world has forgotten the gospel of Jesus Christ, we turn to His Mother and thank her for her constant maternal protection and assistance. Knowing that Our Lord requested the Virgin Mary to assist St. James in his time of need at such an early age of the church, we trust in her continuous care and we join the pilgrims in invoking her intercession with the shrine prayer:
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.
 SUMMA THEOLOGIAE III: q. 45 a. 3 ad 4: "He took these three as being superior to the rest." For "Peter excelled in the love" he bore to Christ and in the power bestowed on him; John in the privilege of Christ's love for him on account of his virginity, and, again, on account of his being privileged to be an Evangelist; James on account of the privilege of martyrdom.”
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