Our Lady of the Pillar
Nov 14, 2013 / Written by: America Needs Fatima
Did you know that the first church dedicated to the Blessed Mother was built while she still lived?
The sentiment of the inhabitants of Zaragoza, Spain, toward their beloved Virgen del Pilar — the Virgin of the Pillar — is quite different from the ordinary homage paid to a favorite saint or even to other Marian devotions elsewhere in the Catholic world. It is an inheritance from their forefathers, a love that is born with them and ends only with their deaths. It is interwoven with their patriotism, with their nationality, with their home life, and with their daily tasks and amusements, and it is an ever-recurring theme in their popular songs.
The miraculous origins of the Virgin of the Pillar
That Our Lady appeared to the Apostle Saint James, patron of Spain, is a well-founded tradition and forms part of Zaragoza’s history and patriotism. The church of the Pillar was the first shrine ever raised in Our Lady’s honor in 40 AD.
Venerable Maria of Agreda, who was shown the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in detail, writes in her Mystical City of God that St. James, brother of St. John, had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Becoming the apostle of what today is Spain, Saint James was having a hard time evangelizing the northern region of Zaragoza. One night, as he prayed asking help for his plight, he suddenly beheld a great light in the midst of which he saw Our Lady surrounded by a multitude of angels.
The interesting thing is that Mary was still living in Jerusalem at the time. But as queen of the Church, she was given the ability to see all that concerned her Son’s work, and being shown the prayer of her devotee, had obtained from Jesus permission to help him in a special way. Our Lord commissioned her to go to Zaragoza:
“As thou already knowest, it is necessary for My glory, that the Apostles labor with My grace, and that at the end they must follow Me to the cross and to the death I have suffered for the whole human race. The first one who is to imitate Me therein is My faithful servant James, and I will that he suffer martyrdom in this city of Jerusalem. In order that he come hither, and for other purposes of My glory and thine, I desire thee to visit him in Spain, where he is preaching My name. I desire, My Mother, that thou go to Zaragoza where he now is, and command him to return to Jerusalem. But before he leaves that city, he is to build a temple in thy name and title, where thou shalt be venerated and invoked for the welfare of that country, for My glory and pleasure, and that of the most Blessed Trinity.”
Later, according to the same Venerable Mary of Agreda, Our Lord added:
“I give you My royal word that I shall look with special clemency and fill with blessings all those who, with devotion and humility, call upon Me through thy intercession in that temple. In thy hands have I deposited and consigned all My treasures; as My Mother, who holds My place and power, thou canst signalize that place by depositing therein the riches and promising in it thy favors; for all will be fulfilled according to thy will and pleasure.”
Having spoken these words, He disappeared, and a band of angels, singing canticles of joy, filled the room. Raising Mary on their wings, they bore her through the air across the Mediterranean, serenading her all the way.
So now, the Blessed Mother consoled St. James, saying “My son James, the Most High and Mighty God of Heaven has chosen this place that you may consecrate and dedicate here a temple and house of prayer where, under the invocation of my name, He wishes to be adored and served, and all the faithful who seek my intercession will receive the graces they ask if they have true faith and devotion, and in the Name of my Son I promise them great favors and blessings, for this will be my temple and my house, my own inheritance and possession, and in testimony of my promise, this pillar will remain here, and on it my own image that, in this place where you will build my temple, will last and endure with the Holy Faith until the end of the world. This must be done at once, and when your work is accomplished, you will return to Jerusalem where it is the will of my Divine Son that you make the sacrifice of your life where He gave up His for the redemption of mankind.”
She then commanded the angels to place the column with its sacred image where it stands to this day, and as the angelic cortège disappeared, Saint James and his disciples praised God and offered to Him the first shrine ever dedicated to His Blessed Mother. By the pillar, she left an angel to ensure the safety of the holy image until the end of time. As to the angel that was left on guard at the spot, he must be still on watch. As one peruses the architectural marvels of the football-field-sized building, head tilting ever upwards, eyes come to a dead halt at what looks like bombs hanging from the ceiling. On alarmed inquiry, one is told that these bombs have indeed been detonated; during Spain’s civil war they had hit the cathedral, but never caused it any harm.
Saint James Builds the First Chapel
Soon after, Saint James and his disciples built a modest chapel, sixteen feet long by eight feet wide, to enclose the Virgin’s gift. This chapel succumbed to time and the elements and was replaced by several others, but the sacred column has always remained in the spot where the angels placed it.
The piety of the faithful and the offerings of pilgrims, attracted to the shrine by the fame of the miracles attributed to the Virgin of the Pillar, eventually raised a church that remained until the end of the seventeenth century, when Charles II, the last monarch of the Austrian dynasty to occupy the Spanish throne, built the splendid edifice that now enshrines the column and statue. The first stone was laid on the feast of Saint James in 1686. In 1753, King Ferdinand VI engaged the celebrated architect Ventura Rodriguez to build the sumptuous chapel in which the statue is now preserved.
Above the high altar is a carving of the Virgin extending her hand to the Apostle, and over an altar to the right of this is a picture of the seven disciples of Saint James. On the left is the altar where, under a rich canopy of silver, against a dark background thickly studded with diamonds, stands the miraculous pillar with the statue of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Jesus.
Scientists, attempting to match the granite of which the pillar is made, have been able to find similar, but not identical, granite and only in other parts of the world. The statue of the Virgin is made of a material not found on this earth. By a miraculous divine action, no dust ever settles on it, so for almost 2,000 years the statue has never needed dusting.
One of the marvels concerning this pillar is that it plunges into the earth, so that none have ever been able to find its end.
Universally Honored and Loved
A silver railing of exquisite workmanship runs the entire length of the three altars, and the walls of jasper and marble glitter with offerings of gold, silver, and precious stones which, flashing in the light of the numerous silver lamps, fairly dazzle the eyes of the spectator.
But the inhabitants of Zaragoza see only “La Pilarica,” the costly gifts that have been offered in faith, devotion, and love to adorn her holy chapel: gifts from kings, queens, princes, and noble knights who have prayed at this shrine throughout the centuries; gifts from pilgrims who have come on foot from afar to lay their offerings at her feet; gifts from saints who left their jewels here before retiring from this world for ever; gifts from humble peasants, from toilers of the deep, and from the poorest of God’s poor, who saved and fasted for years to be able to offer a token of their love to La Patrona — the Patroness.
It was in this church that the old kings of Aragon knelt to take their oaths of fidelity to God and to the people. Isabel the Catholic, who helped Columbus with his journey to the Americas, went frequently to Zaragoza and gave priceless jewels to the treasury of the Virgin: the Emperor Charles V, heavy with the weight of crowns, visited Our Lady of the Pillar and laid his sceptre at her feet before retiring to the monastery at Juste; Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, all left memorials at the shrine, and Don Juan of Austria had such a devotion for the Virgin of the Pillar that he wished his heart to be buried in the crypt of the holy chapel.
The holy chapel is never unoccupied for a moment from daybreak until the doors are closed at night. The crowds come and go continually. Very few people pass the church without entering, if only to salute “La Patrona!” and depart.
Every now and then one sees an acolyte in cassock and surplice wending his way through the groups of worshippers, carrying in his arms a tiny baby, perhaps only a few weeks old. This is the one occasion in his life when a son of Zaragoza is privileged to touch the sacred statue; the baby, its innocent face wet with the waters of Baptism, is raised in the arms of the chaplain and pressed against the face of “La Pilarica.”
There are chaplains whose time is entirely given to the services in the holy chapel; four of these guard the vestments and jewels of the Virgin, which they change according to the rituals of the Church and the festivals of the year. No others are allowed to touch the statue or to have access to the mantles and ornaments that belong to her.
Every morning, as the first streaks of dawn break through the sky and the last stars have faded, one of the chaplains sings the “Mass of the Infants,” so called because the choir is composed of eight small boys, Infantes, who are dedicated to the service of the holy chapel and serve the many Masses that are celebrated daily.
These boys wear a special uniform during the liturgy and processions. This Mass is the first of the innumerable prayers that are murmured unceasingly from this moment until the echo of the last notes of the Salve Regina die away in the vast arches at nightfall. It is considered a great privilege among the Zaragozan families to have a son as an Infante of Our Lady of the Pillar.
On October 11, bands parade the streets and fireworks are set off at intervals. This is the formal announcement to the public that the festivals are about to commence. Trains arrive every half hour loaded with passengers, and cars by the thousands come from every corner of Aragon and the remotest parts of Spain.
The Feast of the Virgin of the Pillar is celebrated with great pomp and ceremony on October 12 [Ed.: note the date’s connection to Our Lady of Fatima’s miracle of the Sun]. As early as two o’clock on the morning of the 12th, the crowds begin to enter the church, and when the beautiful voices of the Infantes sing the first notes of the Mass, the edifice is so packed that it is difficult to move. At the conclusion of the Masses the worshippers stream out at one end while others stream in at the other, and this continues throughout the entire day. It is virtually impossible to estimate how many come to pray on this occasion.
The city puts on holiday attire for a week, all work is suspended, and visitors pour in from all parts of the Peninsula to make their devotions and take part in the celebrations at the famous shrine.
The Doors Are Thrown Open
When the sun has set and night begins to fall, the bells peal a joyous call to the Salve Regina, all the doors are thrown wide open, and the church soon fills to capacity, without apparently diminishing the immense throngs that have gathered in the Plaza del Pilar.
All classes are there, peasants in picturesque costumes who proclaim their native places; children, some in fine clothes, others in tatters; women, some wearing the latest French hats and others with their heads enveloped in traditional mantillas or in old shawls; working people from the vicinity, and tourists with their travel guides in hand.
All sorts of faces mingle with throngs of soldiers, priests, and Infantes, all pressing as one moving mass to hear the solemn notes of the Salve, the last act of devotion of the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Outsiders may look upon this tradition as absurd and impossible, but the Zaragozan sees nothing unusual in it; he dwells in an atmosphere of saintly love, and the inhabitants of Heaven do not seem so very far away from him, for he has evidences of their presence on all sides; he lives with them with a familiarity that might appear irreverent were it not for its genuine simplicity.
There is no place in the world where devotion to the Holy Mother of God is so deeply rooted as in the heroic city of Zaragoza, where her statue has been defended, with the lives of thousands of her children, and where it is firmly believed that her revered statue will surely endure “with the Holy Faith until the end of the world.”
This “Stories of Mary – Stories of the Rosary” is taken from Crusade Magazine, September – October, 1998. NB: With contributions made by Andrea F. Phillips.