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The Feast of St. James
July 21, 2019

     I recently heard a celebrity being interviewed on the radio. He told how, in search of just the right name for his soon-to-be-born son, he and his wife carefully combed through a book with 10,000 names before they came up with what they agreed was just the perfect name for their son: Michael! I could probably have saved them some time on that one, but the search was important because getting the name right is important.

     Take our name: James – St. James Cathedral. We are one of only three St. James Cathedrals in the entire country.  The others are in Brooklyn and Orlando, but we’re the oldest of the three – nearly 170 years old, in fact. Not this building, but our name which was given to the original cathedral down in Vancouver, Washington, most likely because Bishop Blanchet, the first bishop, a French Canadian, had once served at St. James Cathedral in Montreal.

     But his St. James was a far cry from the grand one in Montreal! It was a converted barn on which Mother Joseph and her resourceful band of Sisters of Providence worked their magic and turned into a place of worship. Later, in the 1880’s, his successor, Bishop Junger, brought Europe to Vancouver by building a new St. James Cathedral – a handsome red brick church in the neo-gothic style that still stands in downtown Vancouver.

     In the late 1890’s when Bishop Junger’s successor, the young Bishop Edward O’Dea took over the reins of the diocese, he set his sights to the north – to the bustling young city of Seattle which the Alaskan gold rush had suddenly turned into a boomtown. Bishop O’Dea bought a fine piece of property high on the city’s First Hill, convinced that it was the perfect perch for the great new cathedral which he intended to call Sacred Heart Cathedral. Then all he had to do was to convince the powers-that-be in Rome that Seattle was a better place for a cathedral than Vancouver, and Sacred Heart a better name than St. James. He won on the first count but lost on the second.  He was told he could build a new cathedral in Seattle, but, to honor the tradition, he had to call it St. James. And so he did. And here it is!  A little grander now than when Bishop O’Dea dedicated it in 1907, but still St. James Cathedral.

     Buildings are important, but names and people are even more important. In our Catholic tradition, a name links a person or a church with a saint and the hope is that a special bond will grow between the two: that a little of the saint’s greatness will live on in the namesake, be that a person or a community.

     With a patron like St. James, that gives us a lot to live up to. James, along with his brother John and also Peter, formed something of an inner circle within the group of twelve.  The three are mentioned in the Gospels more than any of the other apostles because they were the ones Jesus took with him whenever something especially important was about to happen. For instance, James, Peter and John were the only ones who got to see Jesus raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, and to see Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, and Jesus in his agony and sweat in Gethsemane. Those were privileged moments, for sure.

     Of course, today’s gospel story puts James in less than a wonderful light. Even though we’re told that it was his mother who asked for a special place for her two darling sons in the kingdom, it’s hard not to think that James and maybe John were not quietly cheering her on…!

     In making her request she didn’t exactly endear James and John to the rest of the group. Who did she think she was?  Who did they think they were?  But as always, Jesus uses the moment to teach: to tell his friends that places of honor in his kingdom were not what they thought. His kingdom was not about power but about service. “The son of man,” he told them, “came, not to be served, but to serve….”

     My friends in Christ, those words of Jesus apply to us, too. Our road to glory is paved less with honor and privilege than with selfless service. And if that sounds more forbidding than anything you feel like signing up for on a summer Sunday, let me encourage you with some wisdom from today’s reading from Second Corinthians. In a surprising series of paradoxes that mirror the foolish wisdom of the Gospel, St. Paul attempts to make sense of this upside-down faith of ours where the high places are the low places and authority is humble service.  Listen again. “We possess a treasure in earthen vessels to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us.  We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair.  We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed. We carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”

     My friends, the Church wants us to hear those words on the feast of our patron St. James because they capture perfectly what James had to discover throughout a lifetime of following Jesus. It wasn’t what his mother thought it would be, and it wasn’t what he thought it would be. It’s no different for you and me. Like James, we have been given a great deal: a call to follow, a friendship with the Master, some moments of special intimacy with him and, yes, a lifetime of perplexing struggles where question marks outnumber exclamation points. No matter.  We are in good company – the company of James, the first apostle to give his life for Jesus. Names are important, and so are patron saints, and we’ve been given a great one!

Father Michael G. Ryan




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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303