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St. James of Tarentaise, January 28

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Biographical selection:

St. James, a noble knight of Syria, served the King of Persia in the 5th century.

One day, present at the martyrdom of some Catholics, he converted. He went to the West, entered the priesthood and was consecrated Bishop. He was sent to the region of the Alps where the inhabitants were descendants of rough barbarian bands of Gaul who had fought against the Romans. Although the village of Tarentaise had been Christianized through the neighboring cities Arns and Lyons, it had happened there, as in so many other regions of Gaul, that the first preaching had been drowned by the flood of barbarians who continued to cross the Alps.

Building the church

The people constructing the church
Even though they were pagan, the people of Tarentaise received the new Bishop with fervor. After his first sermon, the peasants knelt at his feet and asked for Baptism. St. James, pleased to have found a faithful people, commenced the construction of a church. For that purpose, he sent men to cut wood in the great forests. These large trunks were dragged to the building site by oxen.

One tale recounts that on a certain day a large bear came out of the woods, attacked and killed one of the oxen, and began to devour it. The fearful workers ran to the Saint to tell him what had happened.

St. James approached the beast and said:
“I, James, servant of Christ, order you, o repulsive and untamed beast, to bow down your savage head in the name of the Lord. I order you to continue the work you have just interrupted and to take the place of the ox you have killed.”
As soon as he stopped speaking, the bear bowed his head to receive the yoke of the ox. St. James himself harnessed him to the cart. The people watched this spectacle in astonishment. When the moment came to release the bear, some of the young men were fearful and wanted to kill it. But the Saint prevented this. Again he approached the bear and ordered the beast to return to the forest and never again to repeat such an act in the village of Tarentaise.

After that Saint James finished the building of the church, which he dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr.

Comments of Prof. Plinio:

One can see the ways of Providence that demonstrates itself in various ways in this story. The miracle recounted here is so simple and folksy in character that if it were not a work of God, one would be inclined to smile, for it has the same candor and simplicity of the peasants for which it was made.

So, to move those peasants of Switzerland, God used a simple way to show Himself. You can imagine that those good and semi-barbarian Alpine peasants of that time were deeply impressed by such a simple and attention-getting incident which did not demand any complex twists and turns of mind to reach the conclusion. The episode, like the people, went straight to the point. This is what one can see here.

Providence deals with each people according to its psychology. The parables related in the Gospel were also adapted to the simplicity of that people - even though the simplicity of the Jewish people was not the same as that of the Swiss people of the 5th century. The result is that the parables of the Gospel are much richer in meaning. One needs to consider that while the Gospel parables were immediately directed to the Jewish people, they were also remotely directed to all peoples of all times, all the sons of God. Because of that, they can be understood on many levels. But this last characteristic does not impede them from being firstly parables for the people.

Workman and Cart
Here, the miracle that is related seems to be an authentic historic fact and also has the significance of a parable. The miracle described is easy to understand. It is related to the building of a church, a public work made in common. Instead of collecting taxes from the people, the authorities of that time used to ask them to help to build public works. So it was the custom for persons to come together for a work like this.

You can imagine the Swiss people of that time working together to build a church and using oxen to transport materials from the forest to the clearing. The oxen would drag heavy logs of huge pine trees from the virgin forests to the site where the church was being erected. Those forests were also teeming with wild, ferocious animals. Among them, bears.

It is not difficult to imagine the beautiful scene at the foot of a mountain full of pine trees with snow still clinging to their branches. Some of the pine trees had already been cut down, and were being readied to take to the site where the church was already beginning to rise. Peasants were driving oxen bearing tree trunks up the mountain to that site. The Saint was directing the work, which was conducted in an ambience of recollection and piety, with the purity and uprightness of the Swiss nature. Breaking the silence was the voice of the Saint giving directives, the grunting of the oxen, and muffled words of the peasants in their rough hide coverings talking here and there.

 Medieval bear
From this calm, the mood suddenly changed to terror. A huge bear emerged from the forest, like a devil. It threw itself on an ox. You can see that the peasants did not put up any resistance. The text does not speak of any reaction. They were paralyzed. That is, the entrance of the bear and the killing of the ox caused a terrible fear. Most probably the peasants who were there gave thanks to God that the bear had only attacked an ox, and not a man. Probably they were ready to flee, but instead they turned to the Saint, through whom the voice of Providence spoke for this people, with the thought that he could remedy the situation.

At this point in the narrative, one might expect the story to come to the classic ending. The Saint would give a blessing to the bear, and the bear would return meekly to the forest. The Saint would put his hand over the ox, and the ox would be revived and return to work. This would be the classic style, but this was not what happened.

We are in the early Middle Ages, a time that Our Lady adorned with the charisma of the fight. The problem is not resolved by a blessing, but by an imperious order:
“You, o bear, agent of the devil, adverse factor of a nature that became hostile to man after original sin, by an order of God and of this servant of God, you must serve. Come here.”
And the bear docilely obeyed. He approached, and bent his head to receive the yoke of the ox on his neck.
“And now, you will be harnessed, and you will work.”
You can well imagine the astonishment of those peasants when they saw the bear obeying these orders docilely. Certainly those peasants at times had felt interior revolts against the directives of the Saint. So, when they saw the docility of the bear, they could have imagined that the Saint might know of those revolts and send the bear against them. They probably took some care to keep their distance and not work too close to it. Thus, while they accepted the bear's collaboration in the work, they still had not dropped their strong suspicions against it.

When the work was finished, would the bear return to its normal ferocity? Some of the men had their fears that it might, and thought that it would be better to kill it. Perhaps one was seeking his own benefit and wanted to sell the skin, another wanted the meat, even though it would probably be tough. They wanted to kill the bear.

The Saint displayed an extraordinary delicacy. Even if the bear was an animal without rights, it had collaborated in the building of the church. For this reason, it became an object of the goodness of the Saint. The Saint, then, protected the bear and sent it back alive to the forest.

The church was finished and dedicated to the great St. Stephen, the first martyr, a perfect ending to the story.

This episode serves to transport us to those innocent beginnings of the Middle Ages when such a special presence of the supernatural existed among the simple people.


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Dr. Plinio
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The Saint of the Day features highlights from the lives of saints based on comments made by the late Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. Following the example of St. John Bosco who used to make similar talks for the boys of his College, each evening it was Prof. Plinio’s custom to make a short commentary on the lives of the next day’s saint in a meeting for youth in order to encourage them in the practice of virtue and love for the Catholic Church. TIA thought that its readers could profit from these valuable commentaries.

The texts of both the biographical data and the comments come from personal notes taken by Atila S. Guimarães from 1964 to 1995. Given the fact that the source is a personal notebook, it is possible that at times the biographic notes transcribed here will not rigorously follow the original text read by Prof. Plinio. The commentaries have also been adapted and translated for TIA’s site.

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