I have just returned from one of the greatest experiences, adventures, and blessings of my life. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The Itinerary in the Holy Land
Our group of twenty-nine pilgrims spent four nights in Jerusalem, one night at the Dead Sea, two nights at the Sea of Galilee, and the final night in Tel Aviv. Logistics, not the chronology of Christ’s life, dictated our itinerary. We were guided by a knowledgeable and charming Israeli Jew and driven by a superbly adept Israeli Muslim. Space in this column only allows for mention of the Christian sites, and not the Jewish and Roman sites, we experienced.
In and around Jerusalem, we went to the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Pater Noster (where Christ taught the Our Father), the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations there, the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu (the site of the house of the High Priest Caiaphas where Peter denied Christ and where Christ spent the night in confinement before His trial), the Church of the Dormition (which has a better claim than Ephesus as the site where Saint Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven), the building which houses the Upper Room, and the Church of Saint Anne (where the Blessed Mother was born).
While still based at our Jerusalem hotel, we made one trip to Ein Karen, the location of the Church of Saint John the Baptist (the site where he was born), the Church of the Visitation, and the well where Saint Elizabeth and the Blessed Mother met. Another trip was to Bethlehem, where we visited Shepherds Field with its Chapel of the Angels, the Church of the Nativity underneath which is the Grotto of the Nativity where Christ was born, and the Church of Saint Catherine.
As we traveled from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, we stopped in Bethany to visit Lazarus’ tomb and the Church of Martha and Mary and then in Jericho, from where we saw the nearby Mount of Temptation.
In Galilee (northern Israel), to be brief, we visited the church built over Saint Peter’s house in Capernaum, the Church of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, the Wedding Church at Cana, the Church of the Annunciation and the Church of Saint Joseph in Nazareth, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and the Stella Maris Monastery on Mount Carmel.
The Greatest Highlight
Without a doubt, the greatest highlight of the pilgrimage was attending Mass at the site of the Crucifixion. Although I have to think that it would have been the greatest highlight anyway, the previous day’s experience guaranteed that it would be so.
To get there, our group walked along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. Via Dolorosa is Latin for the “Sorrowful Way.” Our pilgrimage took place during the height of the pilgrimage season, due to the good weather with highs in the 70s and 80s and perfectly blue skies. On top of that, the Via Dolorosa winds through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City with nothing but shop next to the shop on both sides of a street about fifteen feet wide (with no sidewalks). With the business activity and the throng of people going to and from the Holy Sepulcher, it was challenging to make our saying the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa a spiritual experience. (The Old City is currently defined by the walls built by the Ottomans in the 1500s.)
The site of the Crucifixion is in the same church as the site of the Resurrection – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Although a sepulcher is a tomb or burial chamber, especially one cut out of rock or built of stone, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher houses the two sites, which are only about fifty yards apart from each other. As massive as the church is, it was very crowded.
The place looks nothing like it did two thousand years ago since it is all inside a church. The top of the hill on which Christ was crucified, the Place of the Skull (Calvary, from the Latin, and Golgotha, from the Hebrew by way of the Greek), is now reached by climbing a steep staircase, wide enough for three people at most (after walking uphill on the Via Dolorosa). At the top of the staircase, the area is divided into two adjoining chapels, the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross and the Chapel of the Raising of the Cross. In order to enter the Chapel of the Raising of the Cross, the crowd which had been shoulder to shoulder in the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross then had to get in a single file. Very disappointing was the number of pilgrims, small but making their presence felt, who rudely barged in front of others here and throughout our pilgrimage. It took about two hours to get up the staircase, through the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross, and to the spot where the Cross was (the “Rock of Calvary”) in the Chapel of the Raising of the Cross.
The tomb of Christ is in the Aedicula (from the Latin for “shrine”), a small chapel with one room which holds a fragment of the large stone that sealed Our Lord’s Tomb and a second room which is the Tomb itself. In order to go down the steps to these rooms, a single file was again needed, a process that took about three hours. At both the Rock of Calvary and the Tomb, pilgrims are given about ten seconds to stay.
Fortunately, our guide informed us that there would be a 6:30 Mass the next morning in the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross. So a half dozen of us got up earlier than we needed to and walked about twenty minutes from our hotel to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As in the U.S., there is much less traffic in Jerusalem at 6:00 in the morning than there is later. It was much easier to imagine ourselves in Jesus’ time while walking through the Old City without the hustle and bustle of everyday Jerusalem life. We once again walked the Via Dolorosa, this time with the businesses closed behind their metal screens and virtually no one else on it, which was more prayerful even though we chatted as we hastened to be on time for Mass.
With the Church of the Holy Sepulcher almost empty, we easily climbed the staircase to the Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross. There we went to Mass. (The Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross is under Catholic auspices, while the Chapel of the Raising of the Cross is under Greek Orthodox auspices.) The Ordinary Form of the Mass (the “Novus Ordo”) was said, but it was said in Latin with the priest saying the Eucharist Prayer ad orientem, that is, with his back to the congregation and facing the only altar, which was against the wall. The Mass was actually sung more than said by the dozen Franciscans joining their fellow Franciscan who presided.
Especially powerful was the Consecration, as the priest raised the Host a few yards from where Christ was crucified. That the Mass is a Holy Sacrifice was never clearer.
The next biggest highlight for me was making this pilgrimage with two of my sisters, women of great faith. Other highlights include:
- Having Mass at the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, in a cave (not THE cave) in Shepherds Field, on the boat as we sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and in the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
- Walking into the Sea of Galilee at Tabgha, where the Apostles came ashore after a night of fishing to find the Risen Christ preparing breakfast for them.
- Group members taking turns reading aloud appropriate passages from the Bible at many stops, together praying aloud the Hail Mary in the Church of Saint Anne, singing together “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above” at the Church of the Annunciation following the impromptu lead of one member of our group with a great voice, praying together decades of the Rosary on the bus, silently reading the Bible on my own, saying my own prayers at our stops.
- Renewing Baptismal vows at the Jordan River and commemorating marriage vows at Cana. Spouses who have together renewed their vows, surviving spouses prayer for their deceased spouses, and spouses who made the pilgrimage alone rededicated themselves to spouses who were back home.
- Being asked to read the First Reading at Mass in the Shepherds Field cave, hearing one sister read Luke 1:39-56 at the well where Elizabeth and Mary met, and hearing my other sister read Acts 2:1-11 outside the Upper Room.
- Being part of the great group of people who made the pilgrimage, thanks to the initiative of Joe, a man of deep faith, who began by reaching out to members of his own parish and then seeking interest outside of it. We got along great with each other, helped each other when help was needed and laughed about as much as we prayed. Several of us made it a tradition to end a day of religious intensity, much walking, and sometimes rigorous physical activity with a glass of wine or two at the hotel bar after dinner.
- The panoramic view of Galilee from Mount Carmel that revealed the magnificent beauty of the Holy Land.
There were two things that especially struck me during the pilgrimage – not new realizations, but deeper realizations.
First, Catholicism is a historical religion, which is to say that it is based on fact and not on mythology, emotions, or wishes. Jesus Christ really was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead. All the important people of the Bible were real people: from the Blessed Mother, the Twelve Apostles, Saint Paul, and Saint Mary Magdalene going back to the prophets, King David, Moses, and Abraham. One result is that I trust tradition about the authenticity of the locations we visited far more than I trust skeptical, rationalist scholars. People of Faith have always wanted to know the truth about the places in Christ’s life; they have always wanted to go where Christ really was. Rationalist scholars want the Faith to be false and have a vested interest in trying to disprove the authenticity of these places.
Second, at a time of strong Political Correctness when diversity is almost worshipped while the Catholic Church is often attacked, there is no institution past or present that is more diverse than the Catholic Church. I crossed paths with Bulgarians, Koreans, Indians (from Asia), Poles, Filipinos, French people, and many others whose nationalities I did not ask. There is no institution that has done and continues to do more to unify humanity (and for the right reasons) than the Catholic Church.
The day after I returned home, I began my morning as I usually have done since I stopped teaching high school Theology. I went to 8:00 Mass with my wife. Thanks to Our Lord’s great gift of the Eucharist, He was just as present at Mass in St. Ann’s Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, as He was at Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I can be in the presence of Christ whenever I am at Mass or before the Blessed Sacrament. So can we all. Tantum ergo sacramentum veneremur cernui. (So great a sacrament, therefore, let us revere while kneeling.)
I have walked where Christ walked. I can walk with Him anywhere by growing in faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, with the help of His grace. So can we all. Deo gratias! (Thanks be to God!)