What should a busy parish priest say when he is asked to serve as chaplain on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? Once he has ensured another priest can cover his Masses at the parish, there can only be one response: When do we leave?
In October 2018, I was chaplain for the Holy Land pilgrimage of the Ladies of Charity of the Archdiocese of New York. The Ladies of Charity were founded by St Vincent de Paul to serve the needs of the poor and the sick, and the New York group has been engaged in this important mission for 118 years. The pilgrimage was organised as a moment of spiritual renewal and inspiration.
Our group of 23 pilgrims included a number of my parishioners and a couple I met through serving as a chaplain of the American Association of the Order of Malta. It was a nicely sized flock for this very happy shepherd travelling to the Holy Land for the first time.
I have been to Lourdes more than a dozen times as a Malta chaplain. The annual May pilgrimage, in which the knights and dames invite sick people – the malades – as their guests to visit the spot where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette in 1858, is always a spiritual boost. I have also travelled on pilgrimage to Fatima three times. I was thus prepared, I thought, for the experience when I first set foot on the land where Our Divine Saviour himself had walked. I soon discovered that nothing prepares one for the experience of being in the place where God Incarnate had chosen to come some 2,000 years ago.
The Faith teaches us that life itself is a pilgrimage towards Heaven. We are on this planet at God’s own decision. He is our creator and redeemer. Yet he created us to be here on Earth for only a short span of years, during which time we are to live in union with him by faith, hope and charity so as to be found worthy to be with him forever in Eternal Life.
We are travelling through this short life towards the real life that never ends, when, God willing, we shall see Him face to face, enjoying the Beatific Vision forever.
A pilgrimage to the place where Our Lord revealed to us the truths we need to know in order to be saved; where he founded the Church to teach us those truths; where he gave the first shepherds of that Church the sacraments to convey his very life to us: such a pilgrimage is a moment to step back from our ordinary lives and focus on the eternal life we so ardently desire.
The highlight of our pilgrimage, without doubt, was the celebration of Holy Mass at the site of Christ’s crucifixion and the visit to the site of the Resurrection, the tomb of Christ. It is very moving for a priest to be standing at the altar in the very place where Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our salvation. To renew this holy sacrifice in the celebration of the Mass is a privilege every day of my life, but never more so than on that early Sunday morning, the last day of our pilgrimage.
Our pilgrimage took us to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi, Mount Tabor, the River Jordan and the various holy sites in Jerusalem. In each place the words of the Gospels that describe those places came alive.
A pilgrimage is a break from our ordinary lives and thus a chance to relax in the Lord, a small foretaste of Heaven. Together, we prayed the rosary and had lots of time to talk. Our guide gave excellent talks about the places that we would visit and the general history of the Holy Land. We were fortunate with a friendly group of pilgrims who looked after each other. Enjoying Christian fellowship is a blessing of any pilgrimage.
I was struck by how a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is not simply coming into contact with what happened over two thousand years ago, but also with all the subsequent history of the land of Israel. The buildings we visited are silent witnesses to the Faith and to the travails of those who were here before us.
Our prayers on pilgrimage also included the intention of a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is clear that both populations depend upon each other and need to arrive at a political settlement of their claims.
I was particularly moved to visit Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, my mother and father took me to a clothing factory to buy suits for my father. Many of the men working there had numbers tattooed on their arms. My mother explained to me that they had been in Nazi concentration camps and had come here after the War. I was a history major in college and over the years have read a lot about the monumental evil perpetrated by the Nazis. It is horrifying to ponder that otherwise well-educated and culturally sophisticated Germans were so cruel and murderously violent towards Jews. This evil must not ever be forgotten. All pilgrims to the Holy Land should go to see the displays at Yad Vashem.
My experience in the Holy Land produced much gratitude in my soul. I was so moved to preach on the Transfiguration in the church that marks the spot where this great epiphany of Christ’s divinity took place. There is something in our human nature that wants to have direct physical contact with the places that great events happened. I wanted to touch the ground upon which Christ trod. I was blessed to be able to do so.
The Faith teaches us that we live on this planet in statu viatoris, in the state of a traveller. We have no lasting city here below. But we do have a land that was made holy by the personal presence of the Incarnate Son of God. Our pilgrim journey through life to be with him in eternity is made ever more delightful by journeying to the land where he himself came to walk among and show us the Way.
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