Holy Land pilgrimage: Walking on holy ground Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Joan Carey, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
holy land mass
Msgr. Kevin Holmes, rector of the Cathedral Parish in Madison, celebrates Mass at the Crucifixion Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; pilgrims venerate the rock of the crucifixion beneath the hanging oil lamps. (Joan Carey photo)

Editor’s note: Three members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre from the Diocese of Madison went on a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They included Joan Carey, a member of St. Mary Parish in Pine Bluff; Msgr. Kevin Holmes, rector of the Cathedral Parish in Madison; and Fr. Scott Jablonski, pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in Lodi and Dane.

Come, let us go to the house of the Lord!

And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!

With these words, David the psalmist beckons each of us to worship as pilgrims in the land made holy by the presence of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Walking on holy ground

A trio from the Diocese of Madison departed on Ash Wednesday for the Holy Land with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The order’s mission is to care for the holy sites and the Christians of the Holy Land, the “living stones” whose ancestors were the Gentiles spoken of in Holy Scripture, those who first believed in Jesus and who have survived centuries of persecution and unrest, raising their families in the homeland of Our Savior.

We only saw the tip of a vast spiritual, historical, and cultural iceberg in the two short weeks we were there, but it made a profound impact on our hearts. Fr. Scott Jablonski, pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in Lodi and Dane, described it as “the greatest experience of my life, hands down.”

We marveled at the caves and fields where Jesus was born. We walked where He walked and prayed where He prayed. We crossed into Jordan and saw the Promised Land as Moses and Elijah saw it.

We pondered silently on the slopes of the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. We grieved over the stony hills where Christ suffered and died.

Standing in solidarity with the living stones

But equally significant, we met and spent time with the Christian Palestinians.

We met the Palestinian Christian Bethlehem University staffer who stood pregnant at a Separation Wall checkpoint with an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at her womb because she hesitated to expose her unborn baby to the xray security scan.

We spent two weeks with our Palestinian Christian guide, Rami Salfiti, whose father was evicted from his Jerusalem home during the Arab-Israeli war and who returned afterwards to find the locks changed and a Jewish family living there instead.

We trembled in Nazareth looking wildly at the sky as Israeli F-16’s thundered overhead en route to Syria to bomb an Iranian base in retaliation for a drone flyover.

We saw huge piles of garbage in the streets of the West Bank: ignored by the Israelis because the ground is under Palestinian jurisdiction but forbidden to the Palestinians because they are not allowed to drive garbage trucks so near the Separation Wall.

We saw hotels with closed sunroofs, because if you try to go on the roof near the Separation Wall, armed soldiers surround you at gunpoint. We met Palestinian university students whose buses are regularly stopped and checked by Israeli soldiers.

We drove miles and indeed hours out of our way around the Separation Wall to get to places like Bethlehem — what should have been a 10-minute trip.

We met Palestinian West Bank nurses who are not allowed to work night shifts because of the checkpoint curfews.

The rector of the Beit Jala seminary in the West Bank told us, “We live here in a big prison, without dignity or liberty.”

Legendary hospitality

But we also enjoyed meals hosted and served by Carmelite nuns, Patriarchate seminarians, Bethlehem University students, and even Palestinian bishops. Franciscan monks poured out hot Arabian coffee for us to drink.

We shared the excitement and joy of Jerusalem Patriarchate seminarians at Beit Jala. We met the holy men and women serving the poor at Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem and the Home for the Elderly at Abu Dis.

We ate shakshuka, baklava, fresh dates, hummus, ripe bananas, falafel, and lamb shawarma; we drank Judean wine and fresh pomegranate juice from the hills around Cana.

Women who spoke only Arabic put their hands on their hearts and then on ours; later, I learned the translation of what they were saying through their smiles when our eyes met and we laughed helplessly at our inability to communicate: “You and I speak the language of the heart.”

Praying where Jesus prayed

We celebrated Mass in Arabic at Cana with Arab Christians whose families had been in the Holy Land for 2,000 years and in French at Abu Ghosh with the Benedictines whose mission is to heal the wounds of conflict torn open from the earliest days of Christianity, where the monks say the “stones themselves cry out and sing that which the entire earth is waiting for.”

The six priests accompanying our pilgrimage offered Mass at the site of the Nativity, on the Mount of Beatitudes, in the Garden of Gethsemane, next to Jesus’ tomb at Golgotha, and in the Upper Room where Jesus shared His Last Supper.

We prayed the Rosary daily, and over the course of the two weeks, every decade was prayed at the place it occurred (with the obvious exception of the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth, which we prayed at Dormition Abbey).

We offered prayer intentions for our loved ones at the Wailing Wall; on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus cooked fish for His disciples; at Bethesda, where Jesus healed the cripple; on the Mount, where Jesus taught us the “Our Father”; and at the home of Peter in Capernaum, where in one of the greatest acts of friendship ever recorded, a group of men lowered their paralytic friend down to the waiting gaze of Jesus.

History confirms faith

The Latin word “hic” took on special meaning for us. Instead of inscriptions reading simply, “verbum caro factum est,” they read “verbum caro HIC factum est”: The Word was made flesh HERE, in this place.

Msgr. Kevin Holmes, rector of the Cathedral Parish in Madison, was particularly gratified by the historical veracity of so many of the holy sites. “Before the pilgrimage,” he said, “I would see pictures of particular places in the Holy Land and regard them with a certain skepticism. Do we really know this is the very spot where a great event in salvation history took place?

“I learned on the pilgrimage that the modern churches we see today are built on the ruins of churches built by the Crusaders almost a thousand years ago, which had subsequently been destroyed by the Moslems. The Crusader churches had in turn been built on the foundations of Byzantine churches, which had been built from the fourth century when St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went to the Holy Land.

“St. Helena built those first churches on the sites she was shown by local Christians, which they and their ancestors had venerated down through the generations as the very places where particular events took place. So, many of the most important sites really are very well attested.”

Indeed, Rami Salfiti, our guide, was an academic historian who emphasized the importance of seeing and touching the tangible reality of the Christian faith. Again and again, Rami proved how archaeology, history, geography, and science continually connect the site back to the Gospel text.

Father Jablonski noted that he spent last summer reading Pope Benedict and his emphasis on the use of human reason to lead to God. The historicity of the gaith partnered with human reason makes it impossible to deny that these events actually took place.

Pilgrims are evangelists

The trip was the first time to the Holy Land for all three Madison pilgrims. Father Jablonski noted that “words seem so inadequate to capture how profound the entire experience was for me. Even photos fail to convey the beauty, wonder, and awe that I felt in seeing and visiting the very places where the Lord was born, walked, called His first disciples, worked His miracles, taught, suffered, died, rose again, ascended, etc. — and all because He loved us! I am grateful to God for the profound privilege of visiting the Holy Land, and I hope that I get to visit again someday soon.”

As we departed, Pilgrim Master Fr. James McIlhone, director for biblical formation for the Archdiocese of Chicago, reminded us at that our memories and experiences are not only for us: they are to be shared. Pilgrims to the Holy Land must become evangelists who tell the true story of the Holy Land and its living stones, its people.

We must let people know that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a life-changing experience: to meet the Lord on holy ground and to lift the hearts of the Christians who remain, not only by honoring them with our presence but also by investing in their livelihood.

Every Christian we spoke with begged us not to forget them: to tell their stories to the world. We can only do that if we go. And then we can say to them, as Pope Benedict said when he visited the Holy Land, “We are with you! Today we are with you in person, but we spiritually accompany you each and every day in our thoughts and prayers, asking the Almighty to watch over you with His tender care.”

Good Friday collection

Many of the sacred places in the Holy Land are under the custody of the Franciscans, who are charged with the preservation and upkeep of the sites. They do a truly remarkable job.

The Franciscans rely solely on contributions from the Church through the generosity of Christians like us. One very important source of these funds is the collection taken up in our parishes during the Good Friday service.

Please keep in mind the importance of maintaining these sites as well as the significance of keeping a visible Christian presence in the Holy Land. Be generous in your contribution.

If you are unable to attend the Friday service, then place your donation, in a marked envelope, into the collection basket during Sunday Mass.

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