Thirty pilgrims led physically by Joe McNally and spiritually by Bishop Ralph and Fr Gus O’Reilly came together in shared purpose in November to visit the Holy Land. Some of our group were seasoned pilgrims but for others, like myself, the Holy Land was an undiscovered jewel. ‘Taxing but fulfilling’ summarised our pilgrimage ~ Claire Brady kept the following diary.
The first two days were spent in Galilee. We travelled no great distances but covered an extraordinary amount of ground. Besan, our guide, was a Palestinian Christian and not only did he show how knowledgeable he was, but also had an unerring ability to shepherd his little flock of pilgrims keeping them on track.
Our first stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes after a brief journey around the edge of a very hazy Sea of Galilee, with the Golan Heights barely visible in the distance. A beautiful garden surrounded the church and awe and wonder was in abundance as we each imagined Jesus standing here delivering the most famous sermon in the world. A reading, a meditation and prayers were said here as in all the churches and sacred places we would visit during the week.
Our next stop was the excavated ruin of Capernaum; not only an archaeological gem providing an insight into the lives of the people 2000 years ago, but also a symbol of the tolerance of the early Christians and their Jewish neighbours with a church and a synagogue existing for hundreds of years together on the same site. The modern church sat like a ship in sail above the place of Peter’s house.
Next we travelled to the Primacy of St Peter, a tiny church built around the gigantic rock where St Peter had first received his calling to be the rock upon which the Church would be built. We celebrated Mass in the open air with the Sea of Galilee in the background.
Onwards then to Tabgha and the Church of the Multiplication where beautiful mosaics celebrated the loaves and fishes that fed so many. Our lunch of “St Peter’s fish” was a fitting repast after our busy morning.
A lazy afternoon was spent on a boat on the Sea of Galilee viewing a landscape that had changed so little since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When the engines of the boat were switched off and the only sounds we heard were the lapping of the waves and the screech of seagulls overhead, we prayed. We prayed and then we sang “How great thou art.” As we returned to the shore our joy was funnelled into an Israeli dance. We all agreed that if every day was to be as amazing as this, the first, then we would be very blessed pilgrims indeed.
The second day began with a beautiful prayer service in the little Church in Cana, site of the first miracle. Here the married couples among us renewed their marriage vows. Excavations beneath the church showed a giant stone water jar of the type that would have held the water which Jesus had turned into wine.
From Cana it was a short hop to Nazareth, a busy metropolis that bore no resemblance at all to the Nazareth in our imaginations. Following Mass in the Church of St Joseph we descended to the stunning Basilica of the Annunciation which, with its variety of stunning art work, was a testament to the Universal Church. It was decorated both inside and out with icons of Mary that had been given by countries all over the world. Each icon reflected the culture of each country. The excavated remains of Mary’s home and St Joseph’s workshop were in evidence beneath the church.
A short walk brought us to the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel with its beautiful, gilded iconostasis. This tiny church was built upon the site of the spring that would have provided water for the village. We descended into the crypt to see Mary’s Well which was thought to be the site of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and so was venerated as the site of the Annunciation.
We travelled on to Mount Tabor. Leaving the bus on the main road, we took a white knuckle ride in minibuses up the side of the mountain to the Basilica of the Transfiguration. There were three altars here; Jesus, Moses and Elijah. A panoramic view from the church was made even more moving by the low afternoon sunlight peeping through the clouds.
We then began the long journey onwards to Bethlehem for the second half of our pilgrimage.
Bethlehem is a town of many contrasts, entering Palestine from Israel being chief among these. The “Wall” from the Israeli side is a very clean, stark edifice that screams security. On the Bethlehem side it is a protest and a work of art. The “Walled Off” hotel is the first structure to be seen and certainly shows people with a sense of humour.
We left Bethlehem for Jerusalem early the next morning. Although we were accompanied by rain our spirits were in no way dampened. Descending the slopes of the Mount of Olives from the Church of the Pater Noster, where Jesus gave us the Our Father, and the Church of Dominus Flevit, we were astounded by the unadorned tombs stretching for many miles in the Kidron Valley and the view of the golden dome of the mosque built on Temple Mount.
We entered the garden of Gethsemane and marvelled at the age of the olive trees, some of which had clearly been there hundreds of years. In the church, the rock on which Jesus had wept that night so long ago was the focal point for the devotions of the pilgrims. Many of us were very moved by our visit to this church and took the opportunity of Confession in this place of forgiveness.
We continued across the valley and up towards the walled city of Jerusalem. Entering via the Lions Gate we came to the Church of St Anne, the mother of Mary, where we celebrated Mass. The acoustics of this church were so amazing that our 30 voices multiplied to sound like 300! Nearby the ancient ruins of the pools of Bethesda were clearly to be seen. The Romans had built on this site and in so doing had preserved the pools for later excavation.
We ate lunch in Ecce Homo, the historic pilgrim house in the centre of Jerusalem run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion. From here we then walked the Via Dolorosa and simple numbered brass plaques indicated the Stations of the Cross which led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The sights, sounds and smells of old Jerusalem proved to be very distracting on our way.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a strange place of churches within churches. A rather neglected looking place as the various Christian religions seem to be unable to take joint responsibility for the upkeep. Nevertheless what was lacking in looks was made up for in spiritual impact. We queued to enter the place where the tomb was and individually paid our prayerful respects.
Our fourth day was certainly the most scenic as we travelled over the hills and the desert to Bethany, Jericho, the River Jordan and finally the Dead Sea. We began in Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, where we celebrated Mass in the Church of St Lazarus.
We then travelled through the desert, home to the Bedouin, to a lookout point at Wadi Qelt where we looked down on St George’s Monastery nestled in the desert hills below us. The landscape seemed truly barren and alien to us and we marvelled that anyone could survive there. Our thoughts as ever turned to Jesus. He spent 40 days and nights here.
We returned to civilisation and the fertile plains of the Jordan valley where crops of all types were being cultivated. Jericho was our next stop as we climbed a short way up the hill to view the Mount of Temptation. The opportunity to have a picture taken with a camel or dressed as a Bedouin was not ignored.
From Jericho we travelled to the baptismal site of Jesus on the River Jordan. The river forms the border between Israel and Jordan and there were churches and steps into the river for Baptism on both banks. Many of us had the waters of the Jordan sprinkled on us but we did not opt for the full immersion that some Christians were choosing that day.
And so to the Dead Sea. At 420m below sea level this was indeed a wonder. No bravery was needed to take a dip in the warm salty waters and to float lazily on the surface. Renowned for its healing waters, everyone did indeed feel invigorated following their dip.
We returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and with no queue at all climbed to the rock of Golgotha. This was for me the most moving experience as I touched the rock upon which Jesus had been crucified. We had Mass in the Catholic Chapel of the Apparition. Metalwork sculptures of the Stations of the Cross along one wall were particularly admired. Besan, our guide, pointed out many other interesting aspects within the Basilica.
On our way to visit the Shepherds’ Field, we visited St Martha’s House, a day centre for poor, elderly Palestinians in Bethlehem which is supported by the Hallam Bethlehem Fund.
Shepherds’ Field is the site of natural caves which would have been used by shepherds in the past and so was thought to be the site where the angels appeared to the shepherds. The largest of these caves held a small chapel and above the cave was the Chapel of the Angels. As we entered another group of pilgrims was singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” and we joined our voices with theirs to lift the roof. Such fellowship with other Christian pilgrims was a hallmark of our visit.
We journeyed on to Ein Karem, first to the Church of St John the Baptist and then upwards to the Church of the Visitation which was a church upon a church. Dusk was falling as we made our weary way back down the hill.
We returned to Jerusalem for a third time and began our day with Mass at the Latin Patriarchate, the home of the bishop of Israel and Palestine.
We then visited the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu (Cock Crow) which is built over the home of Caiaphas and thought to be the place where Jesus was brought following his arrest. The dungeon beneath this church brought home to many the sadness that Our Lord would have spent his last lonely hours here. It was here that St Peter denied him three times. We marvelled at the Jesus steps, stone steps more than 2000 years old.
On Mount Zion we visited two churches. The Church of the Dormition, believed to be the site where Mary “fell asleep” and the Franciscan Chapel of the Cenacle, thought to be the site of the Upper Room where the Last Supper was first held and then the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Our last port of call this day was back in Bethlehem as we visited the Basilica of the Nativity. The church is undergoing much restoration work and so scaffolding prevented us seeing the beauty of this church, nevertheless we queued to visit the cave beneath the church marking the birthplace of Jesus. As we walked back to the hotel it was dark and the Christmas decorations that had been arriving throughout the week in Bethlehem were twinkling around us. In the lobby of the hotel mummy bear and baby bear were sparkling white beneath the Christmas tree – polar bears in Bethlehem?
On our last day, before we flew back home to Britain, we joined the congregation of the Church of the Annunciation in Beit Jala for Sunday Mass. Here was true fellowship as we joined together in English and Arabic to celebrate together. Even hymns where we knew the tunes were sung in both languages. A fitting end to our pilgrimage.
Each and every pilgrim had been touched in one way or another by our visit. We had prayed for many intentions throughout the week, we had helped each other, we had made friends and we were returning as different people. Among some of the words used to describe our shared experiences were; love, friendship, blessings, revelation, welcome, meaning, delight, fellowship, perspective, appreciation, determination, exhaustion, presence, troubles, forgiveness, healing and enrichment as we walked together in the footsteps of Jesus. At the end of the journey we parted in love and friendship.