If you are reading this article on Thursday morning, November 8, know that I have just arrived at LAX after a 15-hour flight from Tel Aviv, Israel. I led 36 people on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
This is my tenth visit there. Walking on the land where Jesus once lived, I am always deeply moved.
I have been leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land since 1995. It all began when I made a silent 30-day retreat there in 1993.
It was a profound religious experience for me. It really made the life of Jesus come alive.
One of my resolutions from that retreat was to lead my parishioners on a pilgrimage, so that they could have a similar experience. I usually lead these pilgrimages once every two years.
A pilgrimage is not a tour. It is a spiritual journey.
The purpose of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to enter into the life of Jesus by walking in his footsteps and reliving his life and ministry. We pray, we read the Bible and we meditate in silence on events of the life of Jesus where they took place.
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land have been a tradition for Christians since as early as the Fourth Century.
In 326 Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, went there in search of the cross from which Jesus was crucified. Constantine had a church built on the location of Calvary and the tomb where Jesus was buried.
Pilgrimages have been taking place there ever since.
“Pilgrims have come in great numbers since then, thousands on foot across Europe and the Middle East, thousands in the holds of ships on the Mediterranean. They have realized their dreams of kissing the ground where Jesus walked, of sitting the hillside where he preached the Beatitudes, of weeping with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, of singing carols at the cave in Bethlehem, of renewing baptismal vows in the Jordan where John baptized Jesus.” (McCormick, Jesus and the Holy Land, p. 15)
Because we pilgrims are following where Jesus went, we visit various sites in Judea, Samaria and Galilee. In modern-day geography, we are in Israel proper and in areas of the West Bank, some of it under Israeli control, some of it under control of the Palestinian Authority. While there we base ourselves in two cities: Jerusalem and Tiberias, both in Israel proper.
While staying in Tiberias we visit the sites of Biblical Galilee, which include Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi and various spots along the Sea of Galilee. On the way to Jerusalem we visit Jericho and Sychar, the location of Jacob’s well. While staying in Jerusalem we visit Bethlehem, the home town of John the Baptist, Bethany, Bethphage and various sites in Jerusalem itself. While at those various sites we reflect on the appropriate Bible passage.
Although other Christian denominations may have different ways of praying at the various sites, as Catholics we celebrate Mass.
When we are in Nazareth it would be that of the Annunciation, for in Nazareth the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she was to be the mother of the messiah. When we are in Bethlehem, it is the Mass of Christmas with all the appropriate hymns and Bible readings. My favorite Mass is that of Easter where it is celebrated in the tomb from which Jesus was raised from the dead. On each day of the 10-day pilgrimage I celebrate Mass in a different site. Each site has different hymns and readings appropriate to the place.
The late Bargil Pixner, a Benedictine monk who lived in the Holy Land, once wrote a book entitled The Fifth Gospel. We know the four gospels about the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He considers the fifth gospel the land. The land itself too tells us so much about the life and person of Jesus. Those who take part in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land are transformed. They often comment on how they see the Scriptures in a new light. I can never go the Holy Land too many times. I look forward to my 11th visit there.
Monsignor David Sork is Pastor of St. John Fisher Catholic Church, Rancho Palos Verdes. Masses are on Saturday evening at 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 7:30, 9:00, and 10:45 a.m. and 12:30 and 5:00 p.m. He was educated at St. John’s College, Camarillo, CA (B.A. and M.A.), and Fordham University, New York (M.A. and Ph.D.) He lives on the church grounds at Crenshaw Blvd. and Crest Rd. and can be reached by email at: email@example.com.