Posts Tagged ‘Holy Land’


Friday, January 11th, 2013

This common farewell saying among our Jewish sisters and brothers came true this past December 30th for our thirty seminarians, three priests and myself as we made a wonderful pilgrimage to the land of Jesus’ birth. With absolutely idyllic weather for five of our seven days in Israel (cloudless blue skies and daytime averages in the mid-70’s,) we visited all the holy places, prayed at them, took one day at the end for a silent day of recollection, recalling all that we had seen and experienced, and then set our eyes on home. For myself, I believe it was my seventh trip to the Holy Land and in all likelihood will be my last. Many of you will recall that I led a semi-pilgrimage using a cruise ship for our conveyance in the Fall of 2011. It was then that I thought, if at all possible, I would love to bring those who are preparing for the priesthood to experience for themselves the incredible sense of the presence of Christ in the midst of modern day Israel.

We stayed at only two places, the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem (nothing to do with the US university of the same name) and the Hospice of the Franciscan Sisters on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee in the northern part of the country. Both places had chapels where we prayed morning and evening prayer together, but daily Mass was celebrated in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, the Church of the Primacy of Peter along the Sea of Galilee and the Church of St. Peter in Capernaum. Additional time was made available for lengthy private prayer in the Church of the Dormition of Mary on Mt. Zion (Jerusalem), the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel above Haifa. Additionally, every evening during Vespers or “Evening Prayer” I gave the seminarians about a twenty minute reflection which I had worked hard on prior to departure.

As many people say when they have finished a visit to the land of Jesus’ birth, they can not listen to the Gospels, indeed the whole of Scripture, in the same way again. To understand spatially what it meant to walk from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemani, to appreciate the topography for the trip down from Nazareth to Cana or even better, the three trips from Galilee to Jerusalem for the major feasts adds so much more to one’s understanding of the Incarnation and Christ among us in history two thousand plus years ago. We had a superb guide in Hani, an Arab-Christian and former principal of the Christian Brothers High School in the Old City and he, better than I ever could, made the scriptures come alive and he often connected the dots of words and places. We also had, and perhaps even more importantly, a great bus driver who kept us alive along challenging roads.

The two priests whom I ordained last May, Fathers Tim Corcoran and Victor Amorose came along. It did not seem fair to announce while they were in the seminary that I was inviting all the seminarians to come to the Holy Land at Christmas/New Years 2012/13 and leave them at home because they were “unlucky” enough to be ordained just prior to the trip. Along with our Vocation Director, Father Carl Melchior, the four of us were able to lead the community in prayer and provide for them sacramentally. It would be hard to precisely define the major moment for my traveling band of seminarians as each would likely have their own favorite spot. But we left the region of Galilee on Epiphany, right after celebrating the Solemnity in the Chapel at the hospice on the Mount of the Beatitudes and I came across this line from the gifted Father Robert Barren, Rector of Mundeline Seminary in Chicago and author, who quoted Archbishop Fulton Sheen speaking about the part of the Epiphany Gospel where the Magi or wise men disobey Herod’s orders and return to their homes by a different route than that which they came. Archbishop Sheen said, “of course, they went home a different way. No one who comes to Jesus ever returns the same way that they came.” I hope that was true of all of us.

I am exhausted and sleep does not come easily yet. I lost ten pounds in walking and climbing (in the Catholic Church, nothing seems worth seeing without climbing steps) and longed for my McDonald’s sausage biscuit for eight days, but it will be a while before the memory of this final visit of mine dims and the looks on the faces of those who, God willing, will some day serve you as priests as they stood on the Mt. of Olives with their faces toward the West and the place where the Temple once stood and then walked down the steep hill into the Garden where Jesus prayed and met his accusers.

For me now, “next year in Jerusalem” will now mean that moment when someone comes, hopefully, to lead me into the new and heavenly Jerusalem. The men I travelled with have a lot longer journey ahead of them, but they learned much about the cost of discipleship and following Jesus.



Friday, November 4th, 2011

We arrived on the Turkish mainland this morning to bright blue, cloudless skies and a morning temperature in the mid-50s. During the day it warmed up to about 60 degrees but a strong wind began to blow off the sea. Tonight we may experience for the first time what Peter and Paul felt and experienced during a very windy night in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.

The two room house some believe to be where Mary lived until her death,. Photo kindness of John P. Christian

First, a few words about a destination of many tours today which is the house which legend has it that Mary lived with John the Apostle after the resurrection of Jesus, and as the locals would say until her Assumption into heaven following upon her death. The scriptures say little about Mary after the Ascension of her son so they are of little to no help in determining what happened to her. However, there is some support that John the Apostle who had been given the task of caring for Mary by Jesus on the cross came to Ephesus and lived here, and therefore if one follows the logic also with Mary. The Muslims respect Mary because they respect Jesus as a great prophet, not the greatest mind you (that honor belongs to Mohammed) and the mothers of all prophets are held in great esteem and reverence. Thus they are willing to stake their claim that Mary lived and died in Ephesus. In Jerusalem there is a church called the Church of the Dormition of Mary which also claims to be the place where she died and from which she was assumed into heaven. In the last century, a German nun and visionary had a vision that Mary spent most of her life on top of a tall mountain with a view of the sea and in a two room house. They found such a house here above Ephesus and I am including a picture. Where Mary died, in Ephesus or Jerusalem is not an article of faith. That she died and was assumed into heaven is.

We are fairly certain that Paul arrived in Ephesus around the year 52AD, from Corinth. Second in size to his hometown of Antioch in that part of the world, he arrives here with a greater knowledge of what works and what does not work in his preaching and evangelizing. We are also fairly certain that he traveled over 500 miles by land to reach Ephesus taking weeks as one might expect. There were few Christians to be found in Ephesus in a general population of 200,000 and it was a perfect place for him. He would end up spending three years in Ephesus, the longest time he would stay in any one place and when he left, he left everything to Timothy, his friend and early bishop.

Artemis was the Greek God of choice at Ephesus, which was a bustling port city. Today, the ancient ruins, which we visited, have seen the sea withdraw about six miles but in the time of Paul, one took a ship right up to the main street in the city. It was a place of great commerce and while not the capital city of the area it was classy, classical and clever.

It is said that there were some 10,000 Jews living in Ephesus at the time of Paul’s arrival. Initially as elsewhere, he enjoyed a brief period of honeymoon but then animosity and rejection. Paul cleverly found another site for his preaching, something that today we might call a “lecture hall.” Since the known world came to him in Ephesus, he did not need to leave and go elsewhere in the world in search of converts. Ephesus was an important place of congregation, gathering, debating and disputing, exactly his kind of town.

It is important for today’s Catholic to remember that Paul did not have access to what today we call the Gospels. He worked from stories about Jesus he was told after his conversion by people who either knew the Lord personally or had information from someone reliable and close to Christ. No where in his writings or in Acts do we have Paul quoting any Gospel but we do have one quotation in Acts by Paul from Jesus, words of Jesus, that appear in no Gospel: It is better to give than to receive. [Acts 20:35]. So his theology of Christianity developed apart from the Gospels themselves that to me is even more amazing. One of the best summaries of his time and teaching in Ephesus, I think, is to be found in his farewell speech to the community he had spent three years with which he delivered at Miletus (25 miles from ancient Ephesus) and which comes from Acts:

I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you, but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. . . I must complete the task. . .of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. . .[and] preaching the kingdom. I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Acts 20:20-21,24-25,27,31.

One small section of the enormous Roman "theatre" where Paul preached at Ephesus. Photo kindness of Marc Barhonovich

Pretty simple it would seem but a lot for a hostile audience. How successful was he? Peter Walker in his excellent book  IN THE STEPS OF PAUL which I used for preparing for this trip and also for writing these Pauline entry blogs suggests that a community of perhaps 500 or 600 converts were won to the faith over his three years here. That is probably more than any one priest or bishop converts, instructs and baptizes in our lifetime today so do not let the numbers betray his real success.

When we visited the ancient city with its incredible excavations today, we saw the ancient theatre where Paul had a bad day or days. Something of a riot took place following his preaching and it centered on whose God was really God, Paul’s or the God Artemus of the Greeks/Romans. There was a huge brouhaha, which the Apostle desperately wished to engage in, but instead Paul was restrained from entering the theatre at that moment in time though he probably would have given his right arm to get into the debate. As the Jewish people began to become more vehement in their condemnation of Paul, he determined it was time to move on and set off for Jerusalem. As I mentioned earlier in this series, his letter to the Ephesians was written during his brief second visit to Corinth.

One final note about Ephesus. In 431, the third ecumenical council was held here to combat the heresy of Nestorianism which made two erroneous claims: first, that Jesus was not divine and second that Mary was not the mother of the Son of God since Jesus was merely human. Bishops from all around the ancient world gathered here to pray and discuss how to combat these theological errors. Of course, they reaffirmed that Jesus was both human and divine and they accorded to Mary the title of “theotokus” or “bearer [mother] of God.” No matter how one slices it, for Mary, for Paul, for John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, St. Luke and for the Church, Ephesus played a major role in our first century church history. Most tourists visit it for its important ruins of the Greek and Roman eras but pilgrims visit it because they wish to walk in the footsteps of the apostles. As for Peter, Sunday through next Thursday is his day as we arrive in our final port, Civitavecchia, the port city for Rome.



Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Mass in Jerusalem at the Church of St. Savior on St. Francis Street. Photo kindness of John P. Christian

A day in Jerusalem would be challenging enough but when the news came to the passengers that our ship would not be moving to the Port of Ashdod which is closer to Jerusalem but would instead remain in Haifa for a second night we knew we had a long day in store for us (we departed the dock by bus at 645am, arrived in Bethlehem Square at 1015am and returned to the ship at 800pm). Bethlehem is in what is euphemistically called the “west bank”. It is a euphemism because there is no river running through Jerusalem or many parts of the land, which would serve as a boundary, or line of demarcation. Nonetheless, we stopped the border, our Israeli guides got off, we then passed through the border and three Christian-Arab guides got on the buses and took us to the birthplace of the Lord. Unlike that first Christmas night there must have been at least 3000 people off cruise ships that descended upon the Church of the Nativity at the same time. The wait in the Orthodox part of the Church to descend to a small room and see the “spot” where Mary delivered was already two hours but our guide knew a back route which took is into what we could easily believe to have been a stable and we saw the same place from the rear. The guides were very good and we as a group had an opportunity to support some of the few Christian-Arabs who have remained in the area. It will be all-Muslim soon without a return of Christians to the area and there is no peace and a very unsettled situation, which makes any return almost illogical.

Our next stop was for Mass at the Church of St. Savior or as we would likely call it in the United States, Blessed Sacrament. We were running late at the time with the Way of the Cross-and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remaining to be seen before dark, which came at 445pm. The visit to the tomb of Jesus, which also includes the ninth through the twelfth stations, and Golgotha took well over an hour but it was the central focus of our pilgrimage for that day. Because of the long bus rides, other places which I would have liked to have shown my fellow pilgrims were impossible: the Garden of Gethsemane in daylight (we saw it only after dark), the Upper Room and the birthplace and home of John the Baptist at Ein Karim were all impossible. The group returned to the bus by way of the “western wall” which as you the reader surely know is all our Jewish brothers and sisters have remaining of the great Temple which was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans putting down a revolt. It is always a moving place and this day was no exception and many of our own group approached to touch the wall and even slip a note inside it.

So our three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the land of the Lord and of the apostles Peter and Paul perhaps much too quickly came to an end. Just listening to those along with me, however, I knew that they had a great experience, loved Galilee and were moved by as much of Jerusalem as they could see. Had there not been an outbreak of violence between Hamas and Israel aimed at the port of Ashdod where we would have docked, we would have had more time in the holy city. We had terrific guides and drivers for the day and everyone appreciated that.

I will repeat for the final time hoping that you the reader will capture this reality, when one comes to the Holy Land to reconstruct the life of Jesus, it is the experience and not the specific geography that is important. All of us had an easy time visualizing Jesus walking the shores of the Sea of Galilee and all of us could easily imagine Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving their nets and following him. Since Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times since the death of the Lord, one has to work harder to make it credible and a place of faith. For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Golgotha, which was, then outside of the city of Jerusalem is now inside what is wrongly called “the old city” but is really the “new city” of Jerusalem of antiquity. It takes imagination and extrapolation to make it work but I think for almost all of us it did. Finally, I have had a very challenging time sending this blog while enroute on the ship. Sorry about the delay.

Darkness falls on Jerusalem and all the earth. Photo kindness of John P. Christian

So we left the place where it all started and in a few days will pick up the trail of Paul in Ephesus and Peter and Paul in Rome. Shalom!



Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Yesterday, we began our very brief three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a visit to where it all began, Nazareth with the Annunciation and the home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus for the better part of thirty years or so. Today we moved on with the Lord to the Sea of Galilee, the site of many of his miracles, much of his preaching and public ministry and the home of St. Peter and many of the other Apostles. We arrived first at the magnificent Church of the Beatitudes up on a hill and commanding a magnificent view not just of the Sea, but also of Capernaum and the lakeshore line where Jesus spent three years of his life. Moving on the ancient Capernaum village itself, we were able to see the ruins of the village where Jesus lived and worked and understand a little better the Gospel stories of the paralytic being lowered down from the roof into the presence of Jesus. Certainly one comes away with a sense of what must have been almost total reliance on the profession of fishing.

What is so captivating about a day along the Sea of Galilee is that so far, and no one knows for how long, the sacred places of Jesus life here have been left untouched by development and encroachment. It is magnificently peaceful, beautiful, and prayerful. We had Mass at the Church of the Primacy with the water at my back at the altar and it was a Sunday liturgy than none of my companions on this trip will soon forget. It was here by the way after the Resurrection that Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples and three times he questioned Peter, “do you love me” ending with the commission to the prince of the apostles to “feed his lambs, feed his sheep” and thereby entrusting the care of the Church to Peter.

An hour-long boat ride on the Sea of Galilee brought home many memories of Gospel passages such as “a city set on the top of a hill can not be hidden.” Fishing on the lake on a dark night would require even today an understanding of where you were on the water based on the lights which could be seen either on the shore or on the surrounding hillsides. All of the holy places under the care of the Franciscans with Custody of the Holy Land were open by the German Benedictines who run the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes at Tabatha was closed unfortunately. Our companions on this journey found today even more satisfying and delightful than yesterday’s visit.

Because of the outbreak of bombing and missile exchange which began yesterday between the Palestinians on Gaza and the Israeli government which dispatched drone planes with bombs killing about six Palestinians, our ship which was due to sail tonight from Haifa to the closer to Jerusalem port of Ashdod has now been consigned to remain in Haifa for an additional night and tomorrow’s visit to Jerusalem and environs will take an additional hour of travel time on the bus. An early departure of 645am has been set so I am retiring for the night and will likely not tell you about our visit to the Holy City until Tuesday, at the earliest.

For the moment, Shalom!



Saturday, October 29th, 2011

The Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth

We have reached the land of Jesus’ birth and death. Today one hundred and one of us spent most of the day just north of the Sea of Galilee, starting where it all started in Nazareth, moving on to Cana, and ending on Mt. Tabor. With a group our size it takes time and while I had hoped to include the monastery of Mt. Carmel here in Haifa as a late afternoon stop, we did not make it back before their 500pm closing. Darkness comes quite early here in the Holy Land at this time of the year (445pm today) as it is about as far east in what is called the Central European time zone as one can get. On the other hand, sunrise tomorrow morning will be about 545am.

Everything and I do mean everything was closed on our arrival in the port of Haifa today. Because it was Jewish Sabbath, there were no workers loading or unloading the mammoth freighters in the harbor, no cars on the street and little noise anywhere. Haifa and this eastern part of Israel is heavily Arab, Muslim and quite productive. To witness it all so still was eerie.

It took about an hour to drive from the port to Nazareth which is a city built up and down several hillsides. Since Nazareth is today mostly Arab Muslim and Arab Christian (declining dramatically in number) and since it was Saturday there was considerably more activity to be found there, traffic jams and people on the non-existent sidewalks. Nazareth has throughout its history been something of a melting pot of people, even in biblical times, a biblical “Podunk” lacking any one religious or cultural identification. It was for this reason that Nathaniel could ask in the Gospel, “can anything good come from Nazareth.” Well for us it certainly did.

The angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary at what today is called “Mary’s Well” of which there are two, one public and open to everyone on the streets and one under an Orthodox church. Which one it actually happened at is mostly irrelevant as the Holy Land is place where one experiences the Lord more than validating information or seeking specificity. The Franciscan fathers have built a magnificent basilica on the spot where legend days Mary and Joseph lived and raised Jesus and there is also almost attached a Church of St. Joseph which does not press the imagination as much. There was an American group celebrating Mass on the lower altar of the basilica, which is closer to Mary’s home. So what began with an angelic appearance to Mary then moves on to the Jerusalem area with Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Ein Karem (not on the West Bank) and eventually with Joseph to the birth of her child in Bethlehem, which we will visit on Monday.

Mary and Jesus would have walked down a steep hill and up another one on the five-mile walk to Cana and the famous wedding. We had Mass in the new chapel at Cana, again run beautifully by the Franciscans responsible for the holy places here. Monsignor Bosso gave a wonderful homily on “relationships” which centered somewhat on Mary’s relation with a “testy” Jesus in the famous Gospel where water was turned into wine. Then, all married couples present renewed their wedding vows and there were few dry eyes to be found. My group sang beautifully at this Mass and since we had the small space of this Church to ourselves, it was a wonderful liturgy. I think all married couples on this trip (and there are three whose marriages I have personally witnessed) would consider this the highlight at least of today and perhaps the whole trip.Mass and Renewal of Marriage Vows at Cana

Then on to Mt. Tabor, which at 1700 feet dominates the countryside of this Galilee region. Off to the east in the distance is to be seen Mt. Hermon which stands at about 5600 feet and which some of the Protestant churches have begun to say was the site of the Transfiguration, not Mt. Tabor. Whatever, the new basilica and surround grounds on a day with a high of perhaps 75 degrees, blue sky and delightful breeze captured our hearts and imagination. It was not hard to envision Jesus, Peter and James sharing that special moment of “epiphany.” Monsignor Bosso here pointed out that the transfiguration account in the Gospel immediately follows Jesus’ prediction of his impending death and resurrection and was meant to convince his two friends that they too needed to prepare themselves for the “cross” which would lead to resurrected life and transfiguration in the life, which is to come. He reminded us that moments of glory often precede or follow moments of challenge in life and we need to prepare ourselves for these moments in order to share the glory of eternal life.

To get to the top of Mt. Tabor, the busses can only take you about a third of the way and then you transfer to a ten person taxi which takes you the rest of the way up a spine-chilling crooked and an narrow road with many, many hairpin turns eliciting prayers from everyone in the cab. The saying around here is that the real reason the two apostles did not wish to leave the place was they didn’t want to take the taxi ride back down!


Mosaic of the Transfiguration at the Church on Mt. Tabor

Tomorrow we spend the whole day around the Sea of Galilee and Sunday Mass will be celebrated for all of you at the Church of the Primacy. Stayed tuned.