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.