“Once is enough!” I thought, after my first trip. Boy, was I wrong… by Maggie McDaniel
I was offered to join a FAM (Familiarization) trip to the Holy Land. (It is customary for tour companies to offer pilgrimage organizers a discounted “come and see” tour as a way to feature a particular destination.) Having already organized pilgrimages to (and been enraptured by) the great Catholic sites of Europe — Rome, Lourdes, Paris, Assisi — I really had never considered traveling to the Holy Land. A pilgrimage provider sent me as a visitor along with a group of Christian pilgrims, and I was excited about the idea of walking where Jesus walked.
It was nice being in the Holy Land — “neat” to be in the places you read about in the Bible. However, the narratives given by our tour guide were beginning to wear on me. The guide chosen by the tour company was not a Christian. His portrayal of all the sites we were visiting seemed like a mere historical account, rather than a connection with the person of Jesus Christ. I can’t really blame him. He didn’t even believe that Jesus was the Messiah — the Son of the Living God — and often openly questioned Catholic traditions and beliefs. He would say things like, “This church isn’t where this biblical event actually happened. It’s just an old tradition. Jesus really performed this act several miles away!”
Needless to say, I didn’t feel a good connection with the Holy Land, nor did I feel a desire to return with a tour group of my own. I was prepared to leave saying, “Okay, I did it. I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Now, I don’t care if I ever go back!”
But that began to change when our group visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the holiest place in Christian history. The place where Jesus died, was buried, and ultimately triumphed over death. As I was listening to my tour guide say, “This is not actually the location where Jesus was buried…” I overheard someone speaking about the Sacrifice of the Mass. Intrigued, I scooted closer to overhear what this other man was saying. My hair stood on end — I could tell this man was Catholic! I stood there soaking up his edifying words about the precious and hallowed ground within the Holy Sepulchre and what it meant for us, as Christians, to be physically present in such a place.
When I returned to the States, a priest in my diocese asked me to organize a trip to the Holy Land. Knowing I could not repeat my previous pilgrimage, I diligently spent many phone calls and emails seeking out a Catholic, Holy Land tour guide for the priest’s pilgrimage. (Catholic Holy Land tour guides are hard to come by!)
Even as I embarked on my next pilgrimage, I left thinking to myself, “Well, this will be the last time I will ever go to the Holy Land!”
But, boy, was I wrong…
With the Catholic tour guide, everything changed. Our pilgrimage became a living, family history, as opposed to a textbook. It was like sitting at my grandmother’s feet as she recounted memories of my ancestors, rather than listening to a genealogist read facts about them.
I realized what I had been missing. On my last trip, our group had been checking off a list of experiences; we had been “pounding pavement,” not “removing our sandals” and walking upon hallowed ground. Like the Ethiopian eunuch being asked while discovering the Scriptures, “Do you understand what you are reading?”, my heart was aching the reply: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31) Someone needed to “unlock” the Holy Land for me.
On that second pilgrimage, I finally understood why Pope Saint John Paul the Great called the Holy Land the “Fifth Gospel.” The place speaks to you — the culture of the time, the events, the faces of people, the truths of the Catholic Faith. The Word of God is now a lived experience for me, not mentally conjured images. God made us material, sensual human beings. That’s why He gave us the Sacraments, because we do have to feel and touch and smell, thus integrating the spiritual reality into our very bodies. The end of the pilgrimage is the beginning of a deepening in your relationship with Jesus. Your pilgrimage lasts in your heart and in your prayer for a lifetime.
Now, I believe every Catholic should go to the Holy Land…but with a Catholic guide!
Join our April 2016 pilgrimage to the Holy Land with our dear friend and native Nazarene tour guide, Amer Shehadeh, as he brings you as a guest to his homeland, his home parish, and “unlocks” the holy Scriptures and our Catholic Faith. The chaplain and host for our pilgrimage is Fr. Jeff Walker.0