The pilgrimage, called Holy Land Dialogues, was an inaugural event of the Saxum Project, which includes “a conference centre in which spiritual retreats, workshops, and conferences will be organized, and a Visitors Centre where pilgrims will be able to deepen their knowledge about the places they visit in the Holy Land.”
Here are ten highlights of my experience in Israel:
1. Reading the Addresses of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis at the end of a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem
A few years ago, Fr. Raymond de Souza was giving a lecture at Acton University on Catholic Social Thought. He mentioned the remarkable fact that, in the century of Auschwitz, the Church had a Polish pope and a German pope back-to-back. Both of these popes visited and spoke at Auschwitz. Many will remember that Pope Francis also visited this past summer and decided not to speak, but only to pray there. He did, however, speak at Yad Vashem during his visit in 2014. I was intent to read Pope Francis’s 2014 Address there as well as the speech given by John Paul II during his Jubilee pilgrimage in the year 2000.
In the Hall of Names, Yad Vashem has archived 4.6 million Pages of Testimony, each one documenting the name and biographical details of a person murdered by the Nazis during the Shoah. The 600 photos overhead in the Hall of Names, as well as the empty shelves, commemorate the victims who remain unidentified.
“I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name [yad vashem]
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”
– Isaiah 56:5
“I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half a century has passed, but the memories remain.”
– Pope John Paul II
As our Wednesday lecturer Eric Cohen put it, “Yad Vashem is a memorial that ends not with the destruction of the Jews, but with the resurrection of Israel.” Out of a sense of responsibility to honour the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, I wanted to visit Yad Vashem in order that I might take nothing of the trip and my existence for granted.
2. Praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary at Bethlehem
There were 450 participants in the Holy Land Dialogues conference from more than thirty countries. We were divided, by language, into groups of about 20 pilgrims with whom we travelled throughout the week to the various holy sites. On Monday morning, we had Mass at the Church of All Nations (also known as the Basilica of Agony), which is next to Gethsemane. Then, we went to Bethlehem!
As it was Monday and we had about half an hour to wait in line before reaching the place of Jesus’s birth, I prayed the rosary and meditated on the Joyful Mysteries. The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple.” In her book, Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman discusses the delight of You-Are-There-Reading-Experiences [the practice of reading books in the places they describe]. Being in Israel afforded countless You-Are-There experiences as we read the Gospels where the events recounted took place, prayed where Jesus prayed and taught His disciples to pray, and received the Blessed Sacrament in the Land in which it was instituted.
The need to descend, and actually, to duck into the Grotto of the Nativity corresponds to the theological significance of the Incarnation, our priest Fr. Paul reflected.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” – John 1:14
“The cloud of hiddenness, the cloud of the poverty of a child totally in need of love, is at the same time the cloud of glory. For nothing can be more sublime, nothing greater than the love which thus stoops down, descends, becomes dependent. The glory of the true God becomes visible when the eyes of our hearts are opened before the stable of Bethlehem.”
– Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas 2008
3. Drinking Pomegranate Juice
Oh, glorious pomegranates! I’ve always loved pomegranates. I still remember my indescribable happiness when my uncle would bring over an entire crate of them from Costco during the winter when I was a kid. Almost every day, I enjoyed some freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice in the Holy Land. This made me recall “The Madonna of the Pomegranate” painting by Botticelli, one of my favourites in the Uffizi.
“Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates…”
– Deuteronomy 8:6-8
“In Christian art the pomegranate, often split and showing the seeds, was interpreted as a symbol of fertility, hope of immortality, and the Resurrection. The infant Jesus is frequently seen in paintings and sculpture presenting the pomegranate to his mother. In the last of the famous Unicorn tapestries at The Cloisters the symbolic meaning of marriage and fertility is illustrated by showing the Unicorn tied to the pomegranate tree, with the red seeds of a bursting fruit spilling on him.”
– Hildegard Schneider, “On the Pomegranate”
4. Mass at the Sea of Galilee
On Tuesday, we visited the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish and then had Mass outdoors at the Sea of Galilee. In the distance we could hear people singing, “Salvation belongs to our God” and during the Mass the birds were chirping and the water was glistening. It was a beautiful experience.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
– John 6:27
“Like the first disciples at the Sea of Galilee, you must leave your boats and nets behind, and that is never easy – especially when you face an uncertain future and are tempted to lose faith in your Christian heritage. To be good Christians may seem beyond your strength in today’s world. But Jesus does not stand by and leave you alone to face the challenge. He is always with you to transform your weakness into strength.”
– Pope John Paul II
5. Meditating on the Hidden Life of Christ in Nazareth
Next we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes and Capernaum before travelling to Nazareth. In Nazareth we prayed at the Basilica of the Annunciation. In the image below is the altar that says: “Verbum caro hic factum est” – “Here the Word became flesh.”
In John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, he says:
During the years of Jesus’ hidden life in the house at Nazareth, Mary’s life too is “hid with Christ in God” (cf. Col. 3:3) through faith. For faith is contact with the mystery of God. Every day Mary is in constant contact with the ineffable mystery of God made man, a mystery that surpasses everything revealed in the Old Covenant. From the moment of the Annunciation, the mind of the Virgin-Mother has been initiated into the radical “newness” of God’s self-revelation and has been made aware of the mystery.
There I reflected on the hidden life of the Holy Family, anchored by this beautiful prayer of St. Josemaria in Friends of God:
Lord, give us your grace. Open the door to the workshop in Nazareth so that we may learn to contemplate you, together with your holy Mother Mary and the holy Patriarch St Joseph, whom I love and revere so dearly, the three of you dedicated to a life of work made holy. Then, Lord, our poor hearts will be enkindled, we shall seek you and find you in our daily work, which you want us to convert into a work of God, a labour of Love.
6. Visiting the Grave of Alphonse Ratisbonne
On Wednesday, we visited many places, but a personal highlight took place during lunchtime. It so happened that we were scheduled to have lunch at the Monastery of Notre Dame de Sion in Ein Kerem. The Monastery was founded by brothers Theodore and Alphonse Ratisbonne, French Jews who converted to the Catholic faith and became priests.
I first learned about Alphonse Ratisbonne in the Basilica Sant Andrea delle Fratte [Madonna del Miracolo] in Rome. In that church is the chapel in which Our Lady appeared to Alphonse and converted him. It was also in this chapel that Saint Maximilian Kolbe celebrated his first Mass.
It was a delight, then, to have lunch at the very site of the community founded by the Ratisbonne brothers in Jerusalem where there continues to be a dedicated commitment to encountering the Word of God, drawing on Jewish and Christian sources and tradition. I felt very much at home here! I also visited the tomb of Alphonse Ratisbonne, where a statue of Mary looks lovingly toward him just as she does in the painting depicting the miraculous apparition in the church in Rome.
7. Lecture by Eric Cohen
On Wednesday evening, Eric Cohen [Tikvah Fund, New Atlantis, Ethics and Public Policy Center] delivered a lecture on the topic “Personal Transformation in the Holy Places from Antiquity to the Present.”
Eric Cohen spoke about how the Jewish and Christian faiths have in common that they are rooted in history and yet these histories are much more than old stories since they are a reality in our daily lives. He spoke about how normal life has a different meaning in Jerusalem and that normalcy for the Jews living in Jerusalem is special. What always strikes him when he visits Israel is the miracle of everyday life. Every normal moment has achieved a new sanctity, he said. “The paradox is that the preservation of normalcy for Jews and Christians demands a more-than-normal faith.”
Next, he spoke about the twin threats facing Jews and Christians: radical secularism and radical Islam, or Islamism. He discussed why the Judaeo-Christian tradition offers the best resistance against these dehumanizing ideologies and challenged us to reassert that our vision of normalcy is true and good. “Living with the biblical heritage is hard,” he attested, “The biblical view is hard because it demands spiritual endurance. But we can affirm it by pointing our many things in our own culture, such as the loneliness of a life without enduring commitments.”
Finally, he spoke about the Sabbath saying, “The genius of the Jewish Sabbath is the recreating each week of an oasis in time for the renewal of spiritual and family life.”
8. Guided Visit to Saxum and Mass of Thanksgiving
Saint Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei, longed to visit the Holy Land. To honour this desire, his successor Blessed Alvaro del Portillo went on a pilgrimage to Israel in 1994. Since he passed away on his return to Rome, Blessed Alvaro had celebrated the last Mass of his life in the Church of the Cenacle. The Saxum Project has been initiated by the Prelature of Opus Dei to realize the vision of St. Josemaria and Blessed Alvaro. Touring the site of Saxum, an impressive centre overlooking the Judaean hills was a great experience. Knowing that people from all around the world have contributed to realize this noble endeavour was an edifying experience.
On the final day of our pilgrimage, we had Mass of Thanksgiving at Saxum outdoors.
9. Via Dolorosa
On Friday morning, we began to make the Way of the Cross through Jerusalem at 6:00 a.m. So many memories flooded my mind at each station, especially of making the Way of the Cross over the years – through the streets of downtown Calgary, at Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in snowy southern Alberta, at a Melkite church in New York City, through the streets of Madrid during World Youth Day, on a Holy Week mission trip to Mexico, during a retreat at L’Arche in France, and through the former Majdanek concentration camp.
I recalled John Paul II’s words in a homily he gave in Warsaw: “It is impossible to understand the history of Poland from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe at Oswiecim [Auschwitz] unless we apply to them that same single fundamental criterion that is called Jesus Christ.”
To pray the Stations of the Cross, to meditate on them, to enter into them to the extent that we can, is always a deeply moving experience. As Fr. de Souza said during the Tertio Millennio Seminar this summer, commenting on John Paul II’s words, “Indeed, the joys and sorrows, grief and anxieties of every generation can only be fully understood by the Christian student of history in light of that one death and resurrection.”
Toward the end of the pilgrimage, we also had an opportunity to visit the Cenacle, the Upper Rome traditionally held to be the site of the Last Supper. At this site, we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, the celebration of the Last Supper, the gathering of the disciples after Jesus’s Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
This reminded me of the beautiful way that Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, speaks about the meaning of the Washing of the Feet:
“Why does Jesus wash our feet? And why does he ask us to wash each other’s feet? What is the signification behind it? […] We are to touch people with a deep respect — to touch them with tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, may become vehicles of the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh, that our flesh may become word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value — that they are cherished and loved by God.”
I’m thankful to God for this opportunity I had to, as John Paul II put it, “set foot in the Land where God chose to ‘pitch His tent’ and made it possible for man to encounter him directly.” I’m also thankful to my friends in Opus Dei, especially to everyone at Kintore College, and to the organizers of the Holy Land Dialogues and the directors of the Saxum Foundation. Thanks to my parents, my teachers, my youth ministers, mentors, and friends for handing on the faith to me, which is the greatest treasure in my life.