The article below was submitted by a staff member of Boston’s St. Anthony Shrine who traveled last month with Gene Pistacchio, OFM, and a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Their journey is one of an assortment of trips offered by Provincial ministries. Jacqueline Stewart and Gene are St. Anthony Shrine’s JPIC local contacts and the directors of Just Matters — the peace and social justice group at the Boston ministry. Jackie — who has traveled to Israel before — led the pilgrimage for the Shrine’s Franciscan Adult School. She designed the trip to acquaint pilgrims with the people and culture of the Holy Land.
We returned a few weeks ago from our May pilgrimage to the land where Jesus was born, lived, crucified, died and resurrected. Our group of 31 pilgrims immersed ourselves in the “fifth Gospel” — the land and the people — which made the other four gospels come alive.
This was Gene’s first trip to the Holy Land. He said, “When I read a Gospel passage now I can picture where the story took place. I have a good sense of time and space — how long it took to get to a particular place, the terrain, the beauty….”
Visiting Holy Sites
This time in Israel, there was less evidence of police presence. We traveled to the borders of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria without any problems, safely visiting the Golan Heights and the occupied Palestinian territories. Many other visitors were there as well, including pilgrims from a number of nations. Our pilgrims were delighted with their experiences of the Lord, the land and the people. “I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to join you on this blessed pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I feel so close to the Lord when I am there,” wrote one pilgrim.
We began our pilgrimage visiting sites in the Galilee, going to Yardenit — maintained by Kibbutz Kinneret — on the Jordan River for the renewal of our baptismal promises during a sprinkling rite by Gene. Next to us, some Pentecostals underwent full immersion.
On Ascension Thursday, we celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor from which, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ascended. There were a number of Eritreans competing for vans to take us to the top; as it was, we arrived late and had to bargain with another group to retain our Mass in the chapel. Afterward, we had a leisurely lunch in the Pilgrim’s House — a welcome respite after our long journey to Israel. Later, our three married couples renewed their marriage vows at Cana.
‘The Living Stones’
I am a veteran “Holy Lander” and I designed this particular pilgrimage to include not only visits to many of the traditional Holy places — the “ancient stones” — but also with an emphasis on the “living stones”— the people who make the land holy.
One returning pilgrim commented, “The reason that I was attracted to the itinerary you had planned… was that it included a number of places I had not visited — Bar’am, Masada and Taybeh, — and audiences with Fr. Aziz and Archbishop Elias Chacour, a candlelight procession in Nazareth, and Mass at (our guide) Anton’s Maronite church. Also, the weather was much better in May. I read ‘Blood Brothers,’ along with Archbishop Chacour’s other books… I was thrilled when I heard you would be visiting him and Bar’am.”
Our audience with Abuna Chacour —the Melkite archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee — was at his patriarchate in Haifa. (Note: Abuna, which means “our Father”, is the typical Arab address.) He asked us, “Why are you here?”, a question put by God to Elijah in our earlier reading at Muhraka on Mt. Carmel. I replied, “To be in the land of Jesus, to experience the fifth Gospel of the land and people, to be with the living stones.”
“The living stones, not just ancient rocks,” Abuna said, “are the most important reason for being here. The earthly Jesus was not just a phenomenon of 2,000 years ago but is a living presence here and now.” “Amen!” As we left his gracious home we passed by a spectacular site — the Bahá’í Temple on the hill all lit up.
Jerusalem and the Dead Sea
On subsequent days, we celebrated Mass outdoors on the Mount of Beatitudes, and experienced the Risen Lord on a boat in the quiet of the Sea of Galilee and in dancing on-board the Hava Nagila and Heveno Shalom Alehem. We also participated in an evening outdoor candlelight procession in Nazareth.
Before traveling to Jerusalem, we joined the Maronite community in Nazareth for Sunday morning Mass — celebrated in Arabic and Aramaic, Jesus’ own language, with much triple blessings, incense, and icons. As is the custom in the Holy Land, this was a standing liturgy, as were all of our own celebrations. We very much enjoyed meeting the Arab families and children. One of our pilgrims brought stuffed toys and another brought clothing for children as gifts.
On our way to Jerusalem, we visited with Fr. Aziz at the Latin parish in Taybeh — the ancient town of Ephraim in the West Bank, which has been Christian since the time of Jesus. When we inquired about the political situation there (in the West Bank), Fr. Aziz said, “We have no hope.” “What do you do with the children?” one Pilgrim asked. “We feign — we smile!” And this from the parish priest!
Our audience was followed by a brief visit to the nearby Taybeh Brewery — the only Palestinian microbrewery in the Middle East, where we received an explanation of the brewing process and a sample of their delicious beer. The young woman who hosted us had previously lived in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and was returning to the U.S. the next day for a brother’s graduation from Harvard University. They hope to be able to export product to Boston soon.
From Jerusalem, we traveled into the Judean desert, took a cable car up to Masada — one of Herod the Great’s fortresses — and floated in the Dead Sea, enjoying mud baths and restorative affects of the high salinity and minerals. On our return to Jerusalem, we walked down the Palm Sunday Road and celebrated Mass in Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives. “I feel so privileged to have said Mass in all of the many holy places we visited,” said Gene. These included the cave at Shepherd’s Field, the Franciscan Cenacle on Mt. Zion, and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. All of our liturgies were infused with wonderful music led by Gene, who also served as cantor.
In honor of our Jewish brothers and sisters, we prayed at the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem, prayed the Kaddish at the Children’s Memorial, and, as is the Jewish custom, laid stones in remembrance at a Jewish grave. Other sites included Caesarea Philippi, Ein Karem, Via Dolorosa, St. Peter in Gallicantu Monastery, Capernaum, Tabgha, Dormition Abbey, the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, Gethsemane, Church of all Nations, Pater Noster Church and, last but not least, a visit to Bethany, where Gene rode and was kissed by a camel!
It was a full pilgrimage, culminating in a midnight wakeup call for travel to Ben Gurion Airport to board an early morning flight to Frankfurt. On returning home to the U.S., a fellow pilgrim wrote, “Dear friends, my head is still spinning as I relive every moment of our awesome pilgrimage. I am meditating on an elevated level of existence now and I feel so much closer to the Lord and the people of the times. I am missing all of you as brothers and sisters.”
In conclusion, we invite you to join us on our May 2015 pilgrimage, which hopefully will be just as awesome.
— Jackie Stewart is the director of evangelization and the Franciscan Adult School at St. Anthony Shrine. She and Fr. Gene are active in promoting peace in the Middle East, especially in Israel and Palestine.