In April, New Media Journalist for the St. Louis Review, Lisa Johnston, North Central Regional Marketing Manager for EWTN, Christine Schicker, Public Relations Director, Midwest Region for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Denise Bossert, and I–I’m the Director of Marketing & Mission Awareness for the Archdiocese of St. Louis–were part of a four-woman contingent who, as guests of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, went to the Holy Land to experience The Year of Mercy in the very place where the greatest act of mercy was ever shown to mankind.
Touching down at Ben Gurion airport, anyone occupying an aisle seat wanting to catch a glimpse of the surroundings will likely wind up looking through the peo’t, or un-cut ringlets some Orthodox Jewish men wear on their temples in accordance with a Biblical restriction against cutting the hair there, of the men who are also looking out of the window onto the land their people have inhabited for thousands of years. Ancient prayers uttered softly in Hebrew, presumably in thanksgiving, mingle with the sound of seat belts being unfastened and mobile phones being powered on as everyone begins to disembark the plane. There’s an immediate sense that this is a special place, a place where God is present. It is a place where, in Christ’s Passion and Death, the greatest act of mercy ever took place. It is in this land where acts of mercy—both large and small—continue to take place every day.
A Catholic Pilgrimage
The first place most people probably think of when they think of the Catholic Church is Rome. However, unlike other religions, Catholics aren’t mandated by the Church to make a pilgrimage to Rome or anywhere else. For a Catholic, a pilgrimage is a personal undertaking.
In Rome a Catholic experiences the beauty, grandeur, and history of Catholicism. Most of the disciples, martyred for their faith, are buried in Rome. Beautiful artwork, produced over centuries and known the world-over, depicting all that Catholics hold sacred is housed in the Vatican Museums. In the life of the Catholic Church, Rome is—without a doubt—its Sunday best. However, while Rome may be the Church’s Sunday best, Israel is the place to experience the day-to-day, living faith of Catholicism.
For Catholics, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a unique and moving experience not only because Jesus Christ was born there but so, too, was the Catholic Church. The mercy inherent in the birth of Christ and subsequent rise of the Faith is made tangible in the Holy Land; the stone room where Christ’s birth was announced by an angel, the home of the first pope, the settings of the Gospel readings, Caesarea Philippi where Christ told Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” the locations where prayers such as the Our Father were first prayed, the garden where He would bitterly weep, the rock where His battered, bloodied body hung on a cross, and the place where His glorious, salvific resurrection happened are all there.
The Church of the Primacy of Peter is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, only a few hundred yards from where the multiplication of loaves and fishes took place. The church stands over the place where, for the third time after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples, made them a breakfast of fish, forgave Peter for denying Him, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” It is at this very location where Christ, once again, showed His love and mercy for the disciples.
Father Connor Sullivan, priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, reflected on the mercy Jesus showed to His followers at the site. “One of the most striking things about the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy is how close it is to many of the other sites in the Holy Land. …I looked down the coast and saw the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish. In the opposite direction, I saw the place where Jesus likely called Peter and his brother, Andrew,” Father Sullivan said.
Father Sullivan reflected on how the events of Jesus’ life are tied together geographically. “I remembered that these were the waters upon which Jesus walked. These were the waters that Jesus calmed when the storm was tossing the little fishing boat and threatening the Apostles,” he said. “Here in Galilee, the beginning and the end of our Lord’s public ministry meet—along the coast of the same Sea of Galilee.”
It was at this same place where a group of pilgrims from St. Vladimir and Church of the Resurrection parishes in the Ukraine first put their feet into the water of the Sea of Galilee. So overwhelmed with the joy and excitement of stepping into the very sea upon which Christ walked 2,000 years ago, one of the older women in the group bolted toward the water, her grey hair covered by a bright kerchief that framed the enormous smile on her face. Trying to remove her sandals as she ran, she nearly fell several times. Finally making it to the cool water, she stopped, took in her surroundings, and began to cry, still with the smile on her face.
This Is a Holy Place
A small placard hangs on an external wall of the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel which simply reads, This Is a Holy Place. There are very few places in Israel that don’t merit the description. One of the holy places of the Holy Land is the Basilica of the Annunciation, located in Nazareth.
Catholics know Nazareth as the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the childhood home of Jesus. Built in 1969 on the site of Crusader and Byzantine remains, the Basilica of the Annunciation is located on the site where the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had found favor with God and would bear a son. Today the Basilica is the functioning parish for all of Nazareth and to 8,000 people.
Tradition holds that the central grotto of the basilica was the home of Mary. The Annunciation, a painting by 19th century American artist Henry Tanner, gives a fairly accurate representation of what a room in Nazareth would have looked like at that time and any pilgrim familiar with that painting recognizes the scene immediately upon nearing the grotto in the modern basilica. The small stone room, once home to an unassuming Jewish girl, now houses a small altar bearing the inscription, et verbum caro factum est, behind the altar is a modest, gold tabernacle, above which hang seven red lamps, all of which can be seen through a locked gate.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—were present in that very place, though hidden, protected in the Virgin Womb of His Mother, Mary. Today, because of the miracle of transubstantiation, Jesus Christ—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—are still present in that very place, though hidden, protected by the gilded doors of the tabernacle and the secured gate.
Habib Karam, native Nazarene and proud parishioner of the Basilica of the Annunciation, is eager to show visitors this special place. When asked why it is particularly important for Catholics to visit the Holy Land Karam replied, “The Holy Family lived here. Catholics should come and experience it for themselves.”
Karam invites pilgrims he meets to weekly adoration at the Basilica, “I tell people, ‘Imagine you’re a little kid visiting your friend who is the only child in his family. He’s very happy to see you because he doesn’t get kids visiting him much. His mother is also happy because you’ve come to visit her son and made him happy. That’s our adoration. Jesus is there and Mary’s right there, watching you adoring her Son’.”
For a Catholic pilgrim, a significant part of the experience in being in the Holy Land is the doctrine of the Real Presence. For a Catholic sitting in a pew at the church in Cana, standing at an altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or kneeling in a Crusader-era church located in the middle of a Muslim village, as long as the Blessed Sacrament is within the tabernacle, that pilgrim is not only where Jesus was, that pilgrim is where Jesus is.
Small Acts of Mercy
Tucked away on the route to Jerusalem is the Arab village, Abu Gosh. Once a temporary home to the Ark of the Covenant, today Abu Gosh is home to a 12th century Crusader church—at one point used as a stable after being conquered by the Muslims—now serving as a French Benedictine Monastery, all under the tender, watchful eye of the monastery’s prior, Brother Olivier.
A Frenchman who served in the French Navy, Brother Olivier arrived in Israel in 1977 and settled in to what, according to the Benedictine rule, would be his permanent home in the Abu Gosh Monastery. For the next 35 years, Brother Olivier would, after learning Hebrew, become a father figure to some of the young soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces and virtual brother to his Muslim neighbors, all of whom visit the priest, learning about the Christianity he lives and, in turn, forging strong bonds. So loved and respected is Brother Olivier that, despite Israel’s typical process by which citizenship is granted to non-Israelis, jus sanguinis, Brother Olivier was eventually granted Israeli citizenship as a special token of appreciation for his work in and love for his adopted homeland. Brother Olivier’s gentle manner and obvious love for others draws in those who might be unlikely friends under different circumstances.
It’s his tenderness that made an otherwise unpleasant situation a small moment of mercy for a young French boy one Sunday afternoon. Made to stand in the corner of the church for misbehaving during Mass, the boy remained in his spot until granted a reprieve by his mother, long after Brother Olivier had distributed Holy Communion to those present. So upset at the fact he hadn’t been able to receive the Blessed Sacrament, the boy began to cry and explain the reason for his tears to an inquiring Brother Olivier. Walking the young penitent to the tabernacle—modeled after the Ark of the Covenant—Brother Olivier knelt by the boy, quietly exchanged words with him, gave him Communion, patted him on the shoulder and sent him off to his waiting mother. This was one small act of mercy, in a small monastery, in a small town, with monumental importance.
In the Land of Mercy
Somewhat a microcosm of the Holy Land itself, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in addition to being one of the holiest places on earth for Orthodox and Roman Catholics, as it is the recognized location where the Passion, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ took place, it is a place where several different faith groups lay their claim. Six denominations, some of the most ancient known in Christianity, celebrate their rites in the gigantic church—all with deeply-held and differing traditions, all practiced under one consecrated roof.
Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic, and to a lesser degree the Egyptian Copts, Syriacs, and Ethiopians all have ownership of different sections of this church which stands where a Catholic church has stood since Constantine built there in the year 326. Not always an easy relationship to maintain even in today’s ecumenical climate, the graffiti carved into the stone walls of the church is a poignant reminder for all Christians that the most merciful act ever to occur took place there, for all of mankind. Thousands of small crosses, etched by pilgrims for over 1,000 years, including the well-known Jerusalem Cross of the Crusaders, cover the interior walls. They are a reminder to pilgrims today of the faithful travelers who came before, venerating this holy place, wanting to leave behind some small sign they were there.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in one of the more paradoxical cities in Israel—Jerusalem. This ancient city and capital of Israel is considered a holy place by the three major monotheistic religions on earth; revered in Judaism for roughly 3,000 years, Christianity for 2,000 years, and Islam for 1,400 years.
Jerusalem is often referred to as being both of Heaven and earth and to be there is to understand that description. It is of Jerusalem that God said, “My Name shall be there.” (I Kings 8:29) To walk the stone paths of this ancient city is to walk where Christ walked, fell, and bled. There is no escaping the fact that Jerusalem is where the fingertips of the ancient and modern, secular and sacred touch every day.
A place many Americans equate with religious unrest, continual turmoil, and potential danger, Jerusalem is a city whose residents live side-by-side in an understood peace and mutual respect for one another, despite what the rest of the world views as insurmountable differences.
In the modern Holy Land, and, in particular, this modern holy city, mercy is a commodity greatly cultivated and highly prized. According to Michelle (Michal) Neumann, Certified Tour Guide for the State of Israel, “Israel is actually a very safe country because mercy is deeply embedded in Israeli culture; giving to others, putting caring for others first.” When asked how it is possible to practice these acts of mercy when there are those who would inflict terror on the citizens of her homeland, Neumann, a former attorney, replied, “In Israeli law, there is no death penalty. Israeli culture is against the death penalty, even for those who are convicted of killing Israeli citizens. In Israel, there is mercy shown even to those who would show none.”
In Israel now, as well as during the time of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, there is “mercy shown, even to those who would show none.”
It is important Catholics make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The very faith that today has over 1.2 billion followers began there. It is there where Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, suffered for all of the sins of all mankind, for all time, and where He died and rose again. Israel is a land that, without a doubt, has been touched by God, inhabited by His Son, and is watched over by His Holy Spirit. Israel is where the true joy of love and true mercy was shown and lived out, and for which no one will ever be able to sufficiently merit. For a Catholic, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a trip home, a home where mercy lives.
Elizabeth can be followed on Twitter at: @eswesthoff