Holy Land Pilgrimage 2021

Prepare the Way

December 11, 2021

About three weeks ago, we began our pilgrimage with the fiery prophet Elijah at the monasteries of Stella Maris and el Muhraqa on Mt. Carmel. As we approach the end of our pilgrimage, we come upon the prophet Elijah again today in our Gospel reading from St. Matthew. Jesus says that if you are willing to accept it, John the Baptist is Elijah the prophet. (Matthew 11:14) John the Baptist fulfills the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah will come again to prepare the way of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23)

In these three weeks of our pilgrimage, we have been traveling around and visiting the fascinating and powerful holy sites. We usually celebrate the Mass that pertains to the particular holy site and in doing so, our Advent season has been a little different than usual. However, with John the Baptist in our reading today we have our great Advent figure, our fiery forerunner on the scene that allows us to dive into this expectant and hopeful season of Advent.

In less than six months, most of us will be ordained as priests of Jesus Christ. I would like to propose that John the Baptist serves as a wonderful patron and intercessor for priests, future priests, and really all followers of Christ. John the priest prepared the way for the first coming of the Christ child into the world. We are given the privilege and the profound responsibility of preparing and disposing souls for Christ to break into their lives here and now and ultimately to prepare them for Christ to come again in all his glory to judge the living and the dead. We do this by our preaching, our teaching, and by the direction and pastoral care of souls.

Let us beg for the intercession of the humble friend of the Bridegroom who prepared the way for the Bridegroom to come to that little town of Bethlehem. With John the Baptist’s patronage and prayers, we will be able to prepare ourselves and the flocks entrusted to us for Christ to break into the world here and now and ultimately be ready to celebrate when he comes again in all his glory. Amen.

Deacon Joe Wagner
Archdiocese of Atlanta

Actions and Consequences

December 10, 2021

What happens when we reject moral absolutes?  What happens when we say things are only wrong based on the circumstances?  What happens when we are willing to do anything to change the world for what we think is the best?  We find ourselves swimming against the current on the sea, slowly slipping more and more under the waves with exhaustion.  A lie is told…’for the greater good.’ Property is stolen… ‘for the greater good.’  Truth is suppressed… ‘for the greater good.’  Unjust war is fought… ‘for the greater good.’ Innocents are exterminated… ‘for the greater good.’

​Today we visited the Holocaust Museum, the Yad Vashem. Situated in Jerusalem, 20 minutes from the Old City, the museum punctures a hill next to a valley like a blade cutting into Israel. Though surrounded with nice gardens, the architecture seems to resemble something like a brutalist style, recalling the cold industrial efficiency of the Nazi concentration camps.  Most of the seminarians, though familiar with the atrocities of the Holocaust, still were left quiet for sometime after leaving the museum.

​Humanity has always been capable of great evil, yet it seems it took the 20th century for some of the greatest wickedness the world has ever seen. Yes, men steal, lie, take advantage of power, and kill as they always have. Yet now, as the centuries pass, it seems to increasingly flow quite directly from new ideologies.  In a few short decades, oppression and killing quickly consumed untold millions, mostly in the name of novel belief systems.  Whether it be the Sexual Revolution’s mass slaughter of infants, the Communist ‘Great Leap Forward,’ or the Nazi’s genocidal anti-Semitism, at root in all our recent atrocities is a willingness to reject long standing moral absolutes to chart some better tomorrow.  As a result, the ‘better tomorrow’ is a taste of hell on earth.

​The moral absolutes act as but what little driftwood we have on the great sea of time, being pulled quickly by the currents.  Sure, we may abandon the driftwood and swim against the current, but we quickly will lose energy and drown beneath the chaos of the sea. The current is God’s will, and only following with it, constantly holding to His commands, do we make it to shore safely. Even if we have a hard time giving ourselves over to the current of Providence, at the least, hold on to that driftwood.

​In truth, fighting against that current and trying to determine our own vision of goodness is always a fool’s game.  We do not know the full consequences of any action.  The wisest cannot see all ends.  Even great geniuses can barely predict much of the future at all.  Any single action causes effects that unpredictably ripple across the sea of reality until the end of time. To judge if it was the best action we would have to see the end of all things. One thing we can know, however, is to avoid evil actions regardless of the consequences. That is one thing we mortals can see: the morality of the act, here and now. The greatest nightmares would have been avoided if we did not compromise with these moral absolutes.

Deacon Ben Thomsen
Archdiocese of Atlanta

Like Humble Shepherds

December 10, 2021

I’ve noticed that when we go to the Holy Sites, we often need to duck down low to the ground to be able to reverence and meet Christ there: the door of humility at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the site of the Crucifixion is beneath an altar, and we all had to duck to step into Jesus’ tomb, the Holy Sepulcher. This lowering of ourselves to meet Jesus is beautifully exemplified by the shepherds in our Gospel. This example shows us how to carry out our future ministry of Word and Eucharist as Priests.

There is a striking depiction of these shepherds in the pilot episode of the series called The Chosen. This episode gives context and a backstory to the shepherds who met the Christ child. It depicts a shepherd who is poor, has a handicapped leg, hungers for Gods word, and is mistreated by many. He struggles to walk and make his way around Bethlehem. After arriving in Bethlehem during the day, he brings his lamb to be offered as a sacrifice. Sadly, he is rejected along with the lamb because it had a blemish. The priest told him that it was because of people like him that the Messiah had not yet come. Next, he is depicted as meeting Joseph and the pregnant Mary passing through. He offers them water and shows that he is a man of charity. When he attempts to hear the Word of God proclaimed, he is cast out of the meeting place. Finally, he falls to the ground after being bumped in the city and is stuck in the dust. No one helps him or seems to care.

He returns to the field with his sheep and night falls.  The other shepherds with him look down on him and tell him to sleep with the sheep in the field. Then God raises him up: the angels appear to all of the shepherds. He and the others make haste to the place where Jesus was born. He is healed on the way of his handicap and runs to meet Jesus. When he finally arrives, Joseph holds out the Christ child for him to hold. Christ is not given to the religious leaders who were arrogant, but to this humble man. This is what will happen for us as priests. In a matter of months, the Christ child will come into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit anointing our words and we will hold him in our hands at every Mass in the Eucharist. What a privilege! If we celebrate Mass with this humility and hold Jesus with reverence and love like this shepherd, others will be drawn into this mystery of the Incarnation with us.

Next, the shepherd asks Jesus’ name. When Mary tells him, he responds, “Everyone must know.” He runs through Bethlehem and tells anyone who will listen what he has seen and heard. The child Jesus can’t speak for himself to proclaim his own coming. In humility, he allows others to speak on his behalf. The Eucharistic Christ also does not speak audibly to the world and out of humility, he entrusts his preaching mission to us to preach in his name. 

Let us build our lives on the foundation of humility as this shepherd did so that our ministry will be effective in drawing all to the Eucharist and so that none of our words will fall to the ground.

Deacon Ben Valentine
Archdiocese of Dubuque

Mass at Calvary

December 7, 2021

I am impressed by the work of the Franciscans in the holy sites. After visiting the Holy Sepulcher multiple times, I realize they are always present leading people in prayer. Today we celebrated mass at the Crucifixion site inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which the Franciscans share with other Christian denominations. I feel proud of the Franciscans for representing our Tradition and for the work they do in managing the Masses celebrated each day. Every second spent inside these holy places is a blessing and that is because of the Franciscans’ presence for over 800 years.

Jesus walked, taught, suffered, cried, and poured out the last drops of His sacred blood where we celebrated Mass today. Here on Golgotha, or Calvary, Jesus endured his most humiliating moments. He was raised on the Cross just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. Today, we continue to be able to venerate this holy site because of the Franciscans who help in maintaining it. 

In the readings for today’s Mass, we heard that the Son of Man was lifted here so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. At Mass, when the priest raises up the Consecrated host and wine and says, behold the Lamb of God, it is the same Jesus who we are seeing. We often hear the Scripture passage, John 3:16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life.” May those words penetrate our hearts, because Jesus was not raised on the Cross for our condemnation but for us to be saved through Him.

Thanks to the Franciscans, the Crucifixion site continues to be venerated as the sacred place where Jesus poured out the last drops of His sacred blood and conquered death when he was raised, just as when Moses lifted up the serpent in the dessert.

Deacon Manuel Barrios
Diocese of San Jose

Life in the Spirit

December 7, 2021

The late-19th century Church of St. Peter in Jaffa commemorates the vision of the sheet with animals in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10. We were blessed to have mass there followed by exploring the area a bit. It is now a town where artists come to live, and it is reflected in the artistic goods available in the market and the decorations we saw around the city, such as a living orange tree suspended above-ground in a giant egg-shaped brown stone bowl.

We also had the chance to visit the port town about 38 miles north of Jaffa, Caesarea Maritima (called “Caesarea” in Acts 10:24). It was built in as little as 12 years by Herod as another port system. This effort required incredible amounts of marble and movement of land to build up the city and a palace for Herod. The town also had a theatre, a hippodrome, and many beautiful mosaics. This human city was built with Herod’s fearful rule and extreme demands. God’s Kingdom, however, is built with the Spirit’s promptings.

I had heard the Church of St. Peter would have a depiction of the vision of Peter, where a voice told him “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” (Acts 10:15) This vision would be the catalyst to his ministry to Cornelius, a man living in Caesarea. Peter’s and Cornelius’ visions, as well as Peter’s listening for the promptings of the Spirit, show that “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build.” (Ps 127:1) The fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) This is what we long for as Christians, this is the promise of the Father, this is the splendor of God revealed in our midst.

The most remarkable thing about the Church of St. Peter was the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove with golden rays shining out from it. This is the center of the story, the center of the Acts of the Apostles. The wondrous guiding light of the Spirit fills the living stones of the Church with life in abundance. May our ministry continue to call people to life and life in abundance in the Spirit!

Deacon David Sacha
Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan

Watching from the Mountain Top

December 7, 2021

Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel.” (Ez 3:17)

Throughout the Scriptures, mountain tops were sites of sacrifice to God or places to encounter him, such as Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. At the same time, they were places with military importance—vantage points to see enemies coming and fortifications to protect key locations from attack. Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration, had this purpose in ancient Israel.

Today, we visited the mountain fortress of Masada, a site filled with legends, mystery, and grandeur. Masada was used by several various groups with opposing goals—King Herod the Great built a palace-fortress for himself here, and a Roman garrison patrolled it, watching for Zealots in the region. A group of Jewish rebels captured it from them, and from its great height looked on as the Roman army built their camps and walls on the ground below. Centuries later, a group of monks came and built a monastery on the mountain, looking on into the wilderness.

As our group toured the site, looked at the buildings, and learned the story of those who had been there, we were struck by the expansive views of the Dead Sea and the land below. We had the sense that we were watching as those who came before—the soldiers who were watching for enemies, or the monks who would enjoy the view in prayer. For me as a seminarian, I was reminded of the verse from Ezekiel and the homily on that passage by St. Gregory the Great – “Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ez 3:17). The sentinel watches for enemies, and must stay at a high location, just like we were at Masada. They must stay there to be able to see and forewarn people of any coming dangers. In a similar way, we as seminarians are learning to be sentinels, learning the spiritual life and teaching others to avoid coming dangers, helping guide them safely to their spiritual destination: Heaven. The task is not easy, but the moments where we see the view—the joys and blessings of the spiritual life—they remind us of the importance of our task.

Our class is filled with joy as the day of ordination approaches us (some within six months), and even though we may not always know what is coming our way, we look forward to our task as leaders of the Church with great respect to what the Church asks of us as sentinels.

Dcn. Joseph Nguyen
Diocese of San Jose

Christ’s Passion

December 4, 2021

there a specific event in history attributed to the beginning of Christ’s passion? Was it when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss? Or maybe it was when Pontius Pilate sentenced Christ to death. Perhaps it was when Jesus told his disciples that the Son of God would be handed over to be crucified. These are a few of the possibilities I have heard from different people. I want to propose that Christ’s passion began when he experienced his first physical manifestation of stress.

He was in such agony, and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground (Luke 22:44). At the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed to the Father to take away the cup he was about to drink, the cup of his passion and death. The agony of knowing what was about to happen to him triggered high levels of anxiety to the point that his body reacted. Christ experienced hematohidrosis (also known as hemahidrosis), a rare condition with unknown etiology that occurs when an individual sweats blood. It has been associated with certain blood disorders, or a high level of stress. When related to stress, hematohidrosis occurs when the blood vessels surrounding the sweat glands contract. When anxiety passes, the vessels move from contraction to dilation, triggering their rupture. Consequently, the sweat glands push water (i.e., sweat) out through the pores, along with blood.

The narrative of Christ’s prayer on the Mount of Olives paves the way for priestly life. As men preparing to become In Persona Christi Capitis, we are being formed to follow the steps of the King, whose throne is the cross. We believe in a resurrected God, and we are called to live in Easter Sunday. However, we cannot have an Easter Sunday without a Holy Thursday and a Good Friday. The question comes to mindWhen we experience our own hematohidrosis in our priestly ministry, what can we do?

The Gospel of Matthew describes Christ taking three of his disciples with him to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:36-46). After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them, he prayed to the Father. Later, Christ went back to his disciples and found them asleep. He woke them up and encouraged them to pray. Christ did this three times, going to prayer and going back to his disciples. I would like to propose that Christ was looking for spiritual support from his disciples. Therefore, whenever the difficulties of our priestly ministry arrive, let us imitate Christ. We are invited to pray to the Father and then go to our brothers for support.        

How willing are we to give ourselves to serve the flock entrusted to us? How are we preparing ourselves to cope with our hematohidrosis? Let us take courage to minister to others, even when it could result in our own passion.

Deacon Christian Melendez-Cruz
Diocese of Yakima, Washington 


December 3, 2021

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a conference that focused on healing, identity, and doing away with the lies we carry about God and ourselves. At one point in this conference, they asked for three volunteers to step forward and to stand in the place of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in depicting Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Often after this exercise the volunteers report feeling deep senses of peace, love, intimacy with God, clarity, etc. In this case, however, two of the young men who volunteered—those portraying the Father and the Son—reported feeling resistance in their hearts in this experience, as if their hearts were saying, “I can’t be here…this isn’t for me.”

​When these young men finished speaking about their experience one of the many priests who was watching spoke up and said simply, “Brothers, I thank you for your honesty and courage because, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s all of us.” This statement, when it struck my ears, I found to be so true.

​And today, in this place, when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, the Lord through the Church is speaking right to this resistance in us. We can hear and say with an eye-roll, “we know,” when we are told, “You, too, since you have been baptised into Christ, are in word and truth God’s beloved child.” We can feel an internal repulsion to this message: “Me? Do you know who I am? Do you know what I’ve done?” And yet, this mystery of Jesus’ Baptism, this unveiling of the identity of Jesus as Beloved Son of God is truly an unveiling of the identity of those of us who are baptised into Christ: you are God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom He is well pleased.

​This is not only true, but this is the truest thing about you! Yet we encounter resistance in ourselves as we refuse to face Jesus and instead turn to our failures, our wounds, our past, and all the lies and false mirrors and perceptions of self we cling to idolatrously for our identity, and we try to stop our ears and suffocate the Breath of God who comes bringing this sweet realization to our minds. We so often fall for the mirrors and voices of lies past that we fall into the trap of thinking that truth is a majority vote—that the loudness of these lies makes them the truth.

​Truth is not a majority vote. Truth is Jesus Christ, even the truth about you. Jesus wants to take a figurative baseball bat to each of the lies we carry. He wants to break all the mirrors that you and I set up as we hide from our real identity as children of God. He sees and knows when we have lies we’ve been living in: mirrors call us, “forgotten”, but He takes that baseball bat and shatters this mirror; “There has never been a moment the Father hasn’t thought of you,” He says truly, confidently, and lovingly.

​Another mirror says, “unloved”. He shatters it; “Behold My wounds, and know that you are so loved by God that, in truth, you are worth God’s Blood.”

“​Orphan”? He shatters that one, too; “You are God’s beloved son, His beloved daughter, and He delights in you!”

​In His Baptism, in this very place, He embraces me, He embraces you, and He pulls us back into the waters of the Jordan with Him, into His very identity—our identity—saying, “The Spirit loves you. I love you. The Father loves you. And the only mirrors you will ever need are the only ones that will never lie: my tender and loving eyes looking back on you.”

Deacon Tom Logue
Diocese of Joliet

Following Jesus

December 1, 2021

Our time on pilgrimage has been filled with many blessings. Today we had the opportunity to visit and tour the Old City in Jerusalem. Here we found an invitation to immerse ourselves in the history and traditions that have shaped the very city and people that have lived here throughout the centuries. It was a journey through time to understand how the city came to be built up and the importance the different sites within the city have been to many communities of faith. The combination of archeological findings and faith traditions brought alive the scriptures and the final moments of Jesus.

The experience that best exemplifies this encounter is the Via Dolorasa, a way to pray the Stations of the Cross through the Old City. Its’ path winds through the city and brings you face to face with the passion of Jesus Christ. As we walked the steps of Jesus up to Golgotha, the call to trust in God resounded in my heart. It came to me especially when reflecting on the falls Jesus had on His way to His crucifixion. Even though Jesus stumbled, He continued to press forward. In taking up one’s cross and following Jesus, we can learn to trust in our Lord, with the assurance that He will lead me to where I need to go. The assurance He gives me is born of the love He has for me and for all of us. It brings me to the joy of His resurrection and the new life He wants me to live in Him. In a special way the empty tomb is the mark of these promises and my delight as I continue to follow Jesus and carry my own cross.

I pray we may continue to immerse ourselves in this love, so that we may draw closer to Jesus who is our truth and our life.

Andres Rojas
Archdiocese of Chicago

Something Big from Bethlehem

December 1, 2021

“But you, Bethlehem- Ephratath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” – Mi 5:1

We came into a small, humble town not far from Jerusalem, to what is one of the holiest and most significant destinations – the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Here, Jesus was born, the Messiah, the King of Israel. Here, the Incarnation was fully realized, the majesty of God coming to the world. And yet, he came down in difficult circumstances, born among the animals and laid in a manger, deep under the earth. Christ came to be among us in the lowliest, humblest way. His life was marked by humility, listening to and following his Father’s will. This is a virtue we must learn to integrate into our lives. No matter our achievements, the important positions we gain, or the fame we receive, we are little before God. Only what is done for him is valuable in the eyes of God.

In many ways this was reflected by the architectural features of the church itself. You have to enter an underground crypt in order to venerate the site where he was born, marked by a fourteen point star. The door to the church itself is famously low, where one must stoop down to enter – called the Door of Humility. Lowliness is no source of shame in the Christian life, rather, it directs one towards God.

This is apparent within the life of St. Jerome, who came to Bethlehem to study the Scriptures with Jewish Rabbis and to translate them from Hebrew and Greek into Latin- the Vulgate edition of the Bible, which the Church has used for so many centuries. St. Jerome himself had an experience of humility when earlier in life Christ chided him for living life more as a pagan than a Christian. In the cell where St. Jerome lived our pilgrimage group had Mass. As I served as deacon, I looked up towards the mosaic of St. Jerome with a text of Scripture. Here, St. Jerome created the Vulgate translation of the Scripture with pen and paper, in the same place where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

May we, wherever we are, learn to find greatness in humility.

Deacon Joseph Nguyen
Diocese of San Jose