“When one door closes, another opens.” – Alexander Graham Bell
This was my feeling when the airplane door closed as we headed to the Holy Land for the beginning of our pilgrimage. When the door opened again, many of us had little clue as to what we were going to encounter over the next seven weeks, but thanks be to God for an amazing experience that none of us will soon forget.
We started our pilgrimage by visiting the different sites in the area of Bethlehem. One of the most moving experiences of my life happened within the first few days of the pilgrimage, when as a class, we were able to visit the Church of the Nativity and adore at the very spot where Jesus was born of flesh and came into our world. I was overcome with emotion on several occasions, just thinking about how fortunate I was to be there. We were also able to visit other places, like monasteries, different sites with ruins that dated back to the time of Abraham and Moses, and spend time in contemplation and prayer over different passages in the Bible that link to the places that we were visiting.
Doors of encounter and opportunity continued to open for us as we shifted our focus to the hometown of the Holy Family in Nazareth. We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, and the Church of St. Joseph, built overtop of what is believed to be the homes of Jesus’ mother and foster-father. The Church of St. Joseph held special significance for me as I am a seminarian from a diocese named after this great Patron.
We then headed north to the Sea of Galilee, where we entered into our canonical retreat in preparation for upcoming ordinations. During this retreat, we passed the days in silence and contemplated the Gospels – particularly the call and life of St. Peter. Like Peter, each of us is personally called by Christ, who is preparing us to be “fishermen” for the sake of His Kingdom (see Luke 5:10).
The last door of our pilgrimage opened to the Holy City of Jerusalem, where we experienced many of the places Jesus spent the final part of his earthly ministry. I had the opportunity to stay overnight in the Holy Sepulcher, and pray at the Tomb of Jesus, which was another moving experience. To kneel before the place that Jesus was laid after He was taken down from the Cross was profound.
This pilgrimage wasn’t just about visiting different sites and spending time in prayer, but also the opportunity for us to encounter the people that live in these areas. We were able to talk to many shopkeepers, parishioners from both the Latin Rite and Eastern Rites, college students, tour guides, and everyone in between. We learned how Christians need our support and prayers in order to face the many challenges that mark daily life in the Holy Land. While many people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – earnestly strive to live in peace and harmony – this balance is still wanting in a landscape marked by political, social, religious, and racial tensions. Please continue to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and all the Holy Land.
Our group returned to Mundelein this past weekend. We are grateful for the past seven weeks abroad, yet all of us overjoyed to be back in the United States. Now that our Holy Land pilgrimage door has closed, we look forward to the next adventure the good Lord has in store for our class. Please keep us in prayer as we begin another academic semester at Mundelein, followed by Diaconate ordinations in the spring/summer months. God Bless!
“Behold. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” – Revelation 3:20
Part of pilgrimage is visiting sites that you greatly anticipated and being surprised at how little they touch or affect you. Conversely, you also encounter sites you perhaps did not even think about that are surprisingly impactful and meaningful. One of these for me was visiting the church at Gethsemane. Built by a famous Italian architect, it is a stunningly beautiful church with an amazing facade and high vaulted ceilings painted in gold.
But there are many beautiful churches here. What made this one special was an architectural choice that conveyed the mood of the setting: darkness. The church is very dimly lit, so that when one enters they immediately recall the verse from John’s Gospel that begins the Passion narrative: “And it was night” (John 13:30). This is a church dedicated to the darkness of Jesus, when he was so abandoned, isolated, and mentally distressed that he sweat blood and begged the Father to save him from his Passion. There is a slab of rock that is the traditional site where this took place, and it is directly before the altar of the church. This is the one significantly lit part of the church, drawing all eyes and attention to contemplate Christ in his darkness.
Often, we know that God is with us when times are good; it is easy to feel God’s presence when prayer comes easily and we are full of joy. But what about periods of not just mere difficulty, but true spiritual darkness? When we feel abandoned and isolated from God and doubt God’s love for us, his plan, and even his very existence?
Anyone who has experienced this type of spiritual darkness knows there is nothing else quite like it, and yet it is even there that we can be united to God in a special way through union with Christ in his agony in the garden. Christ endured and experienced all things, even personal and spiritual darkness. Because of this, there is no condition in which we find ourselves that cannot be an opportunity for deeper union with God. God is always present and seeking to draw you closer to him — even in and through the darkness.
Being on this pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been an eye-opening experience. It has been amazing to be able to contemplate the beauty and richness of this land. I refer to its culture, food, and especially its people.
I always remember what our director of pilgrimage, Father Kasule, said at the beginning of this experience: “it is important to know the Holy Places, but it is also important to know the people who make possible that these Holy places are still here among us. We should be thankful to the people that take care of them, and to the people who still live around them, so that we are able to visit them.” And I think that’s so true! This Holy Land is Holy for Jesus living here, but also Holy for the people that currently live here. It is incredible how people talk to you in the churches, streets, stores, or restaurants, even in and through cultural differences. They talk to you everywhere and every time, as if they knew you from many years ago.
I think that “having encounters” has been my favorite part on this pilgrimage. Pope Francis has invited us to be intentional when we talk to someone, so we can really care and listen to the person in front of us. An encounter is to be there for someone, to listen, to understand, to help, to love the other. It is about recognizing Jesus present in the other person. This pilgrimage has given us the opportunity to meet many people from all over the world, and we have attended masses in different languages such as English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Arabic. But I would say that the real beauty in it is the richness and variety of the Church, and that all of us are united by the same faith in the Lord Jesus. When we are open to that reality of faith, we will see each person as our friend, our brother or sister, because we also discover Jesus in that person.
Muchas veces vamos por la vida creyendo que Dios sólo está en el templo o dentro del sagrario, lo cual es correcto, pero olvidamos que Dios está también presente en nuestros hermanos. Cuando recorremos la Tierra Santa para conocer la historia y el desarrollo de toda esta región, nos damos cuenta de lo importante que es considerar cualquier lugar donde Jesús estuvo como santo, y es Santo porque Dios lo hace Santo. Pero es santo también por las personas que viven aquí y que tienen una fe muy profunda que los lleva a mantenerse de pie ante cualquier situación, problema o sufrimiento.
Creo que tenemos mucho que aprender en nuestro peregrinaje por la vida. Dios nos llama a ser compasivos, misericordiosos, y a ayudar siempre a los demás. A veces vivimos en una burbuja personal-familiar que nos impide reconocer que Dios está presente también afuera de los templos. Jesús está presente en nuestros hermanos y hermanas con los que compartimos cada día y en cada lugar. Hagamos que nuestro peregrinaje por la vida, en cualquier parte donde estemos, sirva para reconocer esos lugares Santos donde Dios se hace presente.
We all are on a pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of life, it is time to discover every Holy place where God manifests himself to us. Those Holy places could be our house, our work, our school, our family, our Church. It is time to recognize the face of Jesus on every person around us, so we can treat them with love, respect, and appreciation. I invite all of you to have an encounter with Jesus, not just in the Church, or in front of the tabernacle, but also with Jesus present in our brothers and sisters everywhere we go.
Our experience of the Liturgy over the past week has been both puzzling and beautiful. We just finished the Christmas Octave, the eight-day elongation of Christmas day which calls for a Christmas Mass on each of the eight days. When visiting a holy site, however, it’s customary for pilgrims to celebrate the Mass for that site in order to better enter into the spirit of the place. This past weekend, for example, we celebrated an Easter Mass at the Holy Sepulcher, the great pilgrim church which houses the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Celebrating an Easter Mass and a Christmas Mass on two consecutive days was an odd experience which, predictably, prompted some lively discussions within our group.
On the one hand, it was startling to experience the Church’s two most important feasts—Christ’s birth and his death and resurrection—in such close proximity to each other. On one day we contemplated the mystery of the Incarnation while experiencing the traditions associated with it (Christmas trees, carols, etc.); and on the next day, we tried to imagine Easter eggs, palm branches, and spring weather as we celebrated Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
On the other hand, this sequence of liturgies was very appropriate. In his classic Life of Christ Fulton Sheen meditates on the relationship between the birth and death of Jesus, repeatedly emphasizing that Christ was born in order to die. The ultimate purpose of Christmas is the redemption won for us through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection which we celebrate during the Easter Triduum. Jesus came to accomplish a mission, our salvation; and if the different mysteries of our faith shed light on different aspects of that mission, then Christmas reveals that Jesus came to be like us in our humanity. Easter reveals an even deeper dimension of this mystery—Jesus’ desire to share in our sufferings in order to free us from sin and death. Easter clarifies the meaning of Christmas. From this perspective, our celebration of an Easter Mass during the Christmas Octave enhanced our experience of season.
Yes, the odd sequencing of liturgies was a little discombobulating at first. Ultimately, though, it proved to be yet another unexpected grace of this pilgrimage that helped all of us appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation a little more deeply.
Happy New Year to everyone back home! Today not only begins a new year, but is the final day of the Christmas-Octave in the Latin Church’s liturgical calendar. As such, we reminisce on what a blessed year and Christmas this has been. For us, the Christmas festivities began eight days ago with an excursion to the city of our Savior’s birth. In Bethlehem, things are done in no small fashion to re-welcome Jesus into their town:
Festivities begin at noon on Christmas Eve with a massive parade; dozens of youth marching bands, dancers, and baton-twirlers flow down the crowded streets lined with locals, tourists, and vendors alike. The very last entry in the parade is the Latin Patriarch himself (equivalent to the Archbishop) who concludes the parade at around 3 pm at the Church of the Nativity.
The celebration at the Church of the Nativity resumes at 10 pm with music and prayer in a multitude of languages. This prayerful prelude lasts for nearly two hours, when bells suddenly resound into the night sky. This sudden blast of joy marks the beginning of Midnight Mass – Christmas has officially arrived! The Mass was celebrated in Arabic, Latin, and English. What the lowly shepherds ran to see back then, thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world now re-live. The convergence of all time, space, and history on the event of Jesus’ birth is tangibly experienced in this sacred place. As the priest distributed Communion, it was as if Mary and Joseph were there handing us their newborn Son. At the conclusion of Mass, the Patriarch carried a ceramic baby Jesus downstairs to the crypt chapel to what is believed to be the very manger (a stone animal feeding trough) where the newborn Jesus was once placed.
Once the Vigil Mass concluded, around 2:30 am, we continued our celebrations with appetizers and champagne at the local seminary in the town of Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Despite this being one of their busiest weekends of the year, the faculty and seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate were more than happy to welcome us into their home from ½ way around the world. Good for us, there was in fact room at their inn for us that night!
Celebrating Christmas at the exact location of the Lord Jesus’ birth was an experience that none of us will forget, and it was made possible by the immense generosity and faithfulness of the people of Bethlehem. As we celebrate this Christmas season, may our own faith drive us to generosity as we witness what the Incarnate Son of God has done for us.
Being a celibate priest in the Catholic Church is, at one moment, a freedom to be ever-present to the parish you serve as a priest; it also carries with it the unique tensions of meeting the familial hopes and expectations that we have had our entire lives – to be there for family and friends, especially during the holidays.
The apostles knew this tension- they all had their own families, and we hear about their families not infrequently, as the Gospels witness Jesus’ family thinking he had “lost it,” or Peter’s mother in law falling ill, or the mother of John and James trying to get her sons set up for a “cushy” post in the new Messiahship. They all came from diverse familial backgrounds which no doubt tugged at their sense of responsibility to “be there” for their loved ones, while also being there for each other, as the community of Christ’s apostles.
I attached photos of the Church of the Transfiguration, which we visited several weeks ago. The Transfiguration event reminds me of a similar tension faced by Christ and his apostles. What I love is Peter’s heartfelt response to the incredible, albeit overwhelming event unfolding before him: “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Christmas day was two days ago. Most of us broke away to call our families and loved ones or send videotaped messages. It was uniquely challenging being away from those we love in this Holy Land at this singularly joyous time of year. But after sending our love back home, we all came together as future fellow priests, brothers of a shared calling. It felt comforting that we had each other. Indeed, as God said in Genesis, it is not good for the man to be alone. And we were not alone. We had one another on the Feast of our Lord’s birth in the land of his birth. It felt, as Peter once remarked, good, indeed, for us to be here.
One of the most impactful experiences in the Holy Land for me has been an unexpected one. We have been able to see some beautiful and historically significant sites such as the Nativity, Annunciation, and the Tombs of the Patriarchs in the past three weeks. These places have all provided me much content for prayerful reflection, but something that has impacted me deeply and in an unexpected way is the landscape itself.
From my coursework at seminary, I knew the general topography of the Holy Land: fertile mountains, hills, and plains to the north and west of Jerusalem and dry, arid mountains and desert to the East and South. Being here and experiencing it firsthand, however, has brought new depth and life to many of the biblical stories. One place that gave me new insight into the scriptures, particularly Psalms and Exodus, was our visit to Mar Saba.
Mar Saba is an ancient hermitage and monastery situated in the Kidron Valley southeast of Jerusalem in a very arid region. Kidron in Aramaic means “darkness” and I can only imagine this place is what David was envisioning when he wrote Psalm 23: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even then I do not fear.” The surrounding environment is so hostile to life. There’s large, rocky mountains with no water or greenery. To be led by green pastures and waters of repose truly would be a longing of the heart in this place! Here, one has little choice but to trust in the Lord and His ability to provide. It’s amazing how the landscape and one’s interaction and reflection on it can shape our spirituality and orient us to the Lord. I’m certain this is why so many holy men have sought to become hermits in this place.
Unlike the monks we visited who will live at Mar Saba until they die, our group wandered back into civilization after our brief excursion into the desert cliffs. Upon our return, we engaged in a friendly volleyball game with college students at a local university. Quite the contrast from the Monastery!
Whether encountering monks who have decided to renounce the world in a radical way, or young people seeking to better their lives through studies and recreation, the landscape here provides a tangible reminder that in this life, we are all wanderers looking for a path to the Promise Land. Fortunately, we are not left alone in our wandering, our Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, is with us every step of the way.
As we approach Christmas, let us remember “Emmanuel,” God is truly with us. He is Way, the Truth, and the Life. Only through Him are we led out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the Promised Land. For He is the Good Shepherd alongside whom we have nothing to fear.
Dusty Toyota trucks, detailed luxury sedans, and puttering mopeds. Throw these together with countless pedestrians in the winding streets of Bethlehem, and you get a cacophony of sound and activity that would rival even the busiest of days in Time Square. Walking through the streets, one notices that the locals speak Arabic, English, French…and car horn (fluently). What one does not notice is the “little town of Bethlehem” so often sung about at Christmas time. Yet despite all the noise, one gets the sense that there is something about this place that whispers the presence of God. Walking through the narrow streets filled with shopkeepers doing their best to draw your attention, you arrive at the Church of the Nativity feeling finally free of the outside noise only to be confronted with the dull roar of hundreds of people doing their best to speak with each other with their “inside voices.” You shuffle through the crowd of people until you get a solid three seconds to touch the spot where the Savior was born.
Recently, we took a day trip to the monastery of Mar Saba. Established by St. Sabas in 502 AD, the monastery sits in the Kidron valley on the very edge of the Judaean wilderness. St. Sabas, like countless other monks and hermits, left the hustle and bustle of the city for the silence of the wilderness in search of hearing the whisper of God more clearly. The nine monks that inhabit the monastery now are part of the oldest perpetually inhabited monastery of the Christian world. But instead of the silence of the desert, the monks encounter hundreds of pilgrims who come to reverence the relics of St. Sabas and to see the beautiful desert scenery. Truly a beautiful sacrifice of love on the part of these monks – I am sure they would rather sit in silence with the Lord.
The monks offer us a clear imperative: to seek the Lord in silence! I say imperative because our Lord himself tells us to close the door of our rooms and pray to our Father in secret (Matthew 6:6). To seek interior silence is consequently not reserved to monks and “holy people.” It’s for all of us – and all of us can seek after it. Not all of us can retreat to a desert monastery, but all of us are familiar with the noise of daily life. The pilgrimage of the heart is to seek after silence in order to hear God’s voice. This can truly be done. Why? Because in the dark streets of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a man. He was born in a cave and laid in silence in the food trough for animals. In time, his feet became strong, and he walked among us in this land in search of resting places in the homes of men. Now he stands at the door to our hearts and begs us for refuge within. In response to our charity, he will give us his peace as he is laid to rest in the silence of our hearts.
Please be assured of my continued prayers for all who read this blog, and in your charity pray for us as we continue our pilgrimage.
One of the things I have learned about my own spiritual life during my time in seminary is that it is very much grounded in memory. In prayer, God will repeatedly draw me back to certain moments from my past to show me how he has always been working, forming me into the man I am today. This movement always initiates the same response: A sense of thanksgiving and a deep awareness that God has placed his fingerprint on every moment of my life.
This theme of memory is something that I continue to sit with as we progress on our pilgrimage through the Holy Land. The past is not a thing to be forgotten here, it is a living reality that shapes the future of all those who visit these sacred sites. Figures like Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and Elizabeth not only show us where we have been, they show us where we are going, and they inspire us to live the Christian life with more joy and intention.
Recognizing the gifts that God has given us and responding with gratitude is a concrete truth of the spiritual life and a sure-fire way to draw closer to Christ and his Church. The sites of the Holy Land remind us that Jesus was a real person who lived at a particular time and in a particular place. That life is something he asks us to remember every time we go to Mass. The words “do this in memory of me” uttered by Jesus at the last supper and again by the priest at every Mass give meaning to our thanksgiving. We are confident in what God will do for us because we are confident in what he has already done for us.