Holy Land Pilgrimage

22 November – 2 December 2015. Written by Veronica Nevard of Ryde

On the Feast of Christ the King, seven of us from the Isle of Wight (six from St. Mary’s Parish) joined 100 others for the Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by His Lordship Bishop Philip Egan, assisted by Monsignor Vincent Harvey and Fr. James McAuley. The first visit was to Bethlehem.

After breakfast, we visited the School of Joy in Beit Sahour, the town of the shepherds. The school was founded in 1993 to support and educate children with special needs and is the only such one in the region. It is run by Father Mamdouh Abu Sa’da with the help of six teachers and currently caters for 58 young people. It is run entirely on donations with no funding from the government. As well as a basic education in reading, writing and mathematics, the boys are taught woodwork, enabling them to make a wide variety of objects from olive wood. The girls are taught needlework and embroidery and we managed to buy many examples of their handiwork during our visit. The school is one of the projects supported by Friends of the Holy Land (FHL).

Each day Mass was concelebrated by the Bishop and priests with one of the three deacons assisting and preaching. On Tuesday 24th, we walked to the nearby ancient Basilica of the Nativity (owned jointly by the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox) and Mass was celebrated in the adjoining Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Most appropriately, but nevertheless seeming incongruous and out of season, we sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.

After Mass, some of us visited St. Vincent’s orphanage, whilst others went to St. Martha’s, a Day-Care Facility for elderly ladies. These were two more projects supported by FHL. Next it was on to Jericho. As on most of the following days, we passed sections of the Separation Barrier and were stopped at checkpoints (where no photographs were allowed) when passing between Israel and areas under Palestinian Authority. Bethlehem and Jericho are both in the West Bank, that is, in Palestine, but our route would take us through the Israeli side of Jerusalem. As well as fast modern roads we passed through stony desert, but also some fertile areas of date-palm cultivation. We stopped to view the Mount of Temptation and eventually reached Jericho. We travelled next to the shores of the River Jordan where, watched by armed guards, we renewed our Baptismal Promises. Across the river, also watched by armed guards, we saw pilgrims in white garments totally immersing themselves in the Jordan.

After lunch, most of us took the opportunity to float in the Dead Sea, with the option of covering oneself with the black mud, alleged to have therapeutic properties.

During our pilgrimage we were shocked to learn about the dire situation for Christians in the Holy Land and how their numbers have slowly but surely decreased. In 1946, 20% of residents living in Israel/Palestine were Christians. Today only 1% of the population is Christian. Having seen first hand, some of the valuable work done by FHL it was to this organisation that our Bishop decided to send crib offerings from all the parishes in the diocese.

We were also privileged to have a visit from Bishop William Shomali, an auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate and the Vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine. He made a short welcoming speech and suggested our pilgrimage should have three fruits:

an increase in our faith – a better knowledge of the Bible – a spiritual transformation

The next day we travelled to Ain Karem and the Church of St. John the Baptist – traditionally the place where he was born. On the outside of the church are 24 large tile plaques displaying the Benedictus in different languages. Each morning the Bishop led Morning Prayer and the Benedictus was sung to one of the Quarr psalm tones. Mass was offered today in the nearby Church of the Visitation. Here can be seen ceramic plaques displaying the words of the Magnificat in more than 40 languages.

We returned to Bethlehem in the afternoon to visit the Shepherds’ Fields in the village of Beit Sahour. Although no-one knows the exact location of the angelic announcement it is certain that in the time of Jesus’ birth these open fields below the town are where shepherds would have been tending their flocks. The modern Church of the Angels, designed in the style of a nomadic tent, is circular inside with frescoes of the shepherds joyfully making their way from Bethlehem. After singing, ‘Angels we have heard on High’, we made our way to Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Nativity where we were able to visit the Grotto of the Manger and venerate, through the 14 pointed silver star, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Next morning, Thursday 26, we set off for Jerusalem. From the Mount of Olives we surveyed the panoramic view over the city, dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built over the rock thought to be w here Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. After visiting the Pater Noster Church (wall tiles here with the ‘Our Father’ in over 100 languages), we walked the steps of the Palm Sunday Procession, stopping first in the huge Jewish cemetery before going on to Dominus Flevit Church where we were shown the Acacia trees with their deadly three to four inch thorns, the like of which were used to make the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. From there, we continued down to the Garden of Gethsemane. With olive trees, reputedly old enough to have been there in Jesus’ time, it still provides an oasis of calm off the busy road outside.

In the afternoon the coach took us to Mount Zion and in the crypt of the Dormition Abbey we saw the life-size carved wood and ivory statue of Our Lady lying on her death bed. Here, too, we saw an unusual icon showing the man Jesus holding Mary as a baby. Mass was in the Cenacle where the Institution of the Holy Eucharist is commemorated. The next morning we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encloses both the site of the Resurrection and Calvary. The covered alleyways were quiet and the shops still closed – a very different scene from the bustling market we had glimpsed yesterday. Mass was in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. From here we walked to St. Anne’s Church and the Pool of Bethesda and on to the Sion Convent on the Via Dolorosa, where we had lunch. After visiting Lithostrotos (a section of Roman Pavement, with grooves to drain away rain water and striations to prevent hooves slipping) we returned to the hotel, where we were addressed at the Latin Patriarchate by Emeritus Bishop Kamal Hanna Bathish.

The following day, Saturday 28th November, we had Mass in the Church of the Latin Patriarch. He is the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Archbishop so his church is what we would call a Cathedral. In Jerusalem it is a co cathedral (with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

After Mass, we joined the Jewish faithful praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall; a separate area for men (heads covered) and women. Later we walked the Via Dolorosa, the Bishop leading the prayers at each of the 14 Stations.

The next day was Advent Sunday. We returned to Bethlehem for Mass in the Parish Church at Beit Sahour. We then drove to Nazareth, visiting the huge Basilica of the Annunciation and the Synagogue Church and continuing to our next hotel, in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

Mass on the next day was in the open air at Tabgha, the traditional site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The altar was a large flat stone and behind the priests a panoramic view of the sea of Galilee; no boats, no people, no wind, nothing but the calm waters: a view that can have changed hardly at all since Jesus’ time. The afternoon was spent sailing across the calm Lake back to Tiberias. On one bank was the country of the Gadarenes where Jesus cast out the demons which entered the herd of swine.

The next day was the final one of the pilgrimage. After visiting Mount Tabor for Mass in the Church of the Transfiguration, we had lunch in Jaffa and then travelled to Cana where married couples were able to renew their marriage vows in a simple but moving ceremony conducted by Monsignor Harvey. The Sisters running this Church were Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate: the order we became familiar with last Christmas in Ryde while they were living in St. Cecilia’s Abbey and sometimes attending Mass at St. Mary’s in their distinctive blue/grey habits.

We had experienced 10 wonderful, breathless days in the ‘Steps of the Master’. We are most grateful for the detailed organisation beforehand, excellent local guides and the spiritual direction and support offered by the Bishop and his team. The only regret was that we did not have more time, not necessarily to see more, but time to savour and reflect upon what we did see and experience. If there is another opportunity, take it!