Mercy in the Holy Land

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 — un-cut ringlets some Orthodox Jewish men wear on their temples in accordance with a Biblical restriction against cutting the hair there. The men softly recite ancient prayers, which mingle with the sound of seatbelts being unfastened and mobile phones being powered on a by passengers eager to disembark. There's a 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's in this land where acts of mercy — both large and small — continue every day.

A Catholic Pilgrimage

Rome is often the first place people think of when considering the Catholic Church. In Rome, a Catholic experiences the beauty, grandeur and history of Catholicism. Most of the disciples, martyred for their faith, are buried there. The Vatican Museums display beautiful art, produced over centuries and depicting what Catholics hold sacred. In the life of the Catholic Church, Rome is its Sunday best.

But Israel is the place to experience the day-to-day, living faith of Christianity.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a moving experience because not only was Jesus Christ born there, but so was the Catholic Church. The mercy inherent in Christ's birth and subsequent rise of the faith is tangible in the Holy Land: the stone room in which Christ's birth was announced by an angel; the setting of Gospel readings, Caesarea Philippi, where Christ told Peter, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church;" the location where the Our Father was first prayed; the garden where He bitterly wept; the rock where His battered, bloodied body hung on a cross; and the place where His glorious, salvific resurrection occurred. All are there.

The Church of the Primacy of Peter is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, near 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?" At this very location, Christ, once again, showed His love and mercy for the disciples. 

Habib Karam prayed at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The church is built at the spot of Mary’s home, where she was told by the angel that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Karam said, "The Holy Family lived here. Catholics should come and experience it for themselves." 

The most distinguishing feature of the Jerusalem landscape is the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount, the original home to the temple built by King Solomon for the Arc of the Covenant. The mount was later captured by Muslim armies during an invasion of Jerusalem and is now home to Al-Aqṣā Mosque. 

A St. Louis priest, Father Connor Sullivan, 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," Father Sullivan said. "... 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 was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — his first time there since his ordination in 2014. Looking over the Sea of Galilee, he reflected on how the events of Jesus' life are geographically connected.

Read more about the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and see more photos over the next few days on the Virtual Vestibule blog,

"I remembered that these were the waters upon which Jesus walked," he said. "These were the waters that Jesus calmed when the storm was tossing the little fishing boat and threatening the apostles. Here in Galilee, the beginning and the end of our Lord's public ministry meet — along the coast of the same Sea of Galilee."

Recently, a group of pilgrims from St. Vladimir and Church of the Resurrection parishes in Ukraine put their feet in the Sea of Galilee. Overwhelmed with joy and excitement to step into the very sea upon which Christ walked 2,000 years ago, an older woman bolted toward the water, her grey hair covered by a bright kerchief that framed her smile. She nearly fell several times removing her sandals on the run. She stopped at the water, took in her surroundings and cried, still with the smile on her face. 

Ukranian women on pilgrimage to the Holy Land ran down a rocky shoreline to get into the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The women were overcome with emotion being in the same places Jesus walked. The group is from St. Volodymyr and Olha Church in Lviv and Church of the Resurrection in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. 

'This Is a Holy Place'

Outside the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel, a small placard declares, "This Is a Holy Place." Other places in Israel merit the description, including the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the childhood home of Jesus.

The Basilica of the Annunciation was built it 1969 on the site of the remains of Crusader and Byzantine buildings. It's the same place where the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had found favor with God and would bear a son. The basilica now is the parish church for all of Nazareth and to 8,000 people.

Tradition holds that the central grotto of the basilica was Mary's home. The small stone room, once home to an unassuming Jewish girl, now houses a small altar bearing the inscription verbum caro hic factum est (here the Word became flesh). Behind the altar red lamps hung over a modest, gold tabernacle, all behind a locked gate.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was there, protected in the virgin womb of His mother, Mary. Today, through the miracle of transubstantiation, Jesus Christ — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — is still present in that very place protected by the gilded doors of the tabernacle and the secured gate.

Habib Karam, native Nazarene and parishioner of the Basilica of the Annunciation, is eager to show visitors this special place. When asked why Catholics must visit the Holy Land, Karam replied: "The Holy Family lived here. Catholics should come and experience it for themselves."

Karam invites pilgrims to 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, the doctrine of the Real Presence is a significant aspect of being in the Holy Land. 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

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 but where Jesus is. 

The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is identified as the place of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. The church has long been a major pilgrimage center for Christians all around the world. Six denominations, among the most ancient in Christianity, celebrate their rites in the gigantic church

Brother Olivier, the prior of the French Benedictine Monastery in Abu Gosh, consoled a young boy after Mass and made sure he had the opportunity to receive Communion. The town is believed to be a temporary home for the Ark of the Covenant, and the tabernacle of the church built in the 12th century reflects that tradition.

Small acts of mercy

Tucked away on the ancient route from Jaffa to Jerusalem is the Arab village Abu Gosh. Once a temporary home to the Ark of the Covenant, today it's home to a 12th century Crusader church — at one point used as a stable after being conquered by Muslims — now serving as a French Benedictine Monastery, 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 into what, according to the Benedictine rule, would be his permanent home in the Abu Gosh Monastery. In his time there, Brother Olivier learned Hebrew, became a father figure to young soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces and served as a friend to Muslim neighbors who visited. They learn about the Christianity he lives and forge 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 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.

His tenderness made an otherwise unpleasant situation a small moment of mercy for a young French boy one recent Sunday afternoon. Made to stand in the corner of the church for misbehaving at Mass, the boy remained in his spot until granted a reprieve by his mother, long after Brother Olivier had distributed Holy Communion. Upset that he hadn't received the Blessed Sacrament, the boy cried as he explained his sorrow to 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. 

Each year more than a half million Christian tourists and pilgrims come to experience baptisms in the waters in which Jesus was baptized. Protestant faiths offer full submersion baptisms, Orthodox customs include a "sprinkling" of water and Catholics stand along the shore line renewing the promises of their own baptisms. Seventy-year-old Elena Flurnza was baptized by Father Zrvarte Vasile from St. Gregory Roman Orthodox Church in Moinești Romania. 

In the Land of Mercy

Somewhat a microcosm of the Holy Land itself, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is among the holiest places on earth for Orthodox and Roman Catholics. It's recognized as the location where the Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ took place. Several faith groups lay claim to this place. Six denominations, among the most ancient 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 own 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, the graffiti carved into the church's stone walls reminds Christians that the most merciful act ever took place there, for all of mankind. Thousands of small crosses, etched by pilgrims for more than 1,000 years, including the well-known Jerusalem Cross of the Crusaders, cover the interior walls. They remind pilgrims today of the faithful travelers who came before, venerating this holy place, wanting to leave behind a small sign they were there.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in perhaps the most paradoxical city 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. 

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest of Jewish sites, sacred because it's a remnant of the Herodian retaining wall that once enclosed and supported the Second Temple. It has also been called the "Wailing Wall" by European observers because for centuries Jews have gathered here to lament the loss of their temple. The plaza by the Western Wall also functions as an open-air synagogue.

The words verbum caro hic factum est (here the Word became flesh) mark the spot traditionally held to be the home of Mary, Mother of Jesus, in Nazareth. The Basilica of the Annunciation was built it 1969 on the site of the remains of Crusader and Byzantine building over the traditional spot of Mary's home. The basilica now is the parish church for all of Nazareth and to 8,000 people. 

Jerusalem is often referred to as being both of Heaven and of earth. To be there is to understand the description. In Jerusalem God said, "My Name shall be there." (1 Kings 8:29). To walk the stone paths of this ancient city is to walk where Christ walked, fell and bled. There's no escaping that the fingertips of the ancient and modern, sacred and secular touch here every day.Although many Americans equate Jerusalem with religious unrest, continual turmoil and potential danger, the city's residents — Jewish, Catholics and Muslims — live side-by-side in an understood peace and mutual respect, 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 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's possible to practice mercy when terrorists want to inflict harm 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," just as it was during Christ's Passion and Resurrection.

It is important that Catholics make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The very faith that today has over 1.2 billion followers began there. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, suffered for the sins of mankind, for all time, and He died and rose here.

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 mercy was shown and lived out, and for which no one ever will sufficiently merit. For a Catholic, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a trip home, a home where mercy lives. 

After exiting the altar at the site of Jesus' crucifixion inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Tama Kartvelishvili, a medical doctor on fellowship with Save the Children's heart program, prayed for the heath of her family and her country of Georgia. She stressed how important peace is in the world.

Christian Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

The pilgrimage to Jerusalem by Empress Saint Helena in the year 326 would forever position the Holy Land as an important destination for anyone identifying as a follower of Jesus Christ, and that place of importance for Catholics has only grown over time. St. Helena's discovery of relics and the various holy sites are sites still visited by pilgrims today. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2014, out of 3.3 million visitors to Israel, 56% of incoming tourism was Christian tourism, 41% of which was Catholic.

A pilgrimage is a journey that's sole purpose is to honor God. In the Torah, God commands Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year: Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). Because the Jews, our elder brothers in faith, were familiar with this mandate from God, a pilgrimage would not have been an idea foreign to the early Christians.

Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land virtually since beginning of the Faith. The early Christian scholar, Origen, recorded examples of inhabitants of the Holy Land showing ancient visitors sites where Christ performed miracles as early as the 3rd century. One of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land in search of the places where Jesus lived and carried out His public ministry is an inscription in a stone that reads, "Lord, we are here."

For Christians, making a pilgrimage has never been something into which a person entered lightly. The very early Christians traveled from various parts of then-Judea to the different locations around the country where locals directed them to sites where Jesus and the Disciples exorcised demons, healed the sick, and taught the Word of God. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were sometimes given as a penance to a penitent who had committed a particularly heinous sin, not so much as a punishment, but as a purgative of sorts in order to atone appropriately for that sin because, in addition to a pilgrimage being a way to pay homage to the Lord, a pilgrimage, by its nature, is meant to be an arduous undertaking; the idea being that Christ carried His cross for all mankind, so could a pilgrim suffer a bit traveling to the land of His birth. The suffering experienced during the journey could be "offered up" for the poor souls in Purgatory, so it was not only a cleansing suffering, but a fruitful suffering as well.

For the modern pilgrim, the worst hardships to be experienced during the journey probably don't extend much beyond a delayed connecting flight, a crowded plane, or lost luggage; however, the prayerful activity of a pilgrimage is still recommended to the faithful.

Making a pilgrimage, particularly to the Holy Land, is an important spiritual undertaking that will deepen a person's faith in a unique way. For anyone not familiar with the history of Christianity, being in the Holy Land fleshes out the missing pieces, allowing for a much clearer, firmer foothold in the genealogy of the faith. Israel makes real for Christians the Jewish past that is the cornerstone of the present faith.

Israel is the birthplace of Christianity, creating a bond between the place and the faith that cannot and should not ever be severed. 

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