I’ll never forget the day my husband called me from the Catholic organization where he worked. “Honey, the boss said that the Pontifical Council for the Family prefers to meet couples rather than just individuals. He thinks that when I go to Rome next month, you should come along, too. Can you find someone to watch the kids?”
Oh, yeah! Childcare? No problem! Rome, here I come!
Much of the five-day trip was used up in travel, and more for the Vatican meetings, but I was determined to see as many sites as we could pack into the time left over. I had my guidebook, my checklist of sites, and my walking shoes. On our first free day, we power-walked from our lodgings to St. Peter’s Square. Then I entered the Basilica. Time stood still; my packed schedule was forgotten. I was struck first by the immensity of the place, but second by a sense that I’d come home. A sense that this place was mine: a piece of my Catholic birthright and a foretaste of the “many mansions” that are in our Father’s house. In that moment, I was transformed from tourist to pilgrim.
A pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place, undertaken with the intention of becoming closer to God. (In other words, you’re not just there for the architecture and scenery.) There are many shrines available to the Catholic pilgrim, but the ultimate sacred place is the Holy Land. Millions journey there every year in order to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, worship in the places where our redemption was accomplished, and gaze upon the countryside that he once called home.
Author and filmmaker Steve Ray has directed over 50 pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the last decade. He knows that, for the thousands of pilgrims he has led, these are no mere vacations. “Vacations are where you lounge in the sun and drink daiquiris. These journeys are not about us. They’re about going out of our comfort zones and into a place where we discover God.” Ray notes that several Holy Land churches are appropriately decorated with a symbol of two deer drinking from a spring. This references Psalm 42: “Like the deer that thirsts for flowing streams, so my soul is thirsting for you, my God.” This verse captures a pilgrim’s desire for a deeper relationship with the Lord. And in Ray’s experience, the Holy Land pilgrim has that desire met in unexpected ways.
“The comments I get all the time are, ‘Now the Bible has come alive for me!’ or ‘Christmas and the Easter Triduum have such meaning now! During the readings at Mass, I want to jab the person next to me and tell them I was there!’” Ray says. “There have been dramatic conversions or reversions to the Catholic faith. And I’ll never forget the quiet woman who came to me afterward and said that her family had paid for her to come because she’d been contemplating suicide. She was healed from those thoughts as a result of visiting the Holy Land.”
You don’t have to be in need of a conversion to be deeply impacted by a visit to the Holy Land. Those who told Catholic Digest about their pilgrimages didn’t go with a sense of need, but they returned from their journeys finding themselves moved in ways they hadn’t expected.
For Sue and Terry Moore of Lucinda, Pennsylvania, a trip to the Holy Land in 2011 was a long-planned treat to celebrate Sue’s recent retirement. Each of them responded in a different way to what they experienced. “From the moment I stepped off the plane, I had a keen sense of being on holy ground. It’s an indescribable sensation. But if I had to name a highlight, it was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” (This large church encloses not only the tomb of Jesus but also the hill of Golgotha.) “There’s a place where you kneel and reach under an altar and down through a hole in the floor to touch the top of the rock where Jesus was crucified. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of ‘spiritual electricity’ that came when I touched it…. It was an extremely emotional moment.”
Sue described other experiences, including a Palm Sunday Mass with a small group held within the actual tomb of Christ. When asked whether the trip changed her, she didn’t hesitate: “The whole time I had a sense of Jesus providing everything that happened there, and I truly felt in his hands. The sense that God is always in control came home with me and remains to this day.”
Although Terry shared his wife’s enthusiasm for the sites they saw together, he was particularly moved when he could be “out walking by myself around the Sea of Galilee, watching the fishermen getting ready to work. You feel the presence of Jesus. You see which spots had good natural acoustics for him to preach. You look at a little valley and wonder, Did he take a shortcut here or go some different way?”
Terry came away with a different grace than his devout wife. “I wasn’t too pious before the trip. I just didn’t get it, but now, I really know! I wear a cross all the time. I think twice before doing things I used to do, like losing my temper or telling an off-color joke.”
Teacher and author Allan Wright has been to the Holy Land several times, and he knows the importance of having educated guides. In 1995 he attended an institute where local Middle-Eastern scholars brought their perspective to Gospel stories and accompanied the pilgrims to different sites. “They made those stones come to life! For example, just two words from the parable of the prodigal son: ‘He ran.’ Our teacher explained that a Middle-Eastern man is known by his walk—a great man uses a slow, even gait to show that he has his affairs in order—unlike Americans who show their importance by hurrying. So the phrase ‘he ran’ in that context revealed a costly demonstration of the father’s unexpected love.” After visiting the Holy Land, Wright says, “You’ll never read the Gospels the same way again.”
Catholic Digest hosted its own Holy Land pilgrimage in 2013. Managing editor Robyn Lee has her own story to tell. “I wanted to get beyond the Hollywood images of biblical lands and see with my own eyes the places where Jesus walked. With all the excitement it took a while for it to sink in that I was really in the Holy Land. But as I boarded the boat that sailed across the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee, it hit me—the water Jesus had walked on, the sea that obeyed his command in a violent storm, the shore where he preached—this was it!” A lifelong practicing Catholic, Robyn now believes more firmly than ever. “The sight of these places solidifies in my mind and heart that Jesus was a real person—the living God who came to earth to show us how to love. If God died for me, my life has to change. I must be ready to follow wherever he leads me.”