Pilgrims from the Queen’s University Newman House hold up their school flag in front of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. Photo by Vladimir Mamaradlo

Seeing Scripture come to life in the Holy Land

By  Andrea Maria Dias, Youth Speak News
  • March 14, 2012

There are many graces a young Catholic pilgrim might expect to receive from visiting the Holy Land.

In his Jubilee letter, Pope John Paul II stressed that walking in our “travelling companion” Jesus’ footsteps could transform our own spiritual journeys immeasurably. So a pilgrim might hope that Scripture would come alive in the streets or that faith might be affirmed by experiencing the enormous history of the sights.

Pilgrims from Queen’s University Newman House witnessed all of this from Feb 17-27. Led by our chaplain Fr. Raymond de Souza, we were given opportunities to grow and learn beyond what any of us could have anticipated.

It was not just a matter of how everything was spiritually stimulating or how intensely I had to use my senses in this transcendental experience. The grace sprang from our spiritual leader, a talented group dynamic that produced a prayerful, joyful experience, the aspects of everyday Jewish and Arab life we encountered, and the people and things Jesus placed in our hearts to pray for on our journey.  After four days in Israel, by Ash Wednesday I realized that although 30 pilgrims were seeing the same place, we were on different spiritual journeys.

We spent Ash Wednesday in Bethlehem, which required crossing the intimidating grey wall Israel built around the West Bank following the second intifada — the Palestinian uprising between 2000 and 2005. It was the most unsettling aspect of my Holy Land experience. The wall is significant not only because of the Palestinian Christians caged within (many of whom are migrating out of the West Bank), but also because our trip was sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee, which promotes the state of Israel.

Our first religious visit was to the Church of the Nativity and the Church of St. Catherine’s, held in partial Franciscan but also Armenian and Eastern Orthodox care.

After celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass in the very place where the Word was made flesh — recalling that this life is only temporary — we followed the Franciscan brothers’ devotional procession into the caves which hold the grotto of the nativity and the altar of the manger. Walking underground behind the chanting Franciscans, past roughly hewn walls and gilded ornaments and slabs of stone to touch and kiss and commemorate, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the cornerstone of our faith. Despite the Romans, despite the terrorism and terrible oppression of the area, here, amongst such faith, Jesus is triumphant. Here, God began His final, fulfilling covenant with His people.

Our next visit was to Shepherds’ Fields, to a beautiful circular church whose roof domes upward and lets in a lot of light. There are statues of angels stony and silent but obviously crying out and scriptures of announcement all around the walls, commemorating where the angels brought news of great joy to the shepherds.

These religious visits were framed by stops to Bethlehem University in the morning (in which we heard from university students about their experience in the West Bank), and the Ephphatha (“be opened”) School for Deaf Children (run by nuns) in the evening — both Catholic institutions that provide education to mostly Muslim Palestinians.

Driving back into Jerusalem from the West Bank, I noticed spectacularly colourful graffiti for suffrage splashed along the interior walls of the border.

Throughout the day I felt increasingly that Jesus had come to heal suffering and that, as Catholics journeying on foreign land, we must be aware of this suffering, and defend and protect those who are suffering. Growing up in the Middle East, I already understood there was no acceptance of Catholic aid in a Muslim state: Catholics are blessed just to get to practise their faith and it’s a capital crime to evangelize. But in a tense little town like Bethlehem, from which came “one who will be ruler over Israel” (Micah 5:2), our help and prayers are always welcome.

(Dias, 20, is an English literature and history student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.)

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