This morning we checked out of our hotel in Jerusalem and drove west of the city to the town of Abu Ghosh, thought to be the ancient town of Emmaus. On the road to Emmaus, today known as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway, Jesus appeared after his resurrection and walked along with Cleopas and his companion, but they didn't recognize him. We celebrated Mass at the Church of Notre Dame l'Arche d'Alliance (Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church). There is a beautiful statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus, with Jesus offering the Eucharist, on the roof of this Church.
In his homily, Bishop Malesic mentioned that David brought the Ark of the Covenant from here to Jerusalem. Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, since she carried Jesus. The statue on the roof with infant Jesus handing out the Eucharist means that we should go out and share it with others.
Also that it was when Jesus broke the bread with Cleopas and the other disciple that they recognized him, but then he disappeared. Just like the Eucharist—we bless it, break it, share it, and then it disappears. It is now inside us.
Following Mass we continued down the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway to the town of Jaffa, an ancient port city located directly on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. We stopped for lunch at an Elvis themed restaurant. After lunch we drove down to the coast and had a few hours free time to either go into the Mediterranean, sit and have a coffee, shop, or visit the Church of St. Peter. This is the place where the apostle Peter was staying in the home of Simon the Tanner when he had a vision to slaughter and eat--everything made by God is clean. We can all be grateful for this vision which overruled the Jewish laws that forbid the eating of pork and shellfish. It allows us to now enjoy bacon and shrimp!
After enjoying that free time in Jaffa, we drove to a beautiful restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv for our farewell dinner, and then on to the Tel Aviv airport for our return home.
It has been a privilege to share this pilgrimage blog with the entire diocese and beyond. We have been so blessed to take this amazing journey and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We thank everyone who prayed for our safe travels and for those who sent in over 5,000 prayer requests for us to carry with us and pray over. Those prayer requests were taken everywhere from out on the Sea of Galilee to the Western Wall to the Empty Tomb. You and your prayers were our companions on the journey!
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We began this 9th day of our pilgrimage with Mass in the beautiful Chapel of Notre Dame right inside our hotel. After showing everyone his socks with the crossed keys of St. Peter, Father John Harth gave a wonderful homily with advice on how to prepare for our journey to Masada today. He said that we had just visited the tomb and Masada is a wasteland. Think about the fact that Jesus had just died, and the angst that the apostles were now experiencing. Just stop at the cross and wait for the next day.
So this day would be very different than all the others, since we were not visiting any holy places. Following Mass we boarded our busses and drove for 90 minutes to reach Masada. On the way, we were able to see the caves in the cliffs of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946.
Masada is an ancient fortress in southern Israel's Judean Desert. It's on a massive plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. A cable car and a long winding path climb up to the fortification built around 30 B.C. Among the ruins are King Herod's Palace, which sprawls over 3 terraces, and a Roman bath house with mosaic floors. Most fascinating was the system of aquaducts that collected rainwater from the entire plateau and filled the large cisterns. We took the cable car, which could hold 80 passengers, to the top. Our guides Mahar and Mahar explained the history the fortress and gave us so many interesting details about its structures. We returned by cable car to the bottom and traveled on to the Dead Sea.
We had lunch at a cafeteria on the edge of the sea, and then changed in to swim suits to experience the water. The Dead Sea is really a salt lake whose banks are more than 1,400 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on dry land in the world. It's famously hypersaline water (40% salt) makes floating easy, and its mineral rich black mud is used for therapeutic treatments at the area resorts.
The water was very clear and we were able to see the bottom clearly. Water shoes were absolutely necessary to wade into the water, since you were walking on very sharp salt crystals. Once the water was up to your knees, you could float very easily. It was actually difficult to try to stand up. We were told by our guides that we had to be very careful not to splash or get the water in our eyes or mouth, since it would burn.
After almost two hours, we changed back into our clothes and returned to the hotel. Unfortunately, one of our busses broke down on the way back, so they had a small delay for dinner, but arrived back safely.
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Today we walked the Via Dolorosa: The Stations of the Cross, through the streets of Jerusalem, stopping at the places where Jesus stopped. The pilgrims took turns carrying the large wooden crosses, that were rather heavy, and took 4 people to lift. Our large group of 100 split into two groups of 50 carrying 2 crosses each. As we walked to each station we sang "Jesus Remember Me" and thought about Jesus carrying his cross through these same streets. The city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt nine times. Therefore, the streets we walked weren't the exact pavement on which Jesus walked but, since the churches have been built and rebuilt by Christians since the time of the apostles, the stations are accurately placed where each event happened to Jesus. It was solemn and beautiful, but interrupted quite often by large tractors, cars, motorcycles and other groups of pilgrims passing by, forcing us up against the walls of the narrow streets.
Following the Via Dolorosa, we walked to the Franciscan Church of Saint Saviour. Here Bishop Malesic celebrated Mass with us and told us his story of being called to the priesthood.
After lunch we were invited to a special ceremony at the Latin Patriarch's Office with the Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo. Two Knights and two Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem received a special shell pin for making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They included Bishop Malesic, Margaret DiVirgilio, and Tom and Alice Zaucha from the Diocese of Greensburg.
Following the ceremony, These Knights and Ladies, as well as Father Lechnar, Father Harth, Father Sikon, Michael and Janice Walker, and the Franciscan Friars at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, led our group of pilgrims in a Solemn Entry Procession into the Church and stopped in front of the empty tomb. Following the Franciscan prayer service at there, we were all able to enter the tomb in small groups of four. Words cannot describe the emotion you feel touching the place where Jesus rose from the dead.
Besides holding the tomb of Christ, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre also holds Calvary. Not very far from the tomb, we climbed a steep staircase to reach the spot where Jesus' cross went into the ground. You could kneel beneath the altar and place your hand into the hole that that held the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! On either side of the altar were large glass cases in which you could see where the two thieves were crucified alongside Jesus. In a room below the altar, there is a glass window where you can see the large stone under Calvary which was cracked in an earthquake following the death of Jesus. There is also a medieval legend that Adam, the first man, was buried under Calvary.
Near the entrance to the church, is the Stone of Annointing, marking the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.
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Today we traveled back across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. We first walked over to a large underground cave where a group was celebrating Mass in Polish. We joined them in the back of the cave and just listened. This was the place where the disciples waited while Jesus went off on his own to pray in the garden.
We left the cave and walked over to the Church of All Nations, also know as the Basilica of Agony. This basilica was built with a somber interior, since this is the place where Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The altar is built upon the very rock where Jesus prayed, and the pilgrims were able to venerate it. We celebrated Mass here with Bishop Malesic who gave a wonderful homily on suffering.
After Mass our group was able to pray in a small gated area of the garden next to the Church of All Nations. We were told that the root of these olive trees had been there since the time of Jesus. Father Michael led us in one decade of the rosary…the first sorrowful mystery: The Agony in the Garden. Then everyone found their own little quite place to pray and we stayed there for the rest of the hour.
We had lunch at a local restaurant with your choice of a gyro or falafel, and then we drove back across the Kidron Valley to the Western Wall. Located in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, was part of the retaining wall of the Jewish temple built by Solomon, and expanded by King Harod 25 years before the birth of Jesus. The wall is separated by a high fence into Men's and Women's sides. Our group split up and waited to pray on the wall. A man and a woman from our group each carried the diocese prayer intention sachets and placed the on the wall while they prayed.
We left the Western Wall and journed on to Mt. Zion. Currently, Mt. Zion is located outside the old city wall, but in the time of Jesus, it was inside the wall. Our first stop here was the Church of Dormition (Sleeping). It was here at this site that the Blessed Virgin Mary ended her earthly existence and was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. It is interesting to note that Our Lady of the Assumption is the partroness of the Diocese of Greensburg, and her feast day is Aug. 15. Normally when a cathedral is dedicated, it is on the feast day. When our Blessed Sacrament Cathedral was dedicated, they chose Oct. 7, the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, instead, and today is Oct. 7! This beautiful church has many beautiful mosaics including the very large on depicting Mary and the infant Jesus holding a book which reads "I am the light of the world." We sang "Salve Regina" here and then walked over to the Upper Room.
Three important events occurred in this room. The first event was the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, where Jesus shared the bread and wine, and announced that he was going to be betrayed by one of them and be put to death. The second event occurred after he rose from the dead and appeared in the room and showed Thomas his hands and side. And the third event when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples like tongues of fire and they were able to speak in tongues. We read the gospel passage about The Last Supper, and Mahir showed us the two Christian symbols in the room: a lamb right above the main chandelier, and a pelican piercing her breast to feed her young.
We returned to our hotel to relax for a few hours, and then journeyed to Bethlehem for dinner. We enjoyed the delicious lamb and chicken, and were entertained by a young Palestinian dance group. For the final dance, the invited all of us to join them and taught us a lot of their dance moves!
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As we journeyed to Bethlehem this morning, we first stopped at the "Shepherd's Field." The Shepherd's Field Chapel was designed by Antonio Barluzzi and decorated with images of the annunciation, shepherds with sheep, the childhood of Jesus. Our guide described the history of the past and present buildings here. We sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in the chapel. It may sound strange to sing a Christmas Carol in October, but it was so wonderful to sing those words in this location!
Then we headed down to the caves that dated back 2,000 years. These may be the actual caves where the shepherds in the scriptures received the message from the angels announcing the Lord's birth. We listened to the Scripture passage of the angels appearing to the shepherds and bring them the good news. Then we entered the cave which had a very low ceiling. We sang "Silent Night," in the cave, and reflected on what happened here. The shepherds may have been huddled with their sheep in the cave or all around it. We walked around ruins of an ancient church, and then boarded our busses for the short trip to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is a large bustling city today, located in an area called the West Bank. Unfortunately, this area is controlled by the Israeli army, and we needed to go through a checkpoint. It was so sad to see that the entire city was surrounded by a tall wall, and the Palestinians who live there live like they are in prison.
We arrived at the Casa Nova, Franciscan House, and walked through their building to get to St. Joseph's Church, where we celebrated Mass in the Chapel of St. Catharine. After the Mass we were invited to join the Franciscan Friars for their daily procession into the Grotto of the Nativity. We each held a thin tapered candle and followed them out of the chapel and into the Grotto. After their short service honoring the birth of Christ, we returned upstairs for lunch in the Casa Nova Franciscan House. We returned to the grotto again after lunch.
This time we entered the church through the tiny door on the outside of the church. This door was originally much larger, but much of it was bricked in to make it impossible for an invader on a horse or camel to attack. The church of the Nativity is the oldest existing original church in the world. The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena on the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus.
This second visit to the grotto allowed each pilgrim the opportunity to venerate the 14-point silver star on the floor beneath the altar. Around it are the words: Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). After some free time to shop, we returned to our hotel for dinner. After dinner the pilgrims were invited to attend a penance service in the hotel chapel.
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Today we checked out of our hotel after breakfast and traveled to the Qasr Al-Yahud baptismal site. As we continued through the West Bank, we arrived in the Jordan River Valley, which borders the country of Jordan. Here at the border of Palestine and Jordan, in the very waters that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, we were able to take off our shoes, submerge our feet, and renew our baptismal promises.
We continued on to Jericho, the site of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. On the way into the city, we stopped to see the infamous Sycamore Tree, most likely a decendent of the original, that the short statured tax collector, Zuccheus, climbed to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he walked by. The Catholics of Jericho are served by the Church of the Good Shepherd, which is staffed by Franciscan Friars and Sisters. Father Anthony greeted us when we arrived and told us about his church and school. We celebrated Mass in this church today, and Father Willie Lechnar gave a wonderful homily on shepherds, sheep and Jesus the Good Shepherd. Following the Mass, we had lunch at a local restaurant, and had a little time for some shopping.
Our final stop before continuing on to Jerusalem, was the Mount of Temptation. This is where Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying, and was tempted by Satan.
As we approached Jerusalem, Mahir announced that our first glimpse of Jerusalem was going to be from the Mount of Olives. This the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. Mahir pointed out all of the important locations that we would be visiting related to Jesus' last days on Earth. He pointed out Mt. Zion, where Jesus would celebrate the Last Supper with his disciples; the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would pray and be arrested; the area where he would be brought before Pilate; the path of the Via Dolorosa; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchur, where we will find the location of his crusifixion and burial. Other important locations were pointed out including the Dome of the Rock, and the Western Wall and our hotel.
After spending some time admiring the view of Jerusalem, and a few camel rides, he drove over to our hotel for the rest of the pilgrimage: the Notre Dame Center.
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An interesting note today…breakfast in Tiberius, at a Kosher hotel, reminds us that much of the nation of Israel is Jewish. According to Kosher Law, meat and dairy cannot be cooked or eaten together. So for breakfast, we can find an amazing assortment of dairy products including cheeses, yogurts and puddings. And then at dinner it is the opposite, where we found no dairy but a huge assortment of meats. Foods that are neither meat or dairy are called pareve. Common pareve foods include eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables and grains, and can be served with either meat or dairy. We are eating Kosher!
We began the day with a boat ride out on the Sea of Galilee. The boat was larger than a fishing boat that the disciples would have sailed on, and it also had a motor, but it took us out into the water that Jesus walked upon...The same place where Jesus and the disciples spent time together. Since our group was so large, we were split into two boats. Out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, we stopped and tied the boats together. After a while the engines were turned off and you could hear the water gently lapping on the sides of the boat. Here we listened to the reading of the Gospel of John when Jesus calmed the storm. We were looking at the same mountains and scenery that Jesus saw from his boat. After the readings, a crew member demonstrated how the fishermen would throw their nets in the water. We didn't have any luck catching fish, but the crew taught everyone how to dance to Hava Nagila and we all gave it a try!
After dancing, the crew untied the two boats, and we continued our journey across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, where Jesus began his Galilean ministry. There are ruins of the synagogue there where Jesus healed the servant of the Centurion (Lk 7:3), was confronted by the demoniac (Mk 1:21-27), and gave the bread of life discourse (Jn 6:35-59).
Jesus stayed at the house of Peter. These ruins are easy to identify because as early as the second century, shortly after the time of Christ, Christians began to worship there and marked the wall of the room in which Jesus stayed with Christian symbols, including the Cross. It is the only spot in the town with those symbols. The first church was built there in the 4th century, and a Byzantine church was built around that in the 5th century. Today the Franciscans have built St. Peter's Memorial Church made out of glass so that you can look through the floor to see the house of Peter and the room where Jesus stayed. Here we celebrated Mass. Father John Harth gave the homily about praying for patience.
We continued on to Tabgha, site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. A new church of the Benedictines has been built here to the same specifications as the one built in 450. It was built so that the altar was above the rock that became known as the "Dining Table of Christ" from which he fed the crowd. Much of the floor is the original 5th century mosaic. In front of the altar is one of the most famous mosaics in the world: the "Loaves and Fishes," which is over 1500 years old.
We enjoyed lunch today at the Tanureen restaurant, where most of the pilgrims tried St. Peter's Fish. Also known as tilapia, it is common in the Sea of Galilee and most likely the kind of fish that the disciples would have caught in their nets. After lunch we headed to the Mount of Beatitudes. It is easy to see why Jesus would have chosen this place to pray and teach. The land was lush and green and sitting on the side of a mountain, there was a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee and the mountainous landscape above it. The Church of the Beatitudes is located here, and was built with eight sides, one for each of the beatitudes.
We then made our way down to the seashore, to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. This is the spot where Jesus appeared to Peter, James, John, and four other disciples after the Resurrection. Not knowing what to do now that Jesus was gone, several of the disciples returned to what they knew: fishing. They had not caught any fish that morning, and Jesus from the seashore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Immediately, the nets were filled. Recognizing that this was Jesus, Simon Peter jumps in the water and swims to meet him. Jesus makes them all breakfast. Afterwards, Jesus calls Peter aside and asks him 3 times if he loves him. Peter replies 3 times "Lord, you know I love you." Then Jesus asks him to feed his sheep and lay down his life as he did.
There is a rock called the "Mensa Christi," inside the Church of the Primacy which early Christians believed was where Jesus laid out the breakfast he made for the disciples that morning on the seashore. In the garden outside the church is an altar that reads, "Here, Jesus entrusted to Peter the Primacy of Love."
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After breakfast at the hotel, we boarded our busses for the short ride to Nazareth. Nazareth is the site of Mary and Joseph's home and the town where Jesus played as a child, learned a trade, and grew to manhood. We first stopped at the Basilica of the Annunciation. As you walk up to the massive limestone façade, you can read the Latin words carved into it: verbum care factum est et habitavit in nobis, "The word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14). Surrounding the Basilica are mosaic tile depictions of Mary from nations around the world.
Entering the church at ground level we could look down to the lower level which contains the remains of a cave. This is the exact spot where Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, lived and where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her more than 2,000 years ago. This is the place where Mary said "Yes" to God. The altar in the cave home reads in Latin, "The Word became flesh here." The room built onto the front of the cave has disappeared. The Holy House was thought to have been taken away by relic hunters, or carried by angels to Loretto, Italy. For those who traveled on the pilgrimage to Italy last year, or followed our blog, may remember that we visited the Holy House and heard the miraculous story of its transport to Italy.
Very near to the Basilica of the Annunciation, is the Church of St. Joseph, built over what is believed to be the workshop and home of St. Joseph. Our guide explained that stone was the most common building materials in the time of Jesus, and was a resource found near the town of Nazareth. Most likely, Joseph worked in both wood and stone as a builder or artisan. We celebrated Mass in the Church of St. Joseph with Bishop Malesic giving us a homily about saying "yes." It is interesting to note that when you celebrate Mass at a holy site in the Holy Land, you celebrate the liturgy that the site commemorates, rather than the liturgy of the day. Therefore, since we were in Nazareth on the property of the Basilica of the Annunciation, we celebrated the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
After Mass we enjoyed lunch across the street at the Casa Nova Franciscan House. Then we traveled on to Cana, a short distance from Nazareth, where Jesus performed his first miracle at the request of his mother, turning the water into wine. Here in the Franciscan Wedding Church, a parish church for the Catholic Arabs, many of the couples on the pilgrimage renewed their wedding vows. We then returned to our hotel in Tiberius for dinner.
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Going through customs and picking up our luggage we were both excited and nervous to think that we were now in the Middle East. We knew as soon as we landed in Tel Aviv, that this would be very different than the pilgrimage last year to Italy. We were among Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over the world. To Christians, this was the Holy Land, to Jews, this was Israel, and to the Muslims, this was Palestine. Most of us had very little exposure to people of these other religions, languages and cultures.
After being greeted by our guides from The Catholic Travel Centre, we boarded busses for the 2 ½ hour ride to Tiberius. We stopped at a roadside restaurant, for a quick snack on the way, and then finally arrived in Tiberias, an Israeli city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We checked into our home for the next 3 days: the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, Tiberias. Each room had an amazing view of the Sea of Galilee from from the balcony.
Some of the pilgrims walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, visited a few little shops, or relaxed in the hotel until the arrival of the last group of pilgrims from the diocese. They enjoyed an wonderful buffet dinner at the hotel and then had a good night's sleep.
The pilgrims were split into three groups traveling to the Holy Land for the pilgrimage on October 1. Group 1, guided by Father Michael Sikon flew from Pittsburgh to Newark on a noon flight. They were joined in Newark by Group 2, guided by Father John Harth, which flew in from St. Louis. These 2 groups combined to form a group of 60 pilgrims, flying to Tel Aviv, Israel. The flight was delayed to change one of the tires, but the group arrived at 10:35 am on October 2. Group 3, guided by Father Willie Lechnar, flew from Pittsburgh to New York City on a 3:50 pm flight, then boarded a flight to Tel Aviv arriving at 4:50 pm on October 2.
The pilgrims had arrived at the airport three hours before the flight as required for a transatlantic flight. When you add those 3 hours to the 12 hours flying and the layover in Newark, they have been traveling for a total of 17 hours before they arrived in Tel Aviv. Most spent the time reading, sleeping, and getting to know each other.