Up Front and Personal

Eye-Opening Pilgrimage To the Holy Land

by Deacon Chris Heanue

This summer, I was chosen to participate in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The trip was sponsored by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. This wonderful order is comprised of Knights and Ladies who, having been recommended by persons within the Church and having been approved by their diocesan bishop, are initiated into the group. Members are chosen because of their faithfulness to the Church, their service toward Her mission and with the intention to support – both financially and spiritually – Christians in the Holy Land and areas of persecution.

A few years ago, they began the practice of sending groups of seminarians to the Holy Land so that they may be enriched in their knowledge of Scripture and that their faith may be deepened.

As we neared our date of departure, tensions in the Holy Land between Hamas and the Israelis began to flare. As tension in this area is not a new reality, many are not phased by it. However, as we know, this summer tensions grew to a point that hasn’t been reached in years. News reports of missile launches, bombings, threats from Hamas, threats from Israel and broken peace agreements began to flood our televisions and social media outlets. Many tour groups and pilgrimages cancelled their trips for safety concerns. Yet with all this in mind, our pilgrimage was set for departure.

We flew into Tel-Aviv via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and began our journey in Haifa, a city about 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv. We were warned by our tour guide that Haifa was one of the few major cities that had not been threatened by any missile strikes and to be prepared for one soon! As promised, at 4 a.m. on our first night in Haifa, the sirens sounded. Loud sirens and noises – none that I was familiar with – began to sound. My roommate, who I did not know prior to a day, and I were awoken – nervous, shaken, unsure of what to do. We recalled the advice of our tour guide: “If you hear a siren, find cover. If you are in bed, go back to sleep.” Heeding his advice, we went back to sleep.

The tour continued in the Galilee region, which is in the north of Israel. Galilee is a calm, peaceful, retreat-like area that did not present any threats. In Galilee, we visited Capernaum, Magdala, Nazareth, the river Jordan, Caesarea Philippi, Cana and had the opportunity to sail on the Sea of Galilee. Our guest house was located on the Mount of Beatitudes – overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was truly a prayerful experience.

After about six days in the northern region, we began our journey toward Jerusalem. In a very biblical way, we were all prepared to journey toward Jerusalem just as Jesus was prepared to journey toward the cross. However, we journeyed in an air-conditioned bus with Wi-Fi!

Upon our arrival, we were informed of protests that were to take place at the Damascus Gate that evening. Once again, our tour guide instructed us what to do. “Stay inside this evening. Get an early night sleep. The city will be very tense tonight.” Thanks to Twitter, we were able to keep track of what was going on in the city.

Unlike the peacefulness of Galilee, Jerusalem was a bustling city with plenty of people in one crowded area. We met Auxiliary Bishop William Hanna Shomali of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and visited the Mount of Olives, the Western (Wailing) Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, Masada and were able to tour the city freely.

While we were on our pilgrimage, Ramadan was being celebrated. At sundown, when those observing the religious tradition would break the fast, many shot fireworks into the sky. But on the evening when bombings began in the Gaza Strip, things began to change. The sounds we heard just outside our windows were not fireworks, they were flash grenades – about a block from our hotel, which was located in the Arab East district of Jerusalem.

Looking out the window, I saw a large group of people running away from a cloud of smoke. I witnessed a young girl get swooped into the arms of her older brother – as he frantically began looking for an open car door where he could safely place his sister. Sounds of gun shots ensued. CNN reports of Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip allowed us to understand why this was happening. Anger and unrest from the incursion had caused this to take place.

While this group of Americans looked with horror at what was happening outside our windows, we wondered what would happen next! Could there be a larger explosion? Would it be nearer to our hotel? What about the gunshots? It was the only time I feared for my safety over the course of the trip.

Under the supervision of Chorbishop John Faris, a Maronite Catholic priest from St. Louis Gonzaga Church, Utica, N.Y., we were reassured that we would be OK. We were instructed to go to our rooms, lock the doors and await further details in the morning.

With some changes in the itinerary, we decided it would be best to leave the city for the day and travel to the Dead Sea. Spending the day away from the city was a great idea, as it would allow the tensions to lessen. For the remainder of the trip, we remained cautious but felt safe. We traveled from Israel to Turkey to continue our tour. After a two-and-a-half week pilgrimage experience, we returned home to the great United States of America!

All in all, it was a great trip. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre intended the pilgrimage to enrich our knowledge of Scripture and deepen our faith. I can honestly say it did that and much more. One of the many beautiful things about this pilgrimage is that it allows men from different seminaries to come together and share fraternity. I find that the longest lasting memories are the ones of travel and journey. Sharing new experiences with new friends is truly one of the ways to build friendship and fraternity. I was able to make new friends from other dioceses – and I felt we all bonded. By sending men from the tri-state area (and beyond) – men who share a common call to serve the Church and the Christian faithful – the Order of Holy Sepulchre is building a priestly fraternity that, I pray, will endure.

My knowledge of Scripture has certainly deepened. Being present in Nazareth to pray the Angelus – the prayer recalling the “yes” Mary spoke to the Angel Gabriel – left me speechless. Spending an overnight in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, praying at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection is a memory that will last a lifetime.

I can also say that prayers for peace are needed now more than ever. Regardless of our political stance on the situation in the Middle East, as Catholics we must be on the side of peace. Watching the young girl being swooped into her older brother’s arms to find refuge in an open car is not something anyone should experience. May peace reign in that region.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre does great work to support the Church and through their generosity in sending me to the Holy Land, I know that I will be a better priest because of my deepened knowledge and faith in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.[hr] Deacon Heanue is a transitional deacon serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, Astoria.