My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
It is my pleasure to provide you with a report on our diocesan pilgrimage during the Year of Mercy to Assisi, Rome and the Holy Land, including Galilee and Jerusalem. The itinerary was a wonderful one to celebrate the Year of Mercy because all of the sites we visited did give the pilgrims insight into the mercy of God.
Some preparation was necessary for this trip and I read two books on the most recent archeological findings, which were given to me by Msgr. Peter Vaccari, a veteran of leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land. All of the material gave me insight into the biblical foundation for the sites of the Holy Land.
Also, a book by Father James Martin, S.J., “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” was very helpful in preparing for a spiritual insight into these holy sites. One insight I gained is that the actual locations for each site are rather precise. The diary of a Spanish pilgrim named Egeria, who visited the Holy Land in the Fourth Century just after St. Helena, was able to establish churches on the very sites that Christians kept venerating as the places of Jesus’ life, passion, and death. Over the years, the various sites were destroyed. New biblical archeology, however, has found under layers of debris the original basilicas, Crusader churches and other evidence that these truly are the places that the Savior visited during His lifetime.
The diocesan pilgrimage necessitated some inconvenience for the pilgrims, because pilgrims by definition are those who leave the comfort of their homes and travel in order to find a deeper relationship with God. We were blessed to have very well motivated guides on both the Italian and Holy Land parts of our pilgrimage. In total there were 60 pilgrims, some of whom made one leg of the journey and not the other. The pilgrimage was a great experience for all because the Eucharist was celebrated each day at a different holy site in order to gain the various indulgences offered by passing through numerous Holy Doors.
In Assisi, unfortunately, we left the day before Pope Francis went there for a Day of Prayer for World Peace, a tradition began by St. John Paul II for the leaders of various religions who come together to pray for peace. The city was made holy by St. Francis who was a model for peace in the life of the Church. In Assisi, I visited a favorite place of mine called the “Eremo delle Carceri,” which literally means “the hermitage of the prison.” This is located on the mountain top above Assisi where Francis prayed. It is one of the most peaceful places that I have ever visited. Not even the birds make much noise. It is a place of true contemplation with nature that St. Francis loved so well, and a place where Eucharistic adoration is continually held by the monks who occupy the mountaintop’s small monastery.
In Rome, we visited the four basilicas. We had a special treat at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls when Cardinal James Harvey, Archpriest of the Basilica and a native of the United States, came to visit the pilgrims as we prepared for Mass. One of the highlights of our visit was an audience with the Holy Father where I had an opportunity to speak with him personally for a few moments. I thanked him for being a champion for migrants and refugees in the world, thanking him in the name of the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, the diocese of immigrants.
From Rome, some pilgrims returned home while others traveled on to Galilee where we met up with other pilgrims participating in the Holy Land portion of the pilgrimage. It is the place where, after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples he would meet them. Truly, it is a place that speaks of the Lord’s presence. The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a large fresh water lake, 14 miles by eight miles, is fed by mountain streams and flows into the Jordan River and then into the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. Our early morning boat ride on the Sea of Galilee was truly a religious experience, reminding us that the Lord many times found Himself on a boat on this lake, in turbulent waters or simply fishing with His disciples. Of all of the places we visited in the Holy Land, one can truly feel the presence, both the past and the present, of the Lord here.
In Jerusalem, we visited most of the other sites made holy by the Lord’s presence. The highlight of our visit to Jerusalem was the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, (the Way of Grief or the Way of Sorrows) which we began at 6 a.m. and ending with a 7 a.m. Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
We were fortunate to be able to visit the actual Sepulchre of the Lord, notwithstanding the construction at the basilica. Also in Jerusalem, we had the opportunity to meet with Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. During our visit with him, three couples on our pilgrimage who are Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, received their pilgrimage shell, along with myself. Many members of our diocese are members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and those who visit the Holy Land are given the privilege of receiving the pilgrim shell identifying that they, indeed, were pilgrims to the sacred places and are supportive of the missionary church in the Holy Land.
On our last day, I, along with Father Gerard Sauer, Diocesan Pilgrimage Director, had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, which complemented my recent visit to Auschwitz during World Youth Day in Poland. The Jewish phrase, “Never Again,” is truly one which must be repeated over and over again because the plight and passion of the Jewish people is something that the world can never forget. Visiting the Wailing Wall, with so many Jewish people, was also a spiritual experience for us all.
Every pilgrimage is an exercise of putting out into the deep. Those who leave the comfort of their homes do not know what awaits them in their search for God on pilgrimage. Although we need not travel such great distances to search for God, every day of our life is a virtual pilgrimage, a spiritual journey. During this pilgrimage, I prayed especially for the people of Brooklyn and Queens that the Lord will unite us as one Church strong in faith and one which reaches out to all of those in the diversity around us.