Pilgrims enriched by Holy Land experience

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A group of 51 pilgrims from the Arlington Diocese embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in mid-August - a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. The Institute of Catholic Culture hosted the pilgrimage, and the pilgrims visited such sacred spots as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and three nights on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo, ICC executive director, led the pilgrimage, guiding the pilgrims to the holy sites. The pilgrimage's mission, Carnazzo said, was "to offer people an opportunity … to live the experience of the faith in the Holy Land."

The ICC pilgrims sought to follow USCCB guidelines for pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which encourage pilgrims not to export their own experience of faith but to make a "special effort to encounter the diverse peoples and traditions of the Holy Land" and its "living Christian community."

"Pilgrims are encouraged to show their solidarity with the local church in the Holy Land by becoming acquainted with the faithful, by being attentive to their stories," the guidelines state, "and by sharing their living faith. … We encourage parish groups to meet with … the local church in its different forms, especially Latin and Greek Melkite Catholics."

While there, the pilgrims joined in liturgy with local Melkite Catholics, making an effort to "eat with them, pray with them, sing with them," Carnazzo said. In preparation, ICC pilgrims studied the cultures they would be visiting. In this way, the pilgrims were challenged to step outside their comfort zone and experience the faith as it exists in the land where Jesus lived.

"Our goal is to bring people there, Bibles in hand," said Carnazzo, "to enter into the mystery of the faith in the cultural context where Christ lived - seeing the places, hearing the music, eating the food - to touch Christ there. … to go places other groups don't go."

The group visited not only sacred churches, but the very places in the countryside and along the Sea of Galilee where Christ lived, spoke and taught. Pilgrims read accounts of the life of Christ in the locations where those Gospel events took place. "Hearing the words of Christ on location is at the fundamental core of what we're doing," said Carnazzo.

Jim Cottrell from St. Veronica Church in Chantilly described his experience: "It was an amazing pilgrimage, far and away beyond anything that I could have possibly imagined. We retraced the life of Jesus in a mostly chronological order. We visited specific sites, real, physical sites where these events took place."

Cottrell noted that pilgrims were challenged by the intense heat; he recalled standing along the shore in Galilee, with a cloudless sky, in about 103 degree heat. Cottrell said it drove home to him the physical reality of Christ's ministry.

"After retracing Our Lord's steps, and knowing where He traveled to on foot-it was a very, very physical ministry," he said.

Bradley Torline, a student from Christendom College in Front Royal, recalled that the experience of walking where Christ walked moved him deeply.

"Each place you went raised the story of the Gospel to life in ways you couldn't imagine," he said, noting that his favorite stop on the pilgrimage was the "lonely place" where Christ withdrew to pray.

"Just to be in that place where Christ would have retreated to speak to His Father was truly amazing," Torline said.

Skeptics would have their faith bolstered by visiting the Holy Land, he said.

"I really gained a sense of confidence in the tradition that has preserved these places by devout Christians and serious archeological scholars. We can be pretty sure we know these places are either the exact spot or very close to where the events of the New Testament took place."

These experiences combined to bring home to him the historical reality of the Incarnation of God. Torline recalled a moment sitting by the Sea of Galilee.

"It just hits you that Christ, God, became man, and of all places, He chose to be here," he said. "It made Christ so much more approachable. He would have sat in this spot and seen these fish, He would have seen the sunrise over the hills as you did, a human being like you. You realize you're experiencing the things He would have done, which made the humanity of Christ so much more accessible."

At the same time, Torline said, the pilgrimage was marked by a beautiful paradox - that the pilgrims sought Christ, who is no longer found walking in the Holy Land. The pilgrims were able to witness for themselves that His tomb is empty, He is risen and He has sanctified not only the Holy Land but the entire earth by His presence.

"When I stood in the tomb, it felt completely empty - because Our Lord is not there," Cottrell said.

Carnazzo hopes pilgrims will share the Gospel with others as they return to their homes.

"I hope our pilgrims will come back with not just memories but with a heart set aflame, desiring to give to others what they have received," he said.

Mann is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015