Reflections from the Holy Land

On Sept.3, Father Thomas P. Ferguson, Episcopal Vicar for Faith Formation and Pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria, departed with a group of 34 parishioners from across the diocese to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Joining Father Ferguson and the pilgrims is Bob Mueller, diocesan director of development. Bob is sharing his photos throughout this post.

Each day, as the journey continues, Father Ferguson is recounting his travels with the group and sharing his reflections on spiritual and biblical significance of the places he and our pilgrims are experiencing.

DAY 2: Caesarea, Haifa, Mount Carmel, and Nazareth

For our Holy Land pilgrims, today was an ambitious day of traveling. It was a wonderful day to take in the history and the spiritual significance of the places we visited.

Caesarea - initially reflective of the hubris of Herod the Great, not an exaggeration to call him the Donald Trump of the first century. Very interesting to learn of its transformation through the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the conquest by the Muslims, the fighting at the time of the Crusaders. For me, however, most moving as the site of a two-year imprisonment experienced by St. Paul - perhaps the site from which some of his captivity letters were written.

Haifa and Mount Carmel were very interesting as sites of the preaching of Elijah and the origins of the Carmelites - site of the apparition of Our Lady to St. Simon Stock and the source of the Brown Scapular.

Nazareth - the home of our guide. No words to express the experience of being at the site of the Annunciation and Incarnation. We celebrated Mass at a chapel attached to the Basilica and were joined by a young couple from the D.C. area - one was from Washington, the other from Crystal City.

Finally, Cana in Galilee - as we arrived at the church, next door there was a couple getting married in an Orthodox Church: "There was a wedding, in Cana of Galilee ..."

Many of our couples renewed their marriage vows, and we all reflected on Our Lady as the one who brings our needs to the Lord.

Our tired pilgrims arrived at dinner to be met by pilgrims from St. Ambrose Church in Annandale, led by Father Andrew Fisher - twice in a day we see, it's a small world.

Great hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee - looking forward to another blessed day tomorrow.

I will keep in touch - shouldn't have any trouble sleeping again tonight.

DAY 3: Mount Tabor, Tabgha, Lake of Galilee

Another very busy day. We began the day meeting the St. Ambrose group once again - at breakfast before we left the hotel ... They were heading to Jerusalem today ... They are one step ahead of us on the pilgrimage. Who knows, we may see them again in Jerusalem (although we are staying in different hotels).

Our early departure (7:30 a.m.) enabled us to get to the foot of Mount Tabor and immediately get cabs to the top of the mountain before any crowds came.

After spending some time visiting the Church of the Transfiguration, our guide was able to have our group celebrate Mass at 10 a.m. ... a first for me. Once again,we were joined by an American couple (the husband is in the Army, they are living for a year in Israel, and they don't often have the opportunity to celebrate Mass with fellow Americans.).

After Mass we went to Tabgha - near the Lake of Galilee, we visited the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, which sadly had been damaged recently in a fire set by vandals bent on harassing Christians. We are hearing firsthand the stories of the persecution and suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ here in the Holy Land.

Next was lunch - local delicacy, Peter's Fish. It was very good.

After lunch, we were off to the Church of the Beatitudes ... It was hot outdoors today, but all admired the beauty and peacefulness of that spot.

Then we visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter and the Mensa Christi. It was a beautiful time to pray and reflect on John 21 ... One of my favorite chapters in the Bible.

We visited Capernaum and saw Peter's house as well as the synagogue where Jesus taught.

Finally, a boat ride across the Lake of Galilee - a cool, quiet and prayerful way to end the day.

Tomorrow we head south along the river Jordan to Jericho, and then to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.

Pilgrims are weary but in good spirits ... Everyone is marveling at the holy place we are visiting.

DAY 4

All on the pilgrimage are well.

Today our pace seemed a little easier - or maybe I have just adjusted to the time change and have been sleeping well.

Physically, it seemed less intense, but spiritually, perhaps more.

We began our day stopping at the Jordan River for a time a prayer, reflecting on the Scripture and renewing our baptismal promises.

From there we headed to Jericho and the Mountain of Temptation in the Judean Wilderness.

At a rest stop in Jericho, yours truly, ever the good sport, rode a camel and provided a photo op that surely will yield material for who knows how many Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.

We stopped at the Dead Sea, near the site of the Qumran caves, and at lunchtime the temperature was 107.6 degrees.

From there we made our ascent to Jerusalem.

Although our guide didn't focus too much on the story in her otherwise outstanding presentation, I could not help but think of the poor man who fell in with the robbers and was cared for by the Good Samaritan in that deserted place.

Once we arrived at the Mount of Olives, again we had time for prayer and reflection on the Scripture at the Church of the Ascension and at the Church of the Pater Noster.

We also visited the Church of Dominus Flevit before Mass at Church of All Nations (aka the Church of the Agony or the Church of Gethsemane). What a blessing to celebrate Mass at the rock of Jesus' agony.

(Also, very interestingly, the priest who signed the book in the sacristy immediately before me - Father Andrew Fisher.)

We were back to our hotel by 5:30, which is earlier than the previous days. While we are starting early in the morning - leaving the hotel at 7:30 - we do have time to relax, have dinner and get to bed early at the end of the day.

Tomorrow we will be mostly around Bethlehem - part of the Palestinian territory. It is truly an eye-opener to see the interaction of Jewish people, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are a minority within a minority here - I know this week has brought me closer in spirit to these struggling and suffering members of our Body.

I am always remembering all of you at the various holy sites.

DAY 5: Bethlehem

The week is moving along - but not too fast that the end of the pilgrimage seems imminent. We are seeing and doing so much that it is becoming ever more necessary to be sure to stop, remember and write down all we are experiencing.

Today - the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary - was a most appropriate day to spend in Bethlehem and its environs.

We began the day with a reading and reflection on the prophecy of Micah - the first reading for today's feast.

Our first stop of the day after entering Bethlehem was for shopping at the Palestinian Christian olive wood carvers' shop. We are truly becoming immersed in the experience/plight of the Christians of the Holy Land.

The rest of the morning was spent at the Church of the Nativity.

After venerating the place of Jesus' birth and visiting St. Jerome's cave and original burial site (he is now buried in the Basilica of St. Mary Major), we celebrated the Christmas Mass at Midnight in St. Helen's Chapel, a crusader chapel.

Our group was then divided into smaller groups, and we went to the homes of Palestinian Christians for lunch in a town just outside of Bethlehem - within view of Israeli settlements built in the West Bank territory. Tension is one way to describe the situation; frustration, resentment would also be part of the experience of the Christians living in the Palestinian territory.

After lunch we went to the Shepherds' field and then to Ein Karem, site of the Visitation and the birth of St. John the Baptist. We are traversing the entirety of Luke, chapters 1 and 2 these days.

Another way of speaking of our experience is to say that in these past days we have focussed a great deal on the mystery of Christmas, and in the coming days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

We bumped into the St. Ambrose group at least three times today - they are all in good spirits.

Our group is in good spirits too - however, on the physical side of things, it might be best to describe their condition as "soldiering on."

The spirit among the members of the group is certainly willing, however, and all continue to marvel at the wonders we are experiencing in walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

Tomorrow we enter the Old City of Jerusalem, make the Stations of the Cross and celebrate Mass at the Holy Sepulcher.

Day 6

It is hard to believe we only have one more full day ahead of us ... It is also hard to believe how many full days we have behind us.

Today was another full day. We began the day praying Psalm 122 - I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to the house of the Lord - as we made our ascent and entered the Old City of Jerusalem.

Our first stop was St. Ann's Church - an opportunity to renew again our devotion to Our Lady and her parents, praying there for parents and grandparents everywhere. The church was built with great acoustics, and so we sang Amazing Grace, Immaculate Mary and Holy God We Praise Thy Name.

Nearby was the Pool of Bethesda, the site where Jesus cured a paralytic man. We noted how many of the sites of the signs in the first half of John's gospel we have visited - Cana, Capernaum (healing of the royal official's son), the Pool of Bethesda, Tabgha (multiplication of loaves and fish), Sea of Galilee (walking on water). The only sites we haven't seen are where He healed the man born blind and raised Lazarus from the dead.

We then began to pray the Stations of the Cross as we walked the Via Dolorosa.

This led us to the Holy Sepulcher. Here we celebrated Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel next to the Sepulcher. Immediately after Mass we venerated the tomb where Jesus was laid and where He rose from the dead. We also venerated the Anointing Stone and the site of His Crucifixion at Golgotha. Quite a morning to say the least.

After lunch we visited the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where Peter denied Jesus, where Jesus was on trial before Caiphas and the Sanhedrin and where Jesus was held in a dungeon before being taken to Pontius Pilate. We prayed Psalm 88, and entered into the prayer of Jesus during His own time of darkness and discouragement.

Tonight we have our farewell dinner as some of our number will be leaving our group early.

For the rest of us, our last full day includes the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, Mount Zion and the Cenacle and a visit with an auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, arranged by Sister Monica, FSE.

You remain in my thoughts and prayers at every holy site. Please pray for me and for our group as we look to end our pilgrimage full of grace and ready for a safe trip home.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015