March 6, 2015

Reflection / Daniel Conway

A perfect pilgrimage to the Holy Land

The next time the Archdiocese of Indianapolis advertises a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, don’t hesitate. Don’t think about it, discuss it with family and friends, or pray about it at length. Say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit and sign up—right away! If you delay, all the slots will be filled, and you’ll miss out on a perfect pilgrimage experience.

Don’t just take my word for it. Ask any of the diverse group of 50 people who accompanied Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to the Holy Land last month. They’ll tell you that it was an awesome, inspiring, joyful, sometimes exhausting but always uplifting spiritual journey. In short, a perfect pilgrimage.

Nothing is perfect that involves sinful human beings. True enough. From a human perspective there were the minor irritations of international travel—but no flight delays or other interruptions.

And there was the anxiety caused by “civil unrest” in the region—but we experienced no difficulties as a result. Occasionally, strangers occupying close quarters on the bus or in the crowded spaces visited throughout the Holy Land can rub each other the wrong way. True enough, but this is all part of the perfect pilgrimage experience!

What makes a pilgrimage “perfect”? Prayer, spiritual leadership, sacred spaces and the opportunity to reflect on God’s presence in our midst. Good food, a comfortable bed at night, fellowship that increases daily, and the chance to rest and absorb experiences—rather than being constantly “on the go”—are also important.

The pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by Archbishop Tobin was a perfect pilgrimage. It was deeply prayerful. The Masses, Liturgy of the Hours, rosaries, Scripture readings and other prayers celebrated by Archbishop Tobin, Father Joseph Newton and Father Robert Mazzola made this pilgrimage a sacred time.

The archbishop’s daily homilies were insightful, and simple but profound. This pilgrimage was a retreat-on-wheels with every kilometer we traveled an opportunity to praise God and experience his goodness in new ways.

The spiritual leadership of Archbishop Tobin was extraordinary. He is a man of great intellect and deep faith with a broadly based knowledge of the world and of human nature. This was his first trip to the Holy Land, and those of us who traveled with him were privileged to see this land, and all its holy places, through his eyes.

Even under the stress and strain of travel, the archbishop was always friendly, down-to-earth and eager to help the elderly and infirm members of our group. Archbishop Tobin asked for no special privileges. He wanted to be one of us, a simple pilgrim, and in the process the Gospel witness of this humble shepherd was something none of us will ever forget.

The sacred spaces we visited were overpowering, and there were far too many of them to list here. I strongly recommend that readers of this article visit, the blog written by Natalie Hoefer, a reporter for The Criterion, who traveled with us and chronicled the experience with more than 1,000 photographs and a daily summary of where we went and what we saw. The blog is a fantastic way for readers of The Criterion throughout central and southern Indiana and beyond to share this experience. More stories and photos from the pilgrimage will appear in future print issues of The Criterion.

I would like to make two observations about the sacred spaces we visited during our 12 days in the Holy Land. The first observation comes from insights offered by Archbishop Tobin, and it has to do with St. Peter. As the archbishop pointed out, we had come to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and we surely did that. But we were surprised by the frequency—and impact—of our encounters with St. Peter. Nearly every site we visited had some connection to the life and ministry of St. Peter, both before and after the Lord’s resurrection.

As Archbishop Tobin observed, the weakness and infidelity of Peter tell us a lot about the humanity of Jesus. The fact that our Lord chose an ordinary, sinful man like Peter to lead his Church tells us that there is hope for all of us who struggle to be faithful disciples in spite of our human weaknesses.

The second observation I would like to make about the sacred spaces that we visited is that I found the geography of the Holy Land (mountains, deserts, bodies of water, lush valleys) to be far more inspiring than the shrines.

I don’t mean to suggest that the basilicas, churches, chapels and other shrines weren’t impressive. They certainly were. But 2,000 years of building up, destroying and rebuilding these holy places by the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders and various Christian denominations have covered most of these sites with layers of tradition, architectural differences, scriptural controversies, etc.

Whereas the mountains, deserts and bodies of water remain essentially what they were when Jesus and his disciples walked, fished, healed the sick and preached the reign of God and his righteousness among the people of their day.

Don’t get me wrong. All the sites are incredible, but to stand on Mt. Tabor and gaze across the immense valley below or sail on the Sea of Galilee, or draw water from the River Jordan, or look out over the hillside where Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish was—for me at least—the most awesome experience of all!

We were busy pilgrims, but we took time each day to pray and reflect. As one pilgrim said to me, “It’s amazing how no matter where we are or what we’re doing, the real highlight of every day is Mass.”

Each celebration of the Eucharist was an opportunity to reflect on the graces we had received that day. Each Mass gave us the opportunity to relive the teaching and experiences of Jesus in a way that was perfectly new and immediate. Thank God for the gift of the holy Eucharist. Thank God for the privilege to share in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection no matter where in the world we are, but especially in the land of Jesus.

Thank God, too, for good food, comfortable beds, informative guides, and the fellowship of former strangers, now friends. Above all, thank God for safe travel and the opportunity to return home and share our experiences with others.

By the grace of God, ours was a perfect pilgrimage. But please, don’t take my word for it. Experience a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for yourself!

(Daniel Conway, who serves as senior vice president at Marian University in Indianapolis, is a member of The Criterion’s editorial board.)

Local site Links: