Each year millions of Christians set out to visit the Holy Land so as to walk in the steps of Jesus, better understand the Word of God and Holy Scripture share in an ecumenical or even an interfaith experience and become conduits of the Gospel. The Commissariat organizes or supports annual pilgrimage projects in view of becoming acquainted with the Christian communities of the Middle East and praying in the major shrines of the Holy Land. The official pilgrimages are headed by a Franciscan guide.

Pilgrims in the Holy Land through the Ages

At special moments the believer-pilgrim has the impression that he is literally moving in the wake of Jesus. It is in such instances that he is summoned to a deeper faith, to let go the past, to receive the present hour and in so doing transform history (and all things dead) into a living point of time. When a text of Gospel reports that Jesus was in a given location and that he spoke in such and such a place, it is faith that allows to think Jesus is actually present, talking to me at this very instant. The same holds for the Eucharist. When the Eucharistic prayer recounts that Jesus transformed the bread and wine into himself, it is faith that makes it possible to recognize Jesus as present in person.

Rebuilding the past in their own day and age is precisely what the four evangelists already achieved. Their Gospels are catechistic reconstructions of the actions and words of the Lord Jesus with a view to breathe life into the early Christian community. The intent of the evangelists was not to report word for word the teachings of Jesus but to transmit the core of his message in view of the needs of the Churches of their times. Similarly the pilgrim is required to reconstruct whatever the text of the Gospel evokes in each of the Holy Places, all the while avoiding any capricious reinvention.

Referring to the Holy Land, the poet Charles Péguy expressed masterfully: “Everything here is a living catechism that teaches the only interesting story that ever unfolded in the world.” And Saint Ephrem wrote centuries before that: “Here resides the most joyous message ever, at the source of all joys.” The pilgrim can recognize that he is among the lucky few of whom Jesus spoke: “Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. For amen, I say to you, many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see and have not seen them, and to hear the things that you hear and have not heard them” (Mt 13:16-17).

Goals of the Pilgrims through the Ages

Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus

The faithful of the monotheistic religions (Jews, Christians and Muslims) are not alone to journey to a distant shrine and make a pilgrimage, as this practice is found also in other spiritual traditions, e.g. the Canaanites. For the Jews, after the establishment of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem by David, then following the reform of Josiah, especially after the Exile, Jerusalem’s shrine was the sole Place of pilgrimage (Lk 2:41; Jn 2:13, etc.). However, since the Resurrection of Jesus, the shrine is no longer a place; it is the Lord Jesus himself. In the New Jerusalem... “I saw no temple therein. For the Lord God Almighty is the temple thereof and the Lamb” (Apoc 21, 22). Egeria, a pilgrim from the fourth century, expressed as much when writing that the Christian pilgrims “move in the footsteps of the Lord.” In short, the person of Christ is the ultimate destination of the Christian pilgrim in the Holy Land.

A Better Understanding of Holy Scripture

By seeing the Holy Places and perusing there the sacred texts, the pilgrim recognizes that he has acquired a new sensitivity to taste the honey of God’s Word. After hearing the Gospel of Jesus in the very places it was announced, he has a deeper and more suggestive understanding of its meaning. The reading of Scripture in the very atmosphere enclosing the evangelic narrative helps the devotee to penetrate the sublime mystery of Christ (Ph 3:8). In this train of thought we are reminded of Saint Jerome who was wont to say that “lacking knowledge of Scripture leads to an ignorance of Christ.”

Acquiring an Ecumenical Experience

Upon visiting the Holy Sepulcher, a somewhat less than open-minded pilgrim may be scandalized to discover the division of the Church into so many different rites. There are 17 of these in Jerusalem. However the sight of this disunity is also an opportunity to take stock of the situation as it stands and to fully measure the urgency of striving towards a greater concord between the Churches. It is also a favorable time to learn about the very rich liturgies of the Eastern Churches that are witnesses to the loyalty to Christ. Thus the pilgrim is invited to overcome any indignation and to rejoice in the realization that faith is substantially the same and that the Bible and the Creed forever render dialogue possible.

A pilgrimage in the Holy Land is also an opportunity to meet the Jewish people to whom the Christ is tied by his human genealogy, as well as the Muslim people whose religious practices express an admirable faith in the Unique God.

Becoming Evangelists

It is said of the apostles: “But they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord working withal” (Mc 16:20). The pilgrim who experienced anew the Paschal Mystery of Christ and of the Anastasis can much more readily weigh the seriousness of his Christian vocation of bringing the good news to the world and to exercise his apostolate.

Whoever has taken to heart these four goals and remains steadfast surely will not have journeyed in vain when making his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Félix del Buey, OFM

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