Holy Land Pilgrimage 2016

On March 11 Fr. Joseph will be leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I have been blessed to be able to join this awesome group of pilgrims!  We are getting very excited, and I hope to be able to share our journey with our St. Francis friends at home as we visit the places where Jesus lived out his life here on Earth. Check back here and on the home page for daily updates, and, I hope, pictures!

~ Alice

March 12: Day 1 & 2

Our first day on pilgrimage has actually been two days, with very little sleep in between. We began in Toronto on March 11, and after 10 hours, 30 minutes in the air we landed in Tel Aviv. As you get your first glimpse flying over Tel Aviv, you could be forgiven for thinking you are still in North America. There are skyscrapers everywhere, a highway with almost as many flyovers and twists and turns as the 401; it all seems much too modern for a pilgrimage!

But we had faith, and soon our amazing bus driver had us riding through beautiful green hills dotted with yellow and red flowers, mustard and anemone we think. Our first stop was at the Mediterranean Sea, at Caesarea Maritima. It was the perfect place to stop and reflect, to let the salty wind wash away all your cares and worries, and leave you raw and ready for the Maker’s hand. We each picked a seashell which will be a symbol of our pilgrimage.  We pray that we may be open, like the overturned seashell, so that God may fill us with His mercy and grace.

We drove through the hills, past many towns and villages, to a place on Mount Carmel for lunch. If you have ever been to the San Jacinto valley of California, the rolling hills are very similar, although somewhat more green here, and the architecture is also similar, with most structures made of stone, with tiled or flat roofs.


But the highlight of the day for me was our visit to the Church of the Annunciation. Today’s “modern” church is built on Byzantine mosaics which surround a first century church.  This is the site on which the angel appeared to Mary, a young teenager who had her life all mapped out, and he asked her to become the earthen vessel through which God himself would become man. It was a surreal experience to sit there and think, how would I respond if God called me, so clearly, to something so astounding? Would I have the courage to accept; would I have the humility to realize how unworthy I am and pray for the grace to say yes? As we celebrated mass in this beautiful and holy place, I think it sunk in for all of us, how truly amazing this pilgrimage is going to be.

We finished our day by walking across the street to the convent of Les Dames de Nazareth. We were blessed to get a rare glimpse of what is believed to have been Joseph’s house, where Jesus was brought up. It is also the site of two tombs, one where we believe Joseph was buried, the other intended for his wife Mary.

It has been a rich two days, and filled with the Spirit we rest our bodies, so that our souls can continue the journey tomorrow. May Mary, the mother of Mercy pray for us.

March 13: Day 3

Synagogue where Jesus read from Isaiah.
Synagogue where Jesus read from Isaiah.

Whereas yesterday we were steeped in the tradition and peace of Nazareth, today was more of a whirlwind. We began still in Nazareth with a final brief visit to the Church of the Annunciation, where we read the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and predictions on what her son would do. A short walk took us to a synagogue built on the site of a first century synagogue. There we heard about Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah, himself predicting the change Jesus would bring. As we sang “the Spirit of God is upon me. He has anointed me” it was as if the souls of all those who have followed Jesus echoed this call back to us.

Here we were also each given a vocation bracelet, asking us “what is God’s plan for you?” I didn’t realize it then, but this was a foreshadowing of our whole day.

Of course we all remember what happened when Jesus told the people of his home town that Isaiah was actually describing Jesus, they “drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” (Luke 4:29) we actually went up that hill, and stood on the brow of the cliff overlooking the city of Nazareth and the land of Galilee. Mount of Precipice it is called. It is such a peaceful, flowering serene place, it is hard to imagine a rioting crowd trying to push someone off. We also saw, from a distance, a small church erected on the spot where they say Jesus’ mother Mary stopped and wept when she saw what they were trying to do to him.

From there we travelled to Cana. In a small outdoor chapel we were Church at Cana privileged to celebrate the renewal of wedding vows for two couples in our group. We also each prayed for God’s grace in all of our relationships, whether it be with a spouse, parent, sibling, friend or even those with whom we do not always get along. This was a particularly sacred quiet moment for our group. And then we of course went to buy Cana wine!

We got our first glimpse of the Sea of Galilee from a little village on a hill. After travelling down the hill we went to a place on the Jordan River where Fr. Joseph and Shane brought Jesus’ baptism to life. After which, we all renewed our baptismal promises in the Jordan River! It may not be the exact place where Jesus was baptized, but it is the same river, and the same call to all of us, to become priest, prophet and king for our God.

The most moving part of the day for me, however, was our final stop. A small out of the way corner on the Sea of Galilee, where it is believed the first apostles received their call. This spot where Peter and Andrew were cleaning their nets in the waterfall at the lake’s edge. And a cave on the hill where Jesus may have been staying as he saw these fishermen come in and knew that these would be his “fishers of people”. It is such an unspoiled area that you could see Jesus walking down to meet them.

So although it was a whirlwind, looking back on the day, it was all about one theme; the call.  The call that Jesus received from his very conception, the call that does not promise an easy path with no danger, but that does promise change; the call of his first apostles, which has now been passed on to us. How are we being called? We pray that God helps our ears to be open and our souls to be willing to receive His call in our lives.

March 14: Day 4

Today was once again spent around the Sea of Galilee. So much of Jesus’ ministry happened in this area, and maybe I wasn’t listening right in church, but I was picturing all of these places being so far apart. Jesus seemed to be always travelling and now I see that the Mount of Beatitudes slopes down to the beach where he fed the 5000, and on the other side of that slope is the cave we explored yesterday above where the first apostles were called. And Capernaum is only a 5 minute bus ride away. It is amazing that a heretical movement begun in this tiny area has spread to span the world.

We began today on the Mount of Beatitudes. There is a beautiful centre with gardens and quiet alcoves all overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and there we heard Jesus’ teaching on the ‘qualities of the kingdom’. It was particularly poignant to hear “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” in this year of mercy.

After some quiet time on the mount we drove to Capernaum, or Kaufer Nahum. There we celebrated two of Jesus’ calls, to be Teacher and Healer. We celebrated Mass on the site of the synagogue where Jesus taught “as one with authority”, which is only steps from Peter’s house where Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law. Jesus’ ministry as teacher and healer are intertwined as we discovered, since teaching cannot become learning if the person is in pain and needs healing. I am not myself a teacher, but I do feel that parts of my vocation in life include teaching, and I know that my own sacrament of healing has given me new hope and renewed determination to be a good teacher and healer to those in my life who need me.

After such an emotional time we were ready for some fun and food! And we got both as we ate St. Peter’s fish in a little place by the sea. I have never spent so much time trying to eat fish, but it was totally worth it!

We rounded out our day with a beautiful boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Not only was it wonderful to be out on a boat on such a gorgeous day, some of our pilgrims embodied the gospel stories of Jesus calming the sea, and Peter trying to walk on water. What an amazing privilege to really experience the gospels in this way.

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Thank you Lord for a day of transformation, healing and teaching. Each day we feel your grace and your mercy, and we look forward to learning more about ourselves and our relationship with you.

March 15: Day 5

This was our last full day in Tiberias and the Galilee region, and we were so blessed; it rained off and on all day! In a country where drought is always a problem rain is never a cause for sadness, even when on pilgrimage. In fact it became a beautiful and symbolic part of our day.

We began on Mount Tabor, the mountain on which our Lord was transfigured and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. We arrived during a downpour, and we worried that we wouldn’t be able to embody the Gospel story outside as planned. However, God must have liked our plan, because the rain stopped, and just as Fr. Joseph (as Jesus) was transfigured, the sun broke through the clouds, there was a clap of thunder, and it was… such a powerful moment. As we sang “How Great Thou Art” I don’t think any of us were not moved; it was as if God himself had blessed our pilgrimage. Of course we can all identify with the disciples who didn’t want to leave that place, but we know that eventually, like the disciples, we will be sent out into the world again.

From the Transfiguration we journeyed to Tabgha, the site of the Feeding of the 5000. There is a beautiful retreat centre there and we were allowed to celebrate Mass under a canopy of trees on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, right there, where Jesus foreshadowed the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I believe it is the most meaningful Mass I have ever celebrated. Just as Jesus broke the bread and asked his disciples to share it with the multitude, Fr. Joseph broke our bread, blessed it, and gave it to us to serve each other. We are the new disciples, we have been called, broken though we are, to share.

And as we are called, we are also sent. We finished our day at two sites, both of which celebrate the commissioning of followers to go out into the world and share the Good News. At the Church of the Primacy, just steps away from the seashore where Jesus first called Peter, Jesus appeared after his resurrection to reinstate Peter as head of the church. Today we offered a special blessing for Fr. Joseph, thanking him for his response to the call to be a priest. I think I can speak for all three of us from St. Francis who were privileged to be part of this plan, we are so blessed to have Fr. Joseph with us on this journey.

The ruins of MigdalBut Jesus did not only commission men, he also had “many women who came with him”, including Mary Magdalene, or Mary from Migdal. We visited the ruins of Migdal, and there read the stories about Mary, who was such an important supporter of Jesus and his followers.Rainbow over Sea of Galilee


So as disciples we are called, and as apostles we are sent. I pray that the rainbow we saw over the Sea of Galilee this evening is once again a sign of God’s blessing on us. (Gen 8:8-17)

March 16: Day 6

DesertToday we left behind the lush green of Galilee and journeyed into the desert. This is what I pictured when I think of Biblical stories! Since we have had some rain in the last few days there is some green on the hills, but you can definitely connect with the barren landscape which shaped so many prophets.Dead Sea

Our first stop actually had nothing to do with Jesus, but it was hard to resist a quick dip in the Dead Sea. 🙂 Unfortunately it was wavy today, which it rarely is, so we were not able to lay back and float as most people do, but we did enjoy the mud and the experience! A little laughter goes a long way.

Sycamore TreeBack to the focus of our pilgrimage, we entered Palestine, and stopped at a sycamore tree that is over 2000 years old. It may be the tree which Zaccheas climbed in order to see Jesus, and so we paused there to remember that all are called, even those we do not expect to see at Jesus’ side.

As we continued our journey to Jerusalem, we visited my favourite place so far: Wadi Qelt. This is a place in the middle of the desert which overlooks the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The harsh landscape, the barren wilderness and the dry wind somehow really connected me to our Biblical heritage. We each took a stone to represent our loved ones who have passed away, and on top of a hill we prayed the 23 psalm for them. I could have sat there for hours, letting the breath of God pass over me, washing me, preparing me to be made anew in Jerusalem.

Of course no trip to the desert is complete without at least one camel, and two of our brave parishioners road him!

Palm Sunday RoadMy first glimpse of Jerusalem was somewhat overwhelming. We are back in the big city again, with buildings everywhere. It is truly a city of religion too, with churches, mosques and minarets, and of course synagogues everywhere. We were actually able to carry palms down Palm Sunday Road, where Jesus would have made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem over 2000 years ago.

The road goes past the Garden of Gethsemane, which we will visit soon, and Dominus Flevit, a church which marks the spot where Jesus stopped and wept over Jerusalem. (Luke 19: 41-45) We celebrated Mass in the church, which has a window behind the altar from which you can see the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place, the dome which marks the place where Jesus died, and a dome which marks the place where he rose from the dead. The entire Easter Triduum story was marked before us as we celebrated Mass. And as Jesus asked of us in the Gospel, we prayed for peace in this world of divisions.

Tonight we stay in Bethlehem, which is basically a suburb of Jerusalem today. If there was not a wall built between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, you would hardly know where one started and the other stopped. Unfortunately this is still not a place of peace, and we are still building walls instead of bridges, but we continue to pray, and we trust in God’s mercy.

March 17: Day 7

Merry Christmas! I know it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but today was Christmas in Bethlehem for us pilgrims. We began our beautiful day in Shepherd’s Field, the field where the angels appeared to tell the Good News to the lowly shepherds. (Luke 2:9-19) As our pilgrims brought the age-old story to life beginning in the field, we then moved to a nearby cave in which shepherds likely slept in Jesus’ time. We usually think over in the western world that since Jesus was born in a manger, he must have been born in a barn. But the truth is he was born in a cave, much like the one in which we celebrated Mass. Christ was born a fragile, needy child, not a powerful king. Just as we all need him, Jesus needs us to accept his message and carry it in our hearts always.

Also at Shepherd’s Field we had the opportunity to place a star on the tree there in memory of Deacon Peter Pelletier. So now our Peter will forever be remembered in Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord.

Since today was all about Jesus as an infant, a child, we also had the unique opportunity to visit a school, the Latin Patriarchal School in Beth Sahir. The children were so excited to have visitors, and loved showing off their English skills! It was very impressive too how children from kindergarten to grade 12 all attended the same school and all got along really well on the schoolyard.

We finished our day with a bittersweet stop at the orphanage, or Crèche. Run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, this place of refuge takes in infants from age 0-5, often because their families cannot afford to keep their children. Poverty and unemployment is a real problem in Bethlehem so the sisters are very busy. We spent a wonderful, humbling afternoon with those lovely children.

So today we celebrated the birth of Jesus, over the past days in Galilee and Nazareth we have relived His ministry, and tomorrow we begin “Holy Thursday”. As we begin this final leg of our journey please pray for us, that God’s mercy shines upon us in our last days on pilgrimage.

March 18: Day 8

From Christmas yesterday we jumped today to Holy Thursday. Remembering all of Jesus’ ministry around Galilee and his upbringing in Nazareth, we now turn to his last days. We began with Mass in the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, where Jesus actually celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. There is a beautiful radius behind the altar which is a depiction of the last supper, and Jesus’ heart is the tabernacle. And so in this place where he instituted the Eucharist, we too celebrated the sacrament which has become the heart of our spiritual lives. We also had the opportunity to have our feet washed during the Gospel reading. Having your feet washed is humbling and beautiful anyway, but in the place where it happened first was very powerful.

Since there was a marathon in Jerusalem today we had a slight change of plans which became some pilgrims’ favourite part of the day. We walked (instead of riding our bus) from the Upper Room, through the Kidron Valley, to the Garden of Gethsemane, just as Jesus did over 2000 years ago. It was a lovely walk and gave us time to prepare our hearts for the garden. In Gethsemane we again embodied the gospel reading, where Jesus asks his disciples to wait and pray with him, and he asks his Father if there is another way. We all ask God for a different option when our lives are taking paths which we do not want, but often, like when Jesus asked, the answer is no, and sometimes we do not want to hear it. We prayed that we would be open to God’s mercy, as we had the opportunity for Reconciliation in the Garden of Gethsemane.

St. Anne's Church

After our long morning we had a break for lunch and then we were able to visit the Pool of Bethesda and the Church of St. Anne. Dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, the church is beautiful in its stark walls and huge vaulted ceilings. I was blessed to be able to sing Ave Maria here (as I also did in the Church of the Annunciation) and again the acoustics make the experience so much more spiritual.

Courtyard at St. Peter in GallicantuOur final stop today was at St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is where Jesus was brought by the soldiers after they arrested him in Gethsemane. So he would have been dragged back along the Last Path (the same path he followed to go to the garden) all the way back up the Kidron Valley to this place. Some of the original steps are still there, and the courtyard has been recreated as well; you can really picture Peter waiting for news of Jesus and then denying he even new him. And we were even able to go down under the church and see a cave like the one which would have been Jesus’ prison for that last night.

It is hard to believe now, knowing all that we know about Jesus, that we turned against him, we spat on him and beat him, and finally put him to death. Tomorrow we take up this last journey, and we pray that the mercy we have received today gives us strength to face what Jesus faced in his humanity.

March 19: Day 9

Our final day on pilgrimage. I cannot believe the journey has almost ended. We have such an amazing group of people, and I think I can say that we have all grown, both individually and as a community.

Today was a big day. We celebrated both Good Friday and Easter, and so it has been an emotional roller-coaster. We began by carrying a cross down the Via Dolorosa. This was an interesting experience, and not what many people expected. The Via Dolorosa is a road in the heart of the old city which is used as a marketplace. So it is teaming with people going about their daily lives, filled with noise and the smell of cooking. Many of us pictured a deserted place, filled with sorrow, but it was a place filled with life. And so as we carried our cross and marked the Stations, it was at times difficult to focus on what we were doing. But truly this is what Jesus would have experienced. The Romans would have wanted a spectacle, and so they would have chosen the busy marketplace through which to drag him. The juxtaposition of vibrant life and infinite sorrow also points to the Paschal Mystery, since there is no real life without His death.

At the end of the road we came of course to the Holy Sepulchre. This is a unique site since the church built here is jointly shared by six churches, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and Syriacs. Here we were bombarded by events from Jesus’ death. We first encountered the Preparation Slab (the place where they would have prepared His body for burial). There is also an altar over a piece of stone which dates back to the time of Christ, and which is said to be where he died. Below ground in a cave was the place where St. Helen is said to have discovered the cross. But the most sacred spot is of course the Tomb of Jesus. It is such a moving experience to duck down out of the noise and confusion of the lineup, and enter a place of quiet, of light, of real peace. When I got my turn to venerate the tomb, in the spot where Jesus’ followers felt so much despair and fear, I felt only honour and joy. Honour that I was so blessed to be there, and joy that this tomb was not the end.

On our pilgrimage we have had Mass at some unbelievable places, but perhaps the most inspiring was today in the Catholic Church within the walls of the Holy Sepulchre. We were privileged to be joined by two other pilgrims who happened to be in the church, and it was very special to celebrate Mass with them. The sacrament of the Mass unites people. It unites us with Christ’s brokenness and with his Resurrection. And in the joy and Hope and mercy and peace of the Resurrection we celebrated our final Mass together. It is very humbling to gather in a circle around the altar and really participate in the sacrament, and it is one of the many moments of this journey that I will never forget.

For those who sent mercy petitions with us on pilgrimage, we hope you will be pleased to know that after carrying them with us through three Holy Doors, remembering them at each Mass, and keeping them close to our hearts for the last ten days, we left them at the foot of a pillar in the Holy Sepulchre, a pillar which is supposed to be a remnant of the one at which Jesus was scourged. We pray that any pain or suffering you may be experiencing will be united with Jesus’ suffering, and that you may find new life this Easter.

Our Lord, broken open for us.Our final stop on this journey was on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where we recalled the disciple Cleopas’ encounter with our Lord on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas’ story is very much like our own pilgrimage. We were walking through our lives in various stages of the Christian journey, but I think I can say that none of us was fully aware of Jesus’ presence. But through the breaking open of the Word, through it being made flesh in our hearts and minds and souls, we have come to know Him better. And through the breaking of the bread and our sharing in the sacrament of the Eucharist we have acknowledged our own brokenness and proclaimed ourselves willing to be made new. I pray that the many graces we have received here in the Holy Land will return with us in our daily lives. “Sent forth by God’s blessing, our true faith confessing…the seed of His teaching, our inner souls reaching, shall blossom in action for God and for all!”