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A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land Print E-mail

January 26, 2011| The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 39  | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

On January 5, the rector and vice rector of our Seminary of the Immaculate Conception left for the Holy Land on pilgrimage with 23 of the seminarians in formation for ordination to the priesthood. In addition to men studying for the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, some of the men come from other countries including Uganda, Ghana, Korea and the Syro-Malankara rite. On January 11, I was able to join them and be part of that pilgrimage that had been wonderfully planned and organized by the rector, Msgr. Peter Vaccari.

By the time I arrived, the pilgrimage was in Jerusalem, having already traveled through Galilee, visiting Nazareth, and praying at several places where Jesus taught and healed throughout the region. The men were in a very enthusiastic mood as they recounted their experiences to me during our bus trip first to Bethlehem and then on to the Sinai in Egypt. There was certainly time for this because Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, is a long and many-houred bus ride. When we arrived at our modest Hotel of St. Catherine, it was already late and, after a quick supper, everyone headed to bed.

While the vice rector and I managed a fairly normal night’s rest, the seminarians were up at 2 a.m. to get to the mountain where, in the dead of night, they rode camels up the mountainside to greet the sunrise in that very spot where Moses had spent forty days and forty nights in converse with God. Without regret for what we had missed, Msgr. James Swiader and I met them at the Monastery of St. Catherine which is nestled at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is one of the most famous and one of the least accessible monasteries in the world. For more than 1,600 years, Greek Orthodox monks have lived there, first in caves and now in a setting that is ascetic, forbidding, and wildly enchanting.

Here the body of the great saint and martyr, St. Catherine of Alexandria, is venerated, a woman who was a philosopher and major intellectual force in ancient Alexandria, but whose conversion to Christianity and commitment of her intellectual genius to defending Christianity ran her afoul of the Roman governors who had her stretched on first one, then a second wheel, both of which broke in the process. Martyred on the third wheel, she remains one of the glories of eastern Christianity. Here in this monastery there is a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts which include some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. These codices have, in the last 120 years, shed important light on the accuracy and the fidelity of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. The monastery has a priceless collection of icons and a church with a mosaic of the Transfiguration which is one of the glories of the Churches of the East.

Returning to Jerusalem, we stopped for an hour in the Judean wilderness which is today much as it was in the time of Jesus. On a hilltop in the vicinity where Jesus went out to fast and pray and be tempted by the devil, we listened once again to the Gospel of Matthew recounting that foundational moment at the beginning of the public life of Jesus. How touched and impressed you would have been as I was just to be with our seminarians as they spread about the hillside and spent a half hour in contemplative prayer and meditation on the Gospel account.

Back in Jerusalem, our guide had arranged our last four days in a thorough and sensitive way, allowing us time for prayer and meditation at all sites associated with Jesus and particularly His last days in the Holy City. Some of the men opted to spend a whole night inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in watchful prayer. Others could be found in one of the churches or along the way of Christ’s passion and death. We visited Bethany where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and celebrated Mass in the Church of All Nations before making our way across the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed the night before He offered Himself on the cross.

There was time as well for a visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Jewish victims of the Shoah, arranged for us by my dear friend, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, whose daughter was our guide. That same afternoon, Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., one of today’s great New Testament scholars, offered us an hour-long reflection on the passion and death of the Lord that led us more deeply into the mystery of the suffering of Jesus that testified to His total abandonment to the will of the Father.

The last day was focused on living out Good Friday. We began with Mass at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Sion, proceeded to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu hard by a first century staircase which Jesus would have trod on His way to Gethsemane, and then we prayed the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, ending with time in prayer at Calvary within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

How blessed we were to spend this time together in pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the Lord and sharing these moments and these sacred places with one another. How blessed you and all of the faithful in our dioceses will be because these men, once ordained as priests to serve in our parishes, will bring with them these unforgettable formative moments that will shape their prayer and inspire their homilies in the years to come. Msgr. Peter Vaccari and Msgr. James Swiader deserve our thanks for having led such a pilgrimage which will be part of the vision and the spirit of our future priests.

On a different but important note, this Tuesday we completed once again the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme this year came from Acts 2: “Devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to their prayer.”

Pope Benedict celebrated solemn Vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls and offered us a moving homily which you can find on the Vatican website: I extend my thanks to Msgr. Donald Beckmann, who heads our Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for all he did this year and does every year for this responsibility we all share: to pray regularly for the unity of all the Christian churches in accordance with the prayer offered the Father on the night before He died, that “All may be one” (cf. John 17).


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