By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald
You traveled several weeks ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. What was that experience like for you?
It was both amazing and awe-inspiring. If anyone ever is able to find a way to visit the Holy Land, I believe it would be an experience that would enrich their faith and make the Gospels come alive. We walked the same roads that Jesus walked, and, in particular, the Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa, which is a narrow, uphill path that leads to Calvary. We visited the places where he performed miracles. We went to Nazareth, where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive the savior of the world. One of the most moving parts of our journey was being able to celebrate Mass at the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. What a privilege it was for me to celebrate that Mass.
Were there some things that caught you by surprise?
I was extremely moved by being in the Garden of Gethsemane and celebrating Mass in the church there. The olive trees there in the garden date to the time of Christ. As I gazed out, I realized he sat at that rock and sweat his very blood for us. He prayed to the Father that this trial might pass him by, but he concluded his prayer with a total submission to the Father’s will: “Thy will be done.” It was very powerful. Another moment that was a little unexpected was visiting the place where Jesus was judged and condemned to death. He was lowered down a hole and kept in a chamber, really a prison chamber. As I walked around the building, I walked into the prison chamber and saw one member of our group with her hands on the wall, and tears were streaming from her eyes. As we stood there and prayed in that room, I could really feel his presence.
What did your pilgrimage guide tell you about the locations of the different events of Jesus’ life? Are we pretty certain – 2,000 years later – that the locations are accurate?
From the days of the early church, the life of Jesus was retold and passed on as oral tradition from generation to generation, so we believe that the sacred places we now visit correspond to the historical events in Jesus’ life. There’s a great deal of certainty that these are the actual locations. Just to walk on the same streets as Jesus did and walk through the synagogues where he taught the people was an amazing experience. You can think about it this way. In Capernaum, the foundation and pillars of a fourth-century synagogue are still there, and that synagogue was built over the exact spot of the original synagogue from Jesus’ time. We walked on the same spot where Jesus taught the Hebrew scriptures. That is an amazing revelation. It really does make the Gospels come alive. Just last week we read at Mass about Jesus going to the region of Caesarea Philippi and asking his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We visited that very spot, and now we can place ourselves in the story with the disciples. What a privilege.
What is the political situation in the Middle East?
We had a lot of conversation about that. There is no doubt Christians are being persecuted and being driven out of the Holy Land. We took a bus tour of Bethlehem, and we heard much about not only the political tensions but also the religious tensions that have placed a heavy burden on Christians. Our Catholic guide spoke about how difficult it is for him and his family to live there without danger or prejudice. It is difficult for Christians because so many have left. There’s been a grand exodus. The Franciscans maintain a Catholic presence in the Holy Land, and they are in charge of taking care of the sacred spaces. Also, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem prays every day for peace in the Holy Land and also raises funds to take care of the shrines and promote Catholic education and a Christian presence in the Holy Land. I am privileged to serve as grand prior of the Southeastern (U.S.) Lieutenancy of the order.
It sounds like the Holy Land trip was an amazing pilgrimage.
One of the other incredible experiences was taking a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We got out into the middle of the sea and turned the motor off – and everything was silent. We had time for prayer, and we reflected on the moment when Jesus walked on the water and Peter tried to walk and then sank as soon as he took his eyes off Jesus. I thoroughly enjoyed this sacred experience. It was as much a retreat as it was a pilgrimage.