October 25 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


You simply had to be in The Holy Land

SCO editor LIZ LEYDON, who visited the Holy Land for the first time on the National Year of Faith pilgrimage this month, reports on the trip, which was led by Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, who was also making his first trip to the region

There are experiences in life that change a person forever. Pilgrims have many spiritual opportunities to renews their faith. Pilgrims who visit the Holy Land experience the Liturgy and the Eucharist in the part of the world where the Gospels took place. Holy Land pilgrims who made the trip on this Year of Faith national visit report being honoured and humbled in equal measure. For many, it was also a tremendous learning curve.

The Holy Land: Could you find it on a map and, if so, how do you envision it? An undeveloped desert? Flat, barren terrain? Those not fortunate enough to have visited as yet would be forgiven for thinking so. This land, however, the size of the US State of New Jersey, has beautiful terrain as diverse as its unfortunately religiously and ethnically divided population. From the hubbub of modern Tel Aviv at the Mediterranean Sea, to the peaceful valley containing Jericho en route to the Dead Sea; from the hills of Jerusalem to the fertile Sea of Galilee, from the Church of the Nativity to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, this is a land of wonders too bountiful to be fully absorbed and processed on one trip.

As our pilgrimage leader Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow said, we ‘hope to have a greater sense in the Lord in who [we] believe’ at the end of the October 7-14 pilgrimage.

First timers be warned, however, you won’t visit Holy sites in the chronological order of the New Testament; the heat and travel does take its toll; the Holy Land is shared sometimes less than generously between many religions and denominations; there is a time for piety, politics and plain fun on this kind of trip, but the time for reflection comes only once you are home; you cannot help but be changed by your experience and you will want to return, in spite of airport security and the dividing walls.

Our 109 pilgrims were not all Scottish, nor all Catholic. Most were retired but all helped one another to figuratively, and literally, walk in the footsteps of Jesus as we experienced a pilgrimage in the traditional sense—complete with trials and tribulations—and emerged different people inspired to continued the New Evangelisation well after the Year of Faith ends.


Day 1 and 2

Separated on to two different flights to Israel, and on to two buses for the purposes of travelling through the Holy Land, our yellow and blue bus groups would come together for meals, Masses, meetings and Liturgy readings throughout the pilgrimage. However, on the first day we arrived the trials of pilgrims and the Holy Land became evident when the yellow bus group was delayed for several hours at Ben Gurion Airport because of the ethnic origins of some members of their group. They arrived at our first hotel in Haifa in the early hours of Tuesday morning but still rose for our first Mass in the Holy Land, at the Cave of Elijah at Mount Carmel, in Haifa. The Mass was celebrated by newly ordained Glasgow priest Fr Stuart Reynolds and Deacons James Hernaghan and Charles Henry as Archbishop Philip Tartaglia’s busy schedule prevented him from joining the pilgrimage until the following day.

In his homily, Fr Reynolds said: “We live very much in a world of idol worship, particularly in the western world back home.”

He went on to pray that our young people find ‘good role models’ and spoke of the importance of the first commandment, to love and worship God.

Later in the day, married couples from both of our groups had the opportunity to renew their marriage vows in a moving service at Cana of the Galilee, and to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Chapel of St Joseph, the Old Synagogue in Nazareth where the boy Jesus preached and Mary’s Well. The mosaics and frescos of Our Lady outside the Basilica of the Annunciation are something to behold, as is the Scottish mural inside the upper Church.


Day 3

A booking problem in London meant that Archbishop Tartaglia was not able to join the pilgrimage on Day 3 as planned and therefore missed pilgrims renewing their Baptismal vows on the banks of the Rover Jordan, and perhaps more sorely he missed celebrating Mass at the Church of St Peter in Capharnaum. In his stead, Fr Reynolds said, in the homily, that like St Peter: “We at times fall and continue to fall from God’s grace.”

We then visited the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha and the Mt Beatitudes. Fr Reynolds really hit his stride in the footsteps of Jesus when he spoke outside the altar here.

Scripture came alive again for pilgrims when one of our number read scripture on our cruise on the Sea of Galilee on a replica fishing boat. Thankfully the waters where calm, but it probably did not help the fisherman who unsuccessfully cast his nets for us.


Day 4

Archbishop Tartaglia joined pilgrims for 6.30am breakfast in Nazareth in spite of having arrived just two hours prior. Today was always going to be a more solemn day. We had visits planned to: Mount Sion (to see the Upper Room of the Last Supper); to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu (built over the dungeon where Jesus was imprisoned); a meeting with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the honour of Solemn entry into the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Franciscan site over the tomb of Jesus. That morning we assume the switch from rousing Scottish songs on the coaches to hymns was due to this, not His Grace’s presence, but who knows.

Each pilgrim spoke of having moments, or a moment, on our pilgrimage. For many in the blue group the visible flow of emotion began today, gathered together in the dark dungeon as Deacon Hernaghan read of Our Lord’s experience here.

For some it was praying at the Dormition Abbey built over the site where Our Lady was said to have fallen asleep, others were most moved when visiting the site where St Peter denied Christ three times.

For Archbishop Tartaglia, the privilege of his private entrance to the tomb of David while at the Cenacle was ‘very special.’

Later, our Solemn entry into the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre—as the Fransiscan Fiars sang— to visit, three at a time, the Tomb of Our Lord cannot be put into words, you simply had to be there. The friar who addressed us in front of the tomb urged everyone present to make our pilgrimage more than just a ‘cultural visit.

The words of Archbishop Faoud Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jersusalem, who received us today, are still ringing in our ears.

“The number of Christians is reducing more and more: Jerusalem has 10,000 only, while there are more than 250,000 Muslims and 450,000 Jews [here],” he said. “This is our Cross… We need visas to cross from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. You can come from China, from the UK to visit the Holy places but we cannot from Jerusalem. Why this quality of life? Because Jesus said ‘don’t be afraid, I will give you my peace.’ [This is a peace] that the wars, the walls the borders, will never give us. Faith, serenity, peace. ‘I will never leave you alone I will give you my peace.’”

The Latin patriarch added that his diocese encompasses many states and borders and that ‘all of the middle east is a suffering Church’ and ‘we need to pray for peace.’

“Still its is better to live with others as good friends than bitter enemies,” he said. “We are against the war, we are for peace. Jerusalem gathers all believers and divides them. But it is a city of surprises. Pray, one day, we can have another surprise, pray for peace.”

Next November, around 23 patriarchs are schedule to meet with Pope Francis to pray with him about the region’s problems.

Thankfully, the day ended with our arrival in Bethlehem—where ‘every day is Christmas Day.’ Many in our group see Bethlehem as a spiritual home, tonight for all of us it is our first time sleeping in the West Bank behind the Wall on this pilgrimage. (See side bar right). We would sleep here for the next four nights.


Day 5

Our Friday in the Holy Land dawned bright and early and we went to Manger Square to visit the Grotto of the Nativity. For some pilgrims this site struck them as more of a tourist attraction than a spiritual site, paling perhaps because of the powerful religious experience and honour of visiting the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday.

My first ‘moment’ today came not during Mass at St Catherine’s but during a brief prayer at the Grotto of the Holy Innocents where my gaze fell on a simple cross fashioned from two nappy pins left in the days, months or years gone by another pilgrim.

During our visit to the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem the ‘blockade’under which the residents of Bethlehem live became all too clear, as did the increasing illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine (above) as seen behind the cross at the hospital chapel.

Our visit that afternoon to Ein Karem, the home of St Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and the Church of the Visitation holds special memories for pilgrims who made the climb to the latter with Archbishop Tartaglia. In the lower chapel he encouraged pilgrims to join him in scripture reading and Marian hymns while in the upper chapel he led a Decade of the Rosary.

That night we were guests of Bethlehem Municipality at a civic reception, as reported in last week’s SCO. Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, thanks to Alex Mosson, the Glasgow annual Holy Land pilgrimage organiser who is the former Lord Provost of Glasgow. Mr Mosson and his wife, Maureen, have visited the Holy Land countless times over the years.


Day 6

All of today was a ‘you had to be there moment,’ overwhelming spiritually and all too real. Visiting the Mount of Olives/Garden of Gethsemane brought all present closer to Our Lord and His sacrifice for humanity.

Open air-Mass at the Basilica of the Agony with Archbishop Tartaglia in the cool early morning gave me my ‘moment’ of the pilgrimage. Overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, where we would soon follow the Stations of the Cross, I was suddenly transported back thousands of years and the Liturgy became all too real. I knew the Via Dolorosa was still to come, as Jesus too must have known when here.

At the Church of Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives, Christians recall Christ’s teaching of the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples. On walls around the church and its vaulted cloister, we saw translations of the Lord’s Prayer in 140 languages on colourful ceramic plaques, including Gaelic and Doric.

In the afternoon we carried a symbolic Cross with us on the Via Dolorosa, four pilgrims at a time, struggling to stay together and navigate our way. Unfortunately our group was derided by youths and store owners alike, with but a few Christian passers-by few joining in our prayers. By the time we re-entered the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, enshrining the tomb and Calvary, for the final stations we were a far more sombre group. We had passed through stations in the dignified custody of some of the poorest Christian orders in the world and we’d experienced the gauntlet of emotions.


Day 7

After a moving Sunday Mass at Shepherds’ field—during which pilgrims sang in Gaelic and Latin—the day of rest saw some pilgrims travel to Jericho, Masada and the Dead Sea (the lowest water in the world), others return to Jerusalem, and others still stay in Bethlehem for their last full day on the pilgrimage before Archbishop Tartaglia departed in the morning.

Our Liturgy today was based on the first Mass of Christmas and the archbishop urged us to continue to reflect on this message, and on the pilgrimage, upon our return home the next day and well after the Year of Faith ended.

Those who journey afterwards to Jericho, a Palestinian town, saw that it is not allowed to export its bountiful produce—including tiny sweet bananas, amazing dates and oranges.

In contrast, Masada by the Dead Sea is home to the last Jewish fortress to fall to the Romans in 70AD, and is the site of a mass suicide. Visitors marvel at the wonders of ancient construction and engineering when they are taken by cable car to the fort ruins above sea level while mourning the lost Jewish lives. Enroute by coach from Jericho to Masada, we passed the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Floating in the Dead Sea itself is an entirely different kind of ‘spiritual’ experience as was our farewll party back at our hotel in Bethlehem.


Day 7

Leaving Bethlehem was heart-breaking for many in our pilgrimage group, softened slightly by our last Mass, a Mass of Thanksgiving, celebrated by Fr Reynolds at the 12th-century Crusader Church of the Resurrection in Abu Gosh.

The rest of our tour of Jerusalem and Jaffa before returning to Tel Aviv for our flights home passed in a sleepy-eyed blur on a coach for many. The spirit remained willing but, after one too many late nights and early rises, the flesh was very, very weak. We had by no means reached saturation point, nor had we visited one too many chapels. We just needed to sleep and reflect.

Our experience of the strict security leaving Tel Aviv airport was not pleasant in spite of the fact one of the kind staff members at our baggage drop wore a cross and chain. The drawn out, time consuming check-in process and security was undermined by people being waved through carrying water bottles. Here, many who made promises to return felt their vows weaken by the sheer effort they realised it would involve.



When visiting the Holy Land, be prepared for an emotional, spiritual and physical roller coaster (I am glad to see the back of the pilgrimage bus, that is for certain) but know that, regardless of your age or minor mobility problems, you can make this journey. Rough calculation put our oldest pilgrim at 85, our youngest were youths and our average age was somewhere in the early 60s.

We covered great distances, cramming each day full to the brim and overflowing, but our walking pace was relaxed and no one was forced on a path they could not complete. Our accommodation was far better than that of many who reside in the region, as was our food. In truth, you had to be there with the National Year of Faith pilgrims in the Holy Land. Book early for next year.



— Special occasions photographs from the National Year of Faith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on pages 22-23 of this week’s print edition.

— To offer financial support to help subsidise next year’s pilgrimage, or book your place, contact Alex Mosson on 0141 954 3360.

— The National Year of Faith Pilgrimage is organised by Special Pilgrimages. Telephone 0800 371972.

— SCO editor Liz Leydon kept a daily blog while on pilgrimage, it can be found in the opinion section of the SCO website at www.sconews.co.uk





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