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9-Holy-Land-BUS-GROUP

Students follow in the footsteps of Jesus

JOHN DUNLOP reports on the Holy Land pilgrimage that he and his fellow student teachers undertook this summer — By JOHN DUNLOP

The Holy Land has long been a place of pilgrimage, prayer, history and wonder for Christians, Jews, Muslims and even those of no particular faith background alike.

For Catholics, the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Christ, and to explore those places where much of His life on earth took place, and to see those places mentioned in Scripture in the flesh, is one of great privilege.

The St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education at Glasgow University recently had the chance to enjoy a truly fruitful pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The aim of this pilgrimage was to provide students of initial teacher education courses with the opportunity to have a spiritual and pastoral experience at some of the holiest sites on earth.

Whilst many of the student teachers were of the Catholic Faith and are preparing to teach in Catholic schools, the inclusive nature of this pilgrimage, held from June 3 to 11, was reflected by the uptake from students and staff who are members of other Christian denominations, or had no personal faith commitment, helping to create a richer sense of a community throughout the duration of the trip.

The spiritual nature of the pilgrimage was clear from the beginning, with the first half of the week being spent in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Here, the group visited, prayed and reflected at some of the sites associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels.

We were given the opportunity to participate in Holy Mass as a collective group each day at special sites and shrines.

We were also given personal time for quiet reflection throughout each day, with prompts such as artwork and music prepared for us pilgrims to focus on certain aspects of theology, and to invoke engagement in discussions at the end of each day.

The dynamic of the pilgrimage changed after departing the busier cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem to the more serene hilltop Mount of Beatitudes by the Sea of Galilee.

Here, the places that were important in Jesus’ ministry and earlier life were visited, and the pilgrims even had a chance to swim in the Sea of Galilee itself.

It is hoped that the experiences at such holy sites will provide the our student teacher group with the impetus to share such memories and knowledge gained with the pupils whose care we will be charged with throughout our careers.

 

Faith and friendship

Throughout the pilgrimage we were guided by our teacher and coordinator Fr Stephen Reilly, who helped many of us to develop a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

“This pilgrimage was the result of the endeavours of a number of people, and the months of planning came together to form a wonderful week,” Fr Stephen Reilly, the coordinator of Spiritual and Pastoral Formation at Glasgow University, and the group’s leader, said: “We are grateful to the staff and students of Bethlehem University for the care they have shown throughout our time with them.

“It was a great privilege to accompany our own students to such holy places, which allowed them to have a personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and added to the theological knowledge that they have been exploring during their studies.

“We aim to develop this social and spiritual bond that has been created in the months and years that lie ahead.”

Meanwhile, third year students Claire McCrum and Heather Scott, who are studying for an MA in Religious and Philosophical Education, spoke of how thankful for they were to have been able to take part in the trip.

“As student teachers of religious education we are very grateful for this possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have experienced the holy sites and the life of the Holy Land,” they said.

The pair also added that they were ‘taken aback at the natural beauty of the land,’ along with their Faith ‘growing as a result of our personal and communal prayers at many of the important places in the life of Jesus.’

“Our personal highlight was developing friendships with people who were strangers at the beginning of our pilgrimage, but by sharing the same experience have now a bond to coincide with the memories (and photographs) that we have,” they said. “We are excited to share our stories and experience with pupils we will teach on our upcoming school placements and beyond.”

 

Lasting links

Our pilgrimage was one that also sought to engage with the wider life experience of people living in the Middle East today. An important element of this was evident by the hospitality when we paid a visit to Bethlehem University.

A Bethlehem student group had planned a series of encounters that allowed for the sharing of knowledge and experiences between the students from Glasgow University and the native Palestinians.

This notion of a community on a journey was then extended to the Palestinian students, who integrated fully into the pilgrim group and have remained in touch following the Glasgow group’s return home.

As the group return back to life in Scotland, initial plans are being discussed to seek to provide a lasting network between both of the universities going forward.

The end of a beautifully successful pilgrimage spiritually, socially and educationally, brought some sadness for many I expect, but with such initiatives on the horizon including the possibility of exchange programmes, combined with the opportunity for a return pilgrimage from the St Andrew’s Foundation, we can be upbeat about future pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

In addition to this, there are discussions for the advent of a ‘Friends of Bethlehem University’ working group, that will seek to include academics, students and wider bodies from other universities in the UK and possibly further afield. This working group will help to support the good work of Bethlehem University, who help provide education to students who are often the most in need in the Middle East.

It marks the end of a wonderful pilgrimage for all involved, and we were grateful for the chance to develop and strengthen faith, friendship and learning.

 

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