History and Heaven

Sea of Galilee

Lord Jesus reigns in heaven, and we have a heavenly kind of connection with Him. In His flesh, He conquered death and ascended to the right hand of the Father. From there, He pours out the Holy Spirit. He gives us grace: He helps us pray. He helps us do good. He reconciles us, when we sin and confess it. He makes Himself present on the altar, to be our sacrifice to the Father. He feeds us with His Body, Blood, soul, and divinity. [SPANISH.]

In other words, we have a supernatural connection with Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the God-man Who reigns as King over the choirs of angels. We believe in the mystical connection we have with Him—we believe in it, because it’s real.

But Father! Jesus of Nazareth was a regular guy. He started out as a carpenter, then became a rabbi. He made friends in the fishing town of Capernaum. He cured the fever of the mother-in-law of one of His friends, and she proceeded to give them a meal.

All of this sounds homey and down-to-earth, not mystical and otherworldly. His reception by Peter’s mother-in-law sounds like Jesus of Nazareth finding a kind of “home-away-from-home,” once He struck out as a teacher and left His own hometown behind. We can relate to that. Father, instead of going on about heaven and invisible stuff, why don’t you come back to earth and talk about Capernaum?

Ok. The city of Capernaum sat right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Fifty years ago, in 1968, a team of archaeologists did extensive excavations of the site. They discovered that Christians had gathered and worshiped at one ancient house beginning in the first part of the first century AD.

Here the Son of God had His kind-of home-base during his three year ministry. The house where people crowded to see Him, hear Him, touch Him.

excavation of house in Capernaum
Where God took naps while in Capernaum

We know the site; I’ve been there twice myself. It’s walking distance to the peaceful shore of the sea. Actually, Galilee is more like what we would call a lake. It is exactly double the size of Smith Mountain Lake. Lake Michigan could hold 350 Seas of Galilee.

The Galilean shore is just the kind of peaceful place where we could easily imagine the Lord Jesus strolling of the evening, rapt in prayer to the Father.

The gospels and the science of archaeology, therefore, come together to unite us with the enchanting facts of history. Jesus was a real man who slept in particular places. You run into plenty of “George Washington slept here” signs up and down the East Coast, and you can’t believe them all. But we can confidently believe that the house the archaeologists excavated on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is in fact a place where Jesus of Nazareth slept.

The point here, I think, is this: We have a connection with Jesus on two levels. On the one hand, our connection with Him is real and verifiable on the basic historical level. We’re connected to Jesus of Nazareth by the normal handing down of human memories, through the writing of books and the building of memorials in important spots.

Yes, He walked the earth a long time ago. You wouldn’t usually expect to have much solid information about someone who lived two thousand years ago. But, in this case, we have a huge amount of solid material. Plenty of smart, forward-thinking people knew at the time that everything Jesus of Nazareth said and did had decisive importance. So they took note, handed it down, kept records, marked important spots, etc.

washington crossing delawareSo we don’t have to get all mystical and transcendent in order to establish that we have a connection with Jesus of Nazareth. That said, we do, of course, have a mystical and transcendent connection with Him. He triumphed over death; He ascended into heaven; He gives us grace through the sacraments. His heavenly graces transcend history; they put us in touch with the eternal reality of God. But all of them have their origin in the facts of history.

The two kinds of connection we have with Jesus, then—let’s call them the historical and the mystical—these two connections go hand-in-hand with each other. Our faith in the mystical connection isn’t blind or purely “spiritual,” since we base it on the facts of history. At the same time, we don’t think of Jesus as just another historical person, like George Washington. We know that Jesus is the living God, and that all the facts of His life two thousand years ago have meaning for us, here and now—they connect us with God.

Hopefully this reflection can help cure us of the shallow and dumb idea that “all religions are the same,” or that “the details of religion don’t matter—what matters is being a spiritual person.”

All religions are not the same. Our religion has to do with one particular Spirit-ual Person, Who lived on and off for three years in a particular house in the little city of Capernaum. We have zero interest in anything “religious” that doesn’t have to do with this man. He is our religion.

And every detail of His life has theological meaning—every detail deserves our meditation. Being vague and uninformed about religion, or about Jesus—what a waste of time! When He has given us so much to go on—so many specifics.

Sometimes it’s okay to be vague. If anyone asks me about which team I will root for in the Superbowl—I’m prepared to fudge that answer. I’m prepared to say something vague about that.

But not when it comes to Jesus Christ. When it comes to the Savior of the world, let’s always work with precise facts.

Capernaum History

Capernaum synagogue
A certain goofball with a name tag, listening to an expert, with a good priest and two lovely ladies, in the Capernaum Synagogue

Guess what? We will read today’s Holy-Mass gospel passage again, soon. On Super Bowl Sunday. I guess what I say that day about people being ill will depend on whether or not the NE Patriots make it into the Super Bowl yet again.

Seriously, though. At the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel we get a little insight into the closest thing to a “home life” that the Lord Jesus had during his ministry as a rabbi and healer. The city of Capernaum sat right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Far enough away from Nazareth that the Lord did not count as a “local.” Here He got to know Sts. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. And they began to believe in Him as the Christ.

This year we will keep many notable 50th anniversaries, since 1968 was such an eventful year. One notable event was: the archaeological excavations of Capernaum. In 1968 they discovered by digging that Christians had gathered and worshiped at one ancient house beginning in the first part of the first century AD.

In other words, the gospels and the science of archaeology came together in 1968 to unite us with the enchanting facts of history: here the Son of God lived and made a kind of home during his three year ministry. In the house where He healed St. Peter’s mother-in-law, and then she exercised her duties as a hostess towards Him. The house where people crowded to see Him, hear Him, touch Him.

We know the site; I’ve been there twice myself. It’s walking distance to the peaceful shore of the sea. Actually, Galilee is more like what we would call a lake. It is exactly double the size of Smith Mountain Lake. Lake Michigan could hold 350 Seas of Galilee.

excavation of house in Capernaum
The excavated Peter’s House site in Capernaum

The Galilean shore is just the kind of peaceful place where we could easily imagine the Lord Jesus strolling of the evening, rapt in prayer to the Father.

The point here, I think, is: The connection between Jesus Christ and us is real and verifiable on the most basic historical level. We don’t have to get all mystical and transcendent about it, to establish that we have a bond with Him.

That said, of course there is a mystical and transcendent connection, through Christ’s triumph over death and His Ascension into heaven; through the grace He gives us through the sacraments, especially His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

But these two kinds of connection go hand-in-hand for us Christians. We’re connected to Jesus of Nazareth by the normal handing down of human memories, through the writing of books and the building of memorials in important spots. And we’re connected with Him by heavenly graces that transcend all the human workings of history. For us, these two kinds of connection both pertain to the one, fundamental bond we have with Him, namely, the love of His Heart for us.

Whither Capernaum and Camden Yards?

Synagogue in Capernaum

And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’ (Luke 10:15)

“The world as we see it is passing away.” Thus wrote the Apostle Paul to the Christians who lived in one of the bigger, bustling port cities of the Roman Empire, Corinth, in Greece.

The Capernaum we read so much about in the gospels has been excavated by archaeologists. A visit to the site offers an impressive evocation of the ancient town. But the impression the dig gives that Capernaum was very small: this is misleading. It was no sleepy fishing village. Capernaum was a bustling little hub of commerce.

It will all pass away. The skyscrapers of Charlotte, of Atlanta, of Manhattan—they will pass away. They will burn or fall or something, someday.

I am as big a Baltimore Orioles fan as anyone. But I will never forget the Saturday morning a couple years ago when I took a run down 33rd Street for the first time in about a decade. I had to stop dead in my tracks and gape in stunned silence. I found myself staring at a huge grassy field that badly needed mowing.

Memorial Stadium had ceased to exist. The huge coliseum where I had cheered for Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson when I was in the fourth grade, and the seemingly endless parking lot where my aunt parked the Dodge Dart in a sea of cars: Bees were buzzing, flies flying. Not a sound. The center of everything, where the guys from Barry Levinson’s Diner would have gone to see Johnny Unitas play (if they had been real people): reduced to nothingness.

“Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?”

Will Camden Yards be preserved for all eternity in heaven? I think it’s pretty likely that someday Camden Yards, and M&T Stadium, and every boutique ballpark in North America—they will all be in ruins, underwater, forgotten.

And in heaven all the saints who prayed, who repented of their sins, who loved and feared God: they will be watching something infinitely more interesting than even the playoffs.

Loving at Home or Abroad

They tried to prevent Him from leaving them. But He said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:43)

The kingdom of God demands universal charity. In other words, to enter it, we love all our neighbors. We will what is good for them. We concern ourselves with their well-being more than our own.

The people liked having the Lord Jesus around Capernaum. But the time came from Him to move on. He came to save not just that city, but every city, every town and village. So he had to make a like a rolling stone and shove off.

Christ in Capernaum
This left the Lord’s beloved Capernauians with two choices. They could let Him go, say goodbye for now, and persevere in their faith in Him while remaining at home. They would believe in Him and love Him even though they couldn’t see Him all the time anymore.

Or they could let go of everything they had and go with Him, making His love for others their love, too. He had no house to call his own, no particular hometown, so they wouldn’t either.

This choice the Christians of Capernaum faced has continued throughout the age of the Church. We enter the Kingdom of God either by making the Sacred Heart the king of my home, or by leaving everything and making the Sacred Heart my only home.

According to the first way, if the Sacred Heart is the king of my home, then my home actually belongs to everyone, and everyone under its roof deserves my love and kindness.

If, on the other hand, I leave my hometown, and my only home is in the Heart of Christ, then I let Him lead me to whomever He wants me to love.

Both ways lead to heaven. In heaven, there’s no difference between staying in Capernaum to believe in the one I met there, or leaving Capernaum to follow the Christ I believe in. In heaven, Christ is the king of every home, and the only home is Christ’s Heart.

While we still labor here on earth, the choice we make about staying or going might be the choice of a lifetime, in the case of young people. Or it might just be a choice I make today. Do I go on an adventure to serve Christ today? Or do I stay in familiar quarters and love the people close to me with the love of Christ?

May the Lord guide us all, and may our choices get us to heaven. Until we get there, please God, whether we stay home to love the Lord or go out to follow Him, we all have in common that we believe in Him and love Him, and by our love we build the Kingdom of God.

Revealing All Takes Time

When Christ came to the fullness of age and began the decisive work of His pilgrim life, He faced an enormously complex challenge.

He bore in His human hands the power of God. His Sacred Heart beat with divine love for every soul He encountered. He struck fear into the demons, and He dealt them crushing blows.

It pertained to His mission as a man to reveal His divine identity by His words and works. But His particular challenge, as He started out in His ministry, was that for God to reveal Himself to us is more easily said than done.

It is not that God has trouble expressing Himself. It is that we have trouble understanding Him.

It’s not that He is inarticulate. It is that we are obtuse. We are too quick to grasp and hold on for dear life to little things when He has much bigger things to give.

God bestows every benefit we receive. But the greatest benefit of all is God Himself.

So the Lord Jesus healed and exorcised. He benefitted His beloved people with health and psychological peace.

But He could not allow them to think that this was “it.” He did not come to earth to cure people’s colds, miserable as a cold can make a person. Aching sneezing stuffy head fever can’t rest—a bummer, to be sure. But God did not come to the world to do the work of NyQuil. He came to cure people’s tendency towards sin and death.

So, as we read: He unfolded some of His divine power to manifest His identity and His zealous love. But He had to keep moving, keep pushing, keep lifting everyone around Him to the higher levels of spiritual vigor and communion that lead to the transcendent goal.

Yes, I will heal your diseases. Yes, I will feed your hunger. Yes, I will expel the demons who afflict you. Of course I will do these things. I am your Creator Who made you for health and happiness, and I love you and came to help you.

But no, I will not rest here. No, I will not hang up a shingle as your local wonder-worker and settle down in a little house of my own where you can bring your cripples and your lepers for treatment during the office hours I advertise.

No, I have to march on. My main duty is to the truth.

…This week we begin another year of reading our way through the gospels and the other scriptures of our lectionary. Time marches on.

The Lord has the same challenges with us as He did with the residents of Capernaum. We know Him. We know His word. We know His divine identity. But He has more to reveal. We have not grasped it all. He has added another year to our lives for one reason: to teach us some more.

Provocation to Humility

Mt. Precipice, Nazareth

Jesus said, “I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.

“Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. (Luke 4:25-29)

Last Sunday we read that the Lord Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and announced to the faithful Jews in His hometown that He is the Messiah.

We might think that this dramatic revelation would have led to immediate euphoria. We might think that, when the Messiah revealed Himself to the people who had known Him since He was a boy, everybody would have believed, and rejoiced, and smiled, and hugged, and said nice things about each other.

But this is not what happened. The people in the synagogue doubted. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

Continue reading “Provocation to Humility”

The Sea Christ Sailed (and Walked on)

Mary Ann pics 3 020

Today we visited the sites of Upper Galilee.

There is a church built over the stone where the Lord set five loaves and two fish–before He multiplied them and fed 5,000 men and their families. The place is known as Tagbha, and the German Benedictine fathers have built an absolutely beautiful church, where we prayed.

Mary Ann pics 3 009
On the Mount of the Sermon
We ascended the Mount of “Sermon on the Mount.”

At the top is a Barluzzi church dedicated to the Beatitudes. We celebrated Holy Mass in the crypt and then strolled through the beautiful gardens.

A short distance away, we visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter. This church encloses the Mensa Christi, Christ’s Table, where the Lord cooked fish for some of the Apostles after He rose from the dead.

We were at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Some of the pilgrims waded in and collected water, stones, and shells to bring to back home.

Mary Ann pics 3 015

Then we went to eat some fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. The fish were served with their heads. We played with the heads, using them as ventriloquist dummies.

After lunch, we took a breezy boatride, looking at the the entire Sea of Galilee—the scene our Lord Himself gazed upon two millennia ago.

Mary Ann pics 3 026
Synagogue in Capernaum
After the boatride, we visited the excavated town of Capernaum. We saw the ruins of the house of St. Peter, where the Lord Jesus lived for long periods of time and worked miracles.

We sat and meditated in the reconstructed ancient synagogue, built on the foundations of the synagogue where the Lord Jesus taught.

Mary Ann pics 3 017

Pastor’s First Sermon

Thank you for your prayers and kind concern for me. Here is the little homily I gave on Sunday…

joshua1Joshua said to the Israelites, “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling.

As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:15

The Lord called Abraham from the darkness of paganism and promised to make a mighty nation from his descendants. The Lord gave Abraham his son Isaac, and Isaac his son Jacob–also known as Israel.

The Lord sent Moses to lead Jacob’s descendants out of slavery. God did wonders to defeat all of Israel’s enemies. And the Lord brought the Israelites into the Promised Land. He gave them food to eat which they did not plant and cities to live in which they did not build.

Continue reading “Pastor’s First Sermon”

Account of My Pilgrimage to the Holy Land




We arrived at Ben Gurion airport at about 5:00 p.m. in wind and rain, very tired.  We traveled by bus to Jaffa/Joppa and had our first Holy Mass of the pilgrimage at the Church of St. Peter.  Here the Apostle received the vision by which the Lord declared all foods clean, and he was sent to Caesarea to baptize Cornelius.  We could hear the wind whipping in from the Mediterranean.





We arose to wind and rain coming in from the sea.  At 9:30 we arrived at Ceasarea Maritima, stunned by how cold and windy it was at the water’s edge.


Our Palestinian (ethnically ‘Aramaic’, he said) Catholic guide Raouf led us on a walking tour of the reconstructed theater, originally built by Herod the Great, and the ruins of the palace he built for himself by the sea.  This may be the location where St. Paul was held for two years, pending his transfer to Rome to stand trial as a Roman citizen.


In the ruins of the Crusader fortress


After a quick visit to Herod’s aqueduct, a little further up the seashore, the bus headed north.  We stopped for falafel sandwiches, then rode to Haifa and Mt. Carmel.  The church would not re-open from mid-day closure for a while, so we visited the Bahai Garden, which offers a splendid panorama of beautiful seaside Haifa.

At the Bahai Garden in Haifa
At the Bahai Garden in Haifa








At. 3:00 we entered the church of Stella Maris for Holy Mass in the choir.  After Mass, we visited the beautiful main church, in which the sanctuary sits above the cave of Elijah.  From Haifa, we backtracked to the “Muhraqa,” site of Elijah’s sacrifice, after which he slew the prophets of Baal in the Qishon Brook down in the Jezreel Valley below.  We listened to 1 Kings 18 with great spiritual unction.  From here we drove across the valley in the setting sun to Tiberias.  Upon arriving at the hotel, one of my brother priests and I further whetted our pagan-slaying spirit by sampling Maccabee beer at the lobby bar.




Those of us with rooms facing east, upon rising and opening our curtains, discovered with delight that we were looking out at the Sea of Galilee.  Its waters shimmered under an overcast sky.  We boarded the bus at 8:00 a.m.


Church of the Miracle at Cana
Church of the Miracle at Cana

We snaked through and out of Tiberias, heading southwest.  Our first stop was the Palestinian hamlet of Cana.  We alighted the bus and walked up a picturesque street, past the church of St. Nathanael, site of the fig tree under which he sat.  (The church was locked.)  We arrived at the church of the Lord’s miracle.  The sun had come out, and the church’s façade was a beautiful Italianate sight.  Excavations below the church (built in the twentieth c.) have discovered an ancient Byzantine foundation and a first-century synagogue.







Basilica of the Incarnation
Basilica of the Incarnation

Then we drove south to Nazareth, which though a tiny hamlet in the time of Christ, is now a big, bustling, dinghy city.  We strode through countless market stalls, and before we knew it we were inside the Franciscan custody, in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Annunciation, admiring the pontifical doors.  Inside, the lower basilica is dark and oppressively modern, though the grotto chapel (built into a ruined Byzantine apse) and the grotto itself (the floor reads:  Verbum caro hic factus est) are beautiful.




We concelebrated Mass in the grotto chapel.  After Mass, we ascended to the upper church—gaudy, ugly.  We walked 75 yards outside to the Basilica of St. Joseph and visited the cave where our Lord and His foster father worked together.  This little 1917 basilica is splendidly beautiful.


Then we traveled by bus to a very expensive kibbutz luncheonette.  Outside the air smelled like a pig farm.  Then we drove to the national archaeological park of Beth Shean.  For a very boring 90 minutes we wandered through the ruins of ancient Scythopolis.  At least it was a beautiful 60-degree sunny afternoon, and the view of the hills in Jordan across the river was wonderful.


From there we drove to a Jordan River tourist site, just south of the Sea of Galilee.  The river here is narrow, like a large creek.  We renewed our baptismal vows, and a few of us filled bottles with Jordan River water to take home.

At the Jordan River, just south of the Sea of Galilee
At the Jordan River, just south of the Sea of Galilee










We arose to see the sun rise over the Sea and departed at 7:45 to travel north by bus to Banyas.  The snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hermon were visible through the clear morning air as we headed up the road.  We passed the sites of our visits of this afternoon as we ascended from lower to upper Galilee along the s-curved road.


Raouf lectured us about the Hula Lake (north of the Sea of Galilee), which the Israeli government drained to make farmland.  We were in the northernmost part of Israel now, east of Lebanon.  After driving an hour, we turned east at Kiryat Shemone (“Settlement of the Eight”), and suddenly we were at the ruined site of the city of Caesarea-Philippi.  The headwaters of the Jordan River are here, where the melted snow of Mt. Hermon springs out of a cave long ago dedicated to Pan by the Greeks who came to this place with Alexander the Great.


Rushing water, the remnant of pagan shrines, and fauna are in abundance here, but there is no church to commemorate St. Peter’s immortal words:  “You are the Christ.”  We read Matthew 16 together, but the pilgrims’ mood was on the light side.  We got back in the bus and retraced our steps back to Galilee, arriving at the church of St. Peter’s Primacy on the sea (site of John 21) for our 11:00 Holy Mass.  The church encloses the stone near the seashore called the Mensa Christi, where our Lord cooked fish for the Apostles.


In the synagogue in Capernaum
In the synagogue in Capernaum

After Mass and a little time for reflection and pictures at the water’s edge, we got back in the bus for the very short ride to Capernaum, the Lord Jesus’ “own city.”  The area under the control of the Franciscans is surrounded by a recent 12-foot stone wall; it is an area much smaller than the first-century city.  An excavation which reveals an octagonal Byzantine church surrounding one room of a first-century house—very likely the room used by our Lord in St. Peter’s family home—is covered by an elevated church with a glass floor, in which one can conveniently say some prayers.  Very nearby are the ruins of a fourth-century synagogue which was built on the foundations of the first-century synagogue frequently by our Lord.







On the Sea of Galilee with Raouf
On the Sea of Galilee with Raouf

Then we zipped back down the hill to a kibbutz dock, where we boarded a boat for a quick tour of the sea.  The crew played the Star Spangled Banner in our honor and flew the Stars and Stripes.  From the water, we could easily see the places we had visited earlier—Peter’s Primacy, Capernaum, Beatitudes.  After the highly enjoyable and spiritual boatride, we briefly visited a museum at the pier which holds a 2,000-year-old boat, recently pulled out of the mud.






Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves
Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves

Then we took a quick busride to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, arriving moments before the 5:00 closing time.  The church is exquisitely beautiful with a simple Romanesque style.  The altar sits atop the stone on which the Lord set the five loaves as He blessed them.  The surrounding floor is covered with beautiful mosaics.  We had a few moments here for prayer.





We returned by bus to Tiberias.  A couple of us strolled through town again, this time stopping for Maccabees at a streetside lunch counter. 




The sun rose over haze atop the Sea of Galilee.  Bags packed and left in the hall before breakfast.  We were on our way out of Tiberias before 8:00.


Mt. Tabor
Mt. Tabor

It took only a half-hour to reach the bus parking area on Mt. Tabor, in the Bedouin town that rises up the bottom half of the mountain.  We took taxis up the switch-backed road to the summit.  The air was very cool; sun high in the sky by  now.  The haze prevented a truly panoramic vista, but the atmosphere of the summit is majestic nonetheless.








The marble basilica is splendid, with a bi-level sanctuary like the church of Stella Maris in Haifa, but here there is a full chapel below, in what could be the ruins of an earlier church.  The altar is on the spot of the Transfiguration.  Here we concelebrated Holy Mass, encased in mosaics of angels in the barrel vault over us, with peacock tracery in the apse window.  The mosaic in the upper apse is also splendid.  In the gifts shop outside, holy cards with this image were to be had in bulk; I bought thirty.


We boarded the bus and descended the mountain, bound for a new region.  It was not long until the terrain (and the atmosphere) changed significantly.  We rode along many miles of border fence with Jordan.  Then we passed through a checkpoint into Palestinian West Bank territory.  The lushness disappeared; we had entered the Judean wilderness.  Hardscrabble poverty everywhere.  We arrived at the tel of ancient Jericho, the site of the city destroyed by Joshua bar Nun (as Raouf referred to him)—it was a hill of dry rubble.  Near here, Pope John Paul II said, during his Holy Land pilgrimage in 2000:


“In my mind I see Jesus coming to the waters of the River Jordan not far from here to be baptized by John the Baptist (cf. Mt 3:13); I see Jesus passing on his way to the Holy City where he would die and rise again; I see him opening the eyes of the blind man as he passes by (cf. Lk 18:35-43).”


After lunch, a couple of the Fathers enjoyed $2 five-minute camel rides in the parking lot.  The Mount of the Lord’s Temptations was visible to our west, a wretched, godforsaken mound of great height.  We did not ascend via the nearby gondolas, but instead boarded the bus, bound for Jerusalem.


We headed west through relentless drouth and Palestinian poverty.  We passed through a checkpoint out of the West Bank.  An Israeli soldier guarded the site from a tower with a huge mounted machine gun.


We ascended 4,000 feet, and soon the earth was moister, and Jerusalem came into view.  We drove through the center of the city, passing west of the Old City but not entering it.  Then we encountered the reality of the wall that keeps Palestinians out of Jerusalem.  This trip to Bethlehem was a shopping excursion to the over-priced gift supermarket of a Palestinian Christian who asked us to pray for the success of the peace process.


The sun was getting ready to set when we finally pulled out of Bethlehem, passed through another checkpoint at which the bus was briefly boarded by two machine-gun toting guards, a young man and a young woman.  Then we made our way back through Jerusalem to the Ambassador Hotel.  The lobby proved to be a convenient place to gather with brother pilgrims and enjoy drafts of Palestinian-brewed Taybeh Golden.





The Mosque of the Ascension
The Mosque of the Ascension

We boarded the bus at 8:00 a.m. (after a good night’s sleep—for me, anyway), bound for the nearby Mount of Olives.  We disembarked at the ‘mosque’ of the Ascension, a small Crusader-built structure (except for the walls and roof—the Crusaders built an open stone gazebo) which the Muslims allowed to stand (and bricked up) because they too venerate our Lord’s Ascension.  This small structure is enclosed within a larger walled court.  Against the walls of the court, Christians are permitted to celebrate Holy Mass once a year, on Ascension Thursday.  The mosque is built over the rock from which our Lord ascended into heaven.  The edifice is small; only one group may enter at a time.  An Asian Pentecostal group went in before us and “carried on like Banshees” while inside.




From here we walked a hundred yards to the open-air church of the Pater Noster, with the Our Father in dozens of lingos on the walls.  Did St. Luke’s episode (11:1-4) of our Lord teaching the disciples to pray happen here?  St. Helena built a church here, and under the open-air sanctuary is a grotto full of first- and second-century-B.C. tombs.  This could have been a place of refuge for Christ from the Pharisees and Sadduccees, who would not have entered a cemetery, because it would have made them unclean.


We hopped on the bus for a very brief ride to the top of the Palm Sunday route down the Mount of Olives, a very steep downhill into the Kidron/Jehosaphat Valley.  We peeled off the route to the right to enter the Dominus Flevit area, which affords a singular view of the Temple Mount across the valley.  We celebrated Holy Mass in the teardrop-shaped Berlucci church, with the iron-traced apse window offering the Temple Mount view.  After Mass, we continued down the Palm Sunday route, between Jewish cemeteries.  At the bottom of the hill, we turned into the Garden of Gethsemane.  There is a courtyard with olive trees 2,000 years old.


Then we visited the Church of All Nations, which has some 18 domes, each donated by a particular Christian country.  Berlucci intentionally kept the church dark to suggest the night of the Lord’s Agony.  The rock on which Christ prayed is immediately in front of the altar, enclosed within an altar rail made to look like the crown of thorns.  We had the opportunity for a nice devout visit here.


Exiting the courtyard, we walked 100 feet and then down into a lower court which offers entrances both to the grotto where the Apostles slept (and where Christ was betrayed)—a very small chapel, in which Mass was being celebrated—and the empty tomb of our Lady, a dark Byzantine church deep underground.  An Orthodox priest shooed me out of the tomb enclosure, a smaller version of the tomb enclosure in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.


On the street above the lower court we hopped on the bus and drove across—and then south down—the Kidron Valley.  We followed the path the Lord took in chains to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.  This church was built a decade ago, over the sites in the hill where Caiphas’ house stood, just south of the Temple wall.  There are three levels to visit:  the upper, on the level where the Sanhedrin condemned Christ; the middle, to which our Lord descended by steps towards the dungeon, and where He laid His eyes on St. Peter after the Apostle denied Him three times before the gallicantu; and the level of the dungeon, which includes a pit of solitary confinement, where the Lord was kept for a few hours, and where we read and meditated on Psalm 88.


We emerged from the church at the lowest level, and came out on to the hillside at the Holy Steps, the ancient steps from the city down into the valley, which our Lord trod twice on Holy Thursday night.  We ascended the top of the staircase, and made our way to the bus.  We drove south, through the high-rent settlement of Bibi Netanyahou I (as Raouf called him) to a kibbutz hotel for lunch.  From there we headed southwest to En-Karem.


The Basilica of the Visitation
The Basilica of the Visitation

Our Lady, with Christ in her womb, traveled here from Nazareth after the Annunciation to visit Elizabeth, Zechariah, and preborn John the Baptist.  There is a beautiful church at the top of a tall hill here in the Judean mountains.  The weather yesterday and today was utterly splendid, and the lazy Saturday afternoon atmosphere in En-Karem (a popular getaway daytrip for Jerusalemites) was delightful.  The church of the Visitation is decorated with refreshing Italianate fresco murals, all honoring the Virgin.






We re-boarded the bus and re-entered Jerusalem, making for St. Stephen’s/the Lion’s Gate.  We disembarked and entered the Old City for the first time here.  We did not walk far:  We turned in after a few yards to the White Father’s enclosure, which includes the ruins of the Pools of Bethesda and the Church of St. Anne, on the site where the Blessed Mother is said to have been born.


Raouf explained how the pool of Bethesda was originally built by the Seleucids in honor of the pagan god Scalipius (god of healing), but the Jews later changed the idea to that of the angel of the Lord causing healing.  We read John 5 together.  Then we went into the beautiful Crusader church.  The acoustics here are perfect, so we sang a Salve and an Ave Maria and had a nice pious visit.


At this point the bus was boarding for the drive back to the Ambassador, but a couple of the Fathers and I undertook a walk through the Old City instead.  We met some St. Louis pilgrim brothers as we wended our way through the narrow labyrinthine streets, seeking the Basilica of Holy Sepulcher.  We finally found it, and we toured the buzzing, dark, strange church.  We were shooed away from the Calvary chapel by an Orthodox monk because they were beginning a prayer service:  “Because of reasons pertaining to the status quo, you are not allowed to be in here during the prayers.”  We did not enter the Sepulcher enclosure itself, because it would have required a wait in a long line.  We wandered around the church, discovering various strange, dark chapels.  Then we visited our Lord in the tabernacle in the Latin rite chapel.


We emerged just before six to find the sun going down.  We had some trouble deciding what to do and where to go.  We finally exited the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and attempted to walk north to the hotel.  To make a long story short, we got lost and wound up in a Hasidic neighborhood (not far from the hotel, in fact).  We were taken for missionaries by a large group of young Hasidic men on their way home from the synagogue, and they regarded us in a none-too-friendly manner.  Fortunately, another young Hasid was friendly and advised us to take seek out a cab.  We found one, which brought us back to the Ambassador in time for supper.





The bus left the hotel at 7:45 and waded into rush hour traffic in West Jerusalem, where the work week was beginning, a la Monday in the States.  Akram fought his way to the Israeli Federal area; we drove past the Knesset building and the h.q.’s of various federal ministries.


Then we entered the Israeli Museum.  First we studied the scale-model of ancient Jerusalem, which was enormously illuminating and helpful for visualizing our Lord’s short trips on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  We also visited the dark ‘Shrine of the Book’, dedicated to the supposedly earth-shattering discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Your scribe found this to be a yawn-o-rama.


From here we took the ‘back’ way to Bethlehem, avoiding the main wall checkpoint.  Manger Square is in a rough-and-tumble area, and the Basilica of the Nativity complex is so difficult to feature from the street (and our visit inside so disorienting) that I did not get a clear sense of the lay of the land until studying a guidebook map later.  We entered the Latin Rite church of St. Catharine, built in 1881.  The faithful were gathering in the main nave for 11:00 Mass, so we wound up vesting for our Mass in the large sacristy alongside an effeminate Fransciscan and the most ill-behaved lot of Altar Servers I have ever encountered.


Finally we proceeded to the tiny chapel of St. Helen for a beautiful Holy Mass.  After Mass we visited the subterranean grottoes.  First to the caves of St. Jerome:  one where his tomb is (but not his remains, which were moved to Rome, to St. Mary Major) and another cave where he worked on his Scripture translation.  Other cave chapels accessible from St. Catharine’s are dedicated to St. Joseph and the Holy Innocents.  A tunnel connects these caves with the Nativity/Manger cave, but only the Latin Patriarch is allowed to use this tunnel, and only on Christmas Eve.  So we went back up and entered the Basilica of the Nativity in the north apse (the church is triapsidial) through the door that connects the cloister outside the Franciscan church with the main Basilica.


Manger Square, Bethlehem
Manger Square, Bethlehem

The Basilica built by Justinian in the sixth c. still stands.  Obviously once splendid, the church is now pathetically shabby.  Pope John Paul II said of this basilica:  “Even the great church built over the Saviour’s birth-place stands like a fortress battered by the strife of the ages.”  We waited our turn to descend into the Nativity/Manger cave; the brothers became somewhat restive during the nearly hour-long wait.  Then, upon arriving at the very site of Christ’s birth, we were rudely rushed out because of an imminent ceremony.  Nonetheless, it was a blessed, if brief, visit.




At this point, we were free to wander the Old City, so we set out to adventure.  First, we spent a half-hour praying in Holy Sepulcher.  Then we headed southeast, and we eventually wended our way to:  first, a Muslim-only entrance to the Temple Mount itself, hard-by the Dome of the Rock (we just peeked in; a Lebanese guard told us we could not enter); second, the Western Wall, where we passed a few moments in recollection under the twilight sky, sensing that our presence was unwanted.  Then we walked north straight out of the Old City and uptown to the Ambassador (not getting lost this time).





Wake-up call came at 5:00 a.m.  We were on the bus in the dark, headed for Jaffa Gate at 5:45.  Everyone wore cassock and surplice, with prelates of honor in choir cassock and Kinghts in mozzetta.  As we passed through the gate of the Old City, we began to chant the Litany of the Saints.  We entered the Basilica in solemn procession behind the Archbishop, kneeling by twos to reverence the Anointing Stone.


Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre
Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

We vested for our Holy Mass at the Sepulcher.  The sacristy bell rang, the organ sounded, and we were surprised and delighted to discover that the Franciscan monks would be chanting our Mass in Latin.  All the pilgrim priests filed into the Sepulcher enclosure for the canon, most of us in the Chapel of the Angels.  We went into the tomb itself by twos to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood.  After Mass, we had our official pilgrimage photo taken on the steps right outside the Basilica.






Some of the brothers remained at the church to pray until we reconnoitered for Stations of the Cross; the rest of us piled into the bus to go back to the Ambassador for breakfast.  We met up again, attired for liturgical procession, in the courtyard between the Condemnation and Flagellation chapels, just west of St. Ann’s church, where we had been on Saturday, just north of the Temple Mount.  This is the ancient site of the Antonia Fortress (a.k.a. the Praetorium).  We proceeded to make the Stations in the warm sunshine, hassled a bit by passerby and shop hucksters, but with great spiritual fruit.


First Station:  in the Chapel of the Flagellation

Second  Station:  in the Chapel of the Condemnation

Third Station:  In the small Polish chapel along El-Wad Rd., just outside Our Lady of the Spasm

Fourth Station:  In the courtyard in front of Our Lady of the Spasm church

Fifth Station:  In the small streetside Franciscan chapel

Sixth Station:  In St. Veronica’s chapel in the Convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus

Seventh Station:  In the streetside chapel, site of the city wall gate at the time of Christ

Eighth Station:  In the walkway outside the Greek monastery; marked by a cross in the wall

Ninth Station:  Close to the outside of an apse of the Holy Sepulcher Basilica

Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth:  In the chapel of the Stripping of Christ in the Basilica

Thirteenth Station:  At the Anointing Stone

Fourteenth Station:  At the Tomb enclosure


The Quad at Bethlehem University
The Quad at Bethlehem University

After concluding the Stations, we emerged from the church to find the photographer with our copies of our group photo.  We walked to the Jaffa Gate and waiting Akram and the bus.  We drove down back down to Bethlehem to visit the University.  The American Christian Brothers who run the University and the Development Director hosted us.  We toured the chapel, Millennium Hall, the campus quads, and then ate a delicious lunch in the hotel school dining room.




We drove from here to the Shepherd’s Field to visit the small but lovely Berlucci church and the grotto underneath.  The quiet peacefulness of this place communicated the magic of the city “where it is always Christmas.”  John Paul II:

“’Here Christ was born of the Virgin Mary’: these words, inscribed over the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was born, are the reason for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. They are the reason for my coming to Bethlehem today. They are the source of the joy, the hope, the goodwill, which, for two millennia, have filled countless human hearts at the very sound of the name “Bethlehem”.

“People everywhere turn to this unique corner of the earth with a hope that transcends all conflicts and difficulties. Bethlehem – where the choir of Angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men” (Lk 2:14) – stands out, in every place and in every age, as the promise of God’s gift of peace. The message of Bethlehem is the Good News of reconciliation among men, of peace at every level of relations between individuals and nations. Bethlehem is a universal crossroads where all peoples can meet to build together a world worthy of our human dignity and destiny.”


After some discussion, we took the long, roundabout drive to Bethany (made so long and roundabout by the wall of Sharon I, as Raouf called him).  In Bethany we visited Antonio Barluzzi’s church of St. Lazarus, adorned with beautiful mosaics of the gospel scenes.  Rain began to fall heavily as we emerged from the church, but seven of us chose to have Akram drop us off at the Old City nonetheless.  A couple of us rambled around, happening upon the solemn entrance of the Cardinal Prefect of the Eastern Churches at the Holy Sepulcher—quite an affair.  Then we continued roaming and managed to ramble through each quarter of the Old City until it got dark, we got tired, and we made for a cab.





We were on the bus at 7:45, more or less packed for the trip home, but the hotel graciously let us keep our rooms until this afternoon.  Our first destination was “Mt. Zion”, so called (according to Biblical Archaeologist Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, whose Holy Land guidebook was an invaluable help) by medieval Christians because they misinterpreted a particular prophetic verse.  In Old Testament parlance, ‘Mt. Zion’, ‘Mt. Moriah’, and ‘Temple Mount’ all referred to the same ridge directly west of the Kidron Valley, with the City of David on the lower, southern end of it.  The ‘Mt. Zion’ we arrived at this morning, however, is one ridge west, across the Tyropoeon Valley.  This Mt. Zion is the site of the Upper Room, a structure built by Crusaders on the site where the Essene residence where our Lord solemnized the Last Supper was formerly located.  The church was changed into a mosque, which is how it is currently decorated.  Now the edifice is controlled by Israel, and no Masses or any other religious ceremonies are permitted here.  The Upper Room is above what is called the Tomb of David, which, according to Fr. Murphy-O’Connor, it is not.  This seems to be the site of a Jewish seminary.


Mt. Zion is also the site of the Dormition Abbey, a truly glorious octagonal stone church built by Germans in 1903.  In the crypt there is a beautiful statue of our Lady falling asleep at the end of her life.  Apparently, Jerusalem is where she breathed her last; she had returned home from Ephesus.  We had a brief, prayerful visit here.  Immediately adjoining the Upper Room structure is a small Franciscan church, to which we repaired for our final Holy Mass together.  We meditated on the many graces of the pilgrimage at the very site where the Lord inaugurated our sacred priesthood.


Next we took a short busride to the Jaffa Gate, from which we walked a block to the Latin Patriarchate.  We were led to a handsome audience hall.  As things turned out, we were received not by the Patriarch himself (busy meeting with the Cardinal Prefect who had arrived the previous day) but by an auxiliary bishop.  His Excellency spoke edifyingly and at great length.  Our leader Archbishop Burke finally had to cut him off, so that we could continue on our way.


We emerged from the hall and made a brief visit to the lovely Gothic pro-Cathedral (Holy Sepulcher is the cathedral), where we renewed our consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We ambled out the New Gate to board the bus.  We circumnavigated the Old City yet again, making our way to the Tyropoeon Valley, down to the excavations of the Pool of Siloam.  We stopped here briefly to read part of John 9 and meditate on the light of Christ while a mosque prayer-call blared over a nearby loudspeaker.


Back on the bus for a quick ride up to the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, where modern archaeologists have made thorough excavations and built a little museum.  We saw the ruined market street, the pavement of which had been broken by stones falling from the Temple walls when the Romans destroyed it.  Along the southern wall, we saw the Mikvehs in which pilgrims bathed themselves before entering the Temple enclosure.  We saw the ruined bridge balustrade along the west wall and blocked up doors along the south wall.  Then an energetic young museum docent gave us a quick tour and demonstrated the illuminating “virtual city” computer program.


As we exited the museum, rain was pelting down.  We ran to the bus for umbrellas and then walked a few feet north to visit the Western Wall.  Raouf urged us to walk up to the wall itself, but this led to one of the Jewish attendants yelling at us:  “Remember, there is only one God, and He is not a man.”


We got back on the bus and shot down to the friendly kibbutz-hotel we had visited before for lunch.  Then back to the Ambassador to vacate our rooms and pack the bus.  We had two and a-half hours before dinner, so Akram dropped us at the New Gate.  A few of us went back to say farewell to Holy Sepulcher.  We waited a half-hour to visit the tomb one more time.  We also spent time at Calvary.


We walked out Herod’s Gate and back up to the hotel.  The Patriarch’s photographer’s son pulled over to pick us up and carry us up Mt. Scopus.  We returned just in time for a very nice dinner.  Then we boarded the bus bound for Ben-Gurion, recited the Holy Rosary together one last time, and bid Jerusalem and the Holy Land goodbye.