By Jaycee Napoles.
First of all, our sincerest gratitude goes to our benefactors of the pilgrimage. They include the Knights of the Southern Cross Priest Support and Education Fund for granting Andrew and myself scholarships to the Holy Land. Also a special thanks to The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani), John and Barbara Ralph, the Order of Franciscans Minor, Habib Karam and the Corpus Christi College staff and seminarians who have supported us along the pilgrimage.
Father Brendan told me last year that this pilgrimage should be about 'walking in the footsteps of Christ' and that it should be a pilgrimage not a holiday – so no fancy hotels or eating lavishly at classy restaurants etc. Mind you I was going with someone who is very serious on ‘pilgrim status’ traveling so none of the above was ever going to happen. Thus it was a pilgrimage of the 'universal call to discipleship' to take up one’s cross and to follow Christ.
Our first steps was the region of Galilee where the disciples were called. It was fitting because the second day in Galilee was the feast day of St Andrew the Apostle. So Andrew and I trekked around the lake to find Bethsaida, the place where Jesus called him and his brother Simon Peter. But to no avail, we may have passed it, or didn’t quiet reach it so Andrew chose a scenic place in-between Capernaum and the Jordan River and read the Scriptural passage of the call of St Andrew. We walked back to Tabgah telling each about how we heard the call to the priesthood and by how God’s grace we happen to be here, the area in which Jesus called his first disciples.
In Galilee, Andrew and I had the opportunity in the early morning and again late in the afternoon to pray at the cave where Jesus climbed to be at a lonely place. There we watched the sunrise and sunset, as well as being a witness to the lake’s stillness and to its stormy wild attitude. I realized from gazing out of the cave and therefore from prayer that I was able to perceive the storms coming from beyond the hills and the beauty when it's present, and the serenity when the storm is over.
In Nazareth, we experienced the daily pastoral works of the Order of the Franciscans Minor whilst staying with them at the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Guardian, Fr Bruno Varriano, ofm, introduced us to the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. And if it wasn’t for the Order, we as Roman Catholics would not be part of preserving and worshipping at the sacred sites. There I learnt that pastoral work and discipleship requires a conscientious and active effort to be humble and charitable towards your neighbor. In Nazareth Andrew and I had the privilege to pray alone in the middle of the night inside the Grotto of the Annunciation. We primarily prayed for the seminarians and priests and for all those people, who, like Mary, said ‘yes’ when they heard the sweet invitation of the Lord to follow him. In the Grotto or the house of Mary, each ‘Ave Maria’ you say becomes alive because it is where the Lord through the angle Gabriel said those very words.
Jerusalem had us acquainted with the ‘status quo’, that is the way things should be and territorial division amongst the running of the Holy Sites which concern Muslims, Jews and Christians (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians Christians etc). It is a product of a broken brotherhood, a brotherhood with the moto of "an eye for and eye" or how much can I gain from oppressing my brother. The irony is that in Jerusalem we Christians celebrate the greatest act of brotherly love and according to Jewish legend the site of the Temple Mount was chosen by because of two brothers portraying this cordiality to one another. A Fransican priest, Fr Lionel Wu, ofm, recalled the legend of the how the mountain was chosen by the Lord to rest His name. The story of mount Moriah describes how two brothers who loved each dearly to the point of sharing from their own crop. They lived on opposite sides of the mountain. One brother was single and the other married with children. When it came to dinner the brothers would think of each other and sneak out in the evening to give the other a share of their tea, but they would go around the mountain in the same direction so as to never meet. This was happening for sometime until one decided to go the other way. When they met half way they immediately embraced for they knew who it was who would be giving share of food for them every night. When God saw this display of brotherly love, He then chose the mountain for His dwelling. Unfortunately this story is a contrast of the situation of Jerusalem today, where even among Christians there is no giving without cost.
Andrew and I spent two over-night vigils in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There we prayed and had Holy Mass inside the Tomb of Lord as well as on Mt Calvary. I was reminded by Dean Taberdo a fellow seminarian that I was in the Holiest place on earth. So I laid my life unto the foot of the cross and unto the stone on which Our Lord rose from. There is no other earthly place in this world, which surpasses in acts of piety, love, and devotion than the Holy Sepulchre.
In Bethlehem, Andrew and I heard from local Christians that the Palestinian Government runs the area and it has a large Muslim population, which exploit the Christians and the pilgrims. Living there is difficult for Christians. Fr Peter Vasko, ofm, who is the President of the Franciscan Foundation of the Holy Land told Andrew and myself that the native Christians are leaving the Holy Land for better opportunities and lives abroad. He told us these Christians who have ancestors that have seen and walked with the Apostles are faced with the decision to leave because of the dire situation Christians are in. The Franciscans who up-keep the Holy Sites also have the great to task keep the Christians there. They do this by building schools and hospitals so that Christian children may be able to receive good education as well as creating jobs. Additional they raise funds build houses for Christian families.
We spent Christmas Eve at the shepherd’s field and had our first Christmas Mass in the open air. Once the choir sang 'on a cold winters night' from a carol I got goosebumps because it was a night like this that the Good News came to the Shepherds and now to the lowly workers of Israel. We then had another Christmas Eve Mass with the Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, His Grace Pierbattista Pizzaballa that end with a procession of the baby Jesus into the grotto of the Nativity.
Being back at the seminary I have noticed that showing brotherly care and love is common and easy to do, whereas in places such as Jerusalem it is so difficult. It is in these places and situations that we really do feel like brothers when we offer ourselves to another knowing that we are in conflict them for if we only love those who love us what reward is there in that? But if we bless and pray for those who persecute us we are then rewarded with sonship with the Father in Heaven who from time immemorial is so pleased when live together in unity.