By Terry Ball
For The Catholic Messenger
Come follow me on an incredible pilgrimage that I took this summer to the Holy Land! I started planning this trip last fall through my seminary, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corner, Wisconsin.
Nine of us made this pilgrimage — two Scripture professors and seven seminarians. One of the professors, Patrick Russell, is chief academic officer and vice president for intellectual formation at the seminary where he also serves as academic dean and an associate professor for Scripture. Father Michael Udoekpo is our assistant professor of Scripture at the seminary. We were so blessed on this pilgrimage as these two men are very knowledgeable of the Scriptures and are Christ-like people.
We met at least monthly with Professor Russell to gain solid background knowledge for this life-changing journey to walk where Jesus walked. On a rainy Monday morning in mid-June we left Milwaukee for our flight to Chicago. The rainstorm altered our flight plans! Since several of us had shirts that identified us as members of Sacred Heart Seminary, the ticket desk staffer told us she would personally see that we were rerouted to arrive in Tel Aviv, Israel, on our scheduled day. She left her assigned area to go to another terminal and 60 minutes later had rerouted all of us on another flight. I share this story as it appeared to me that throughout the whole trip the Holy Spirit was working through key people to support us in an extraordinary way. I was reminded of the love of the Holy Spirit at each step. Throughout our travels in the Holy Land I felt totally safe and secure, which was another gift from the Holy Spirit.
Our first days were spent in the urban bustle of Jerusalem experiencing the awesome sites where our Lord walked. Throughout the night and early morning in Jerusalem, we could hear roosters crowing. It reminded me of life on the farm in Iowa. Each day on the trip I was reminded that we have more similarities than differences with people in the Holy Land. The pilgrimage gave me a better understanding of the spirituality of different cultures and to recognize that their spirituality is similar to ours. I believe that each of us can become a better follower and disciple of Jesus by reading and reflecting daily on the Scriptures.
When we visited Bethlehem, I thought about how we were at the beginning in our adventurous journey of following in the footsteps of Jesus’ life as outlined in Matthew’s Gospel: Bethlehem to Nazareth, then the Sea of Galilee and finally to Mount Calvary. As we approached the Church of the Nativity, I imagined that the question I had was similar to the one the Magi confronted when they began their journey (Matthew 2:1-12). What gift could I bring to our saving Lord at the end of my dusty and demanding trip? Would I be willing to let go of micro managing my life and let God guide me, as a follower and disciple of the Lord?
After Bethlehem, we went to Nazareth, a bustling and hectic city built on a ridge. In Jesus’ day, Nazareth was a city that was a functional equivalent to living next to an interstate. My former pastor, Father Bill Kneemiller, wanted me to find the shop where crucifixes are made for the Holy Land Military Rosaries. While shopping for camera supplies at a store in Nazareth, I saw crucifixes for sale that looked exactly like the ones used for the Holy Land Military Rosaries. Upon further inquiry I learned that the store’s owner produces the crucifixes for the rosaries.
It was extraordinary that I was able to find the manufacturer of these exact crucifixes! Later that day as I meditated on Matthew 2:19-23, I felt a deep desire to cooperate more freely with God’s grace so that I can live the life of a faithful disciple. I will try to heal the suffering and teach in a way that opens hearts to God’s forgiving love.
In addition to touring biblical sites, we spent two weeks participating in an archeological dig at Bethsaida, a city that Jesus often visited during his ministry. Each morning at 5:10 a.m. during our archeological dig we met at the shore of the Sea of Galilee to pray Morning Prayer. I treasured the time with my brother seminarians and our group leaders as we prayed together lifting up our needs and those of others. At these times I felt an overpowering gift of God’s love for me. During our time at Bethsaida we were able to go into a deeper relationship with Jesus by walking on the same ground, digging in the very soil upon which Jesus himself walked. We were able to hold in our hands pottery shards from biblical times.
After our time on the dig, we returned to Jerusalem. We finished our pilgrimage at Mount Calvary where Jesus was crucified (John 19:20). Sometimes we can’t quite grasp the great things that Jesus did for us, but being able to see the sites where Jesus walked helped to make things real and present. This Holy Land pilgrimage helped to refresh my spirituality. It helped me to stop, think and thank God for all he has provided me, to learn more about my spiritual life and to take time to pray. I have found that God provides us with an extravagant, irresistible, unconditional love that I want to share with others after this pilgrimage!