“Life here in the Holy Land can be very complicated, even for those of us who have spent our whole lives here.” These words foreshadowed some of the most moving and intense days of my life, when a beautiful pilgrimage to the Holy Land ended abruptly due to the Hamas attack against Israel.
This journey began in the spring of 2023, when my wife, Melissa, began researching trips to the Holy Land. She found that Redeemer Radio was sponsoring a pilgrimage from October 2-12 that would be coordinated by Select International, a travel company that specializes in tours that help Catholics and other pilgrims experience holy sites around the world. As a bonus, Father Tom Shoemaker, Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne, would be accompanying us.
Melissa and I would be among a group of 35 pilgrims from around the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, as well as a few from elsewhere. Father Shoemaker arranged a “pilgrimage party” a month before our departure date where we met one another, got some travel tips, and learned a bit about the Holy Land. While there was some trepidation about visiting the Middle East, a region known for conflicts and safety concerns, our group was eagerly anticipating the start of our travels.
Our group gathered early on Monday, October 2, at the Redeemer Radio office in Fort Wayne, where we boarded a bus that took us to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. We departed that evening, flew overnight, and landed early the next morning in Munich. A few of us joked that if finding our next departure gate was our biggest hurdle, the rest of our pilgrimage would be a success.
We arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on the evening of Tuesday, October 3, and met Ossama, our local guide. Ossama is a Roman Catholic Arab and an Israeli citizen who lives in Nazareth. We also met Essam, a Christian Arab who would be our tour bus driver. They gave us an immediate feeling of welcome, safety, and joy. We boarded our bus bound for the city of Tiberias, which lies along the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.
While en route, Ossama, a former teacher, began to share his considerable knowledge with us, providing explanations about the region’s geography, peoples, religions, politics, and history. This was helpful to a group of American Midwesterners whose knowledge of the region and its complex history were limited.
Driving along the wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank from the rest of Israel, Ossama noted, “Life in Israel can be very complicated, even for those of us who have spent our whole lives here.” He also explained: “This is a land of conflict among many groups, but is also a holy place to many peoples – Muslims, Jews, and Christians. So on pilgrimages like this one, I like to refer to this place not as Israel or Palestine, but as simply the Holy Land.”
We arrived in Tiberias late Tuesday evening, then immediately attended Mass at St Peter’s Church next to our hotel, both of which lie just steps away from the Sea of Galilee.
On Wednesday, October 4, we visited Nazareth, including Mount Precipice, which overlooks the Jezreel Valley, where the people tried to throw Jesus over the edge. We attended Mass at the Church of St. Joseph and toured the Basilica of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. The married couples in our group renewed their wedding vows at Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine.
On Thursday, October 5, we toured the ruins of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, attended Mass atop the Mount of Beatitudes, and visited the rock at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus gave Simon the name Peter.
The next day, our group visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus told Peter, “Feed My lambs.” We toured the ruins of Capernaum, attended Mass at a church located directly above the ruins of St. Peter’s home, and visited the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish.
That Saturday, October 7, we left Tiberias and attended Mass in the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor, where Moses and Elijah appeared with the transfigured Jesus.
After Mass, Ossama made an announcement. Earlier that morning, Hamas had launched a massive surprise attack, firing thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. He assured us that we were safe and would continue our journey while he and others from Select International monitored the situation closely.
With some trepidation but also trust, we continued toward Ein Karem and the Church of the Visitation, as well as the church that marks the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. While traveling on the highway, we saw several Blackhawk helicopters fly overhead. We then crossed into the Palestinian West Bank, where we visited a field where an angel of the Lord announced Christ’s birth to shepherds.
On the morning of Sunday, October 8, we visited the Church of the Nativity (the birthplace of Jesus) and the Milk Grotto (a cave where Mary nursed Jesus, according to Tradition), and shopped at a Christian cooperative store that helps support the rapidly diminishing Christian population in Bethlehem by selling locally made items. On the way to our hotel, we noticed the streets were nearly empty. Ossama, our tour guide, explained that once word spread about the attack, the Palestinians in the West Bank all went on strike, so everyone was home. In addition, there was a protest happening just a few blocks away from our hotel, near the West Bank wall, and there were reports of the crowd having been tear-gassed. We were advised to stay in our hotel until dinnertime.
At one point, a tour bus arrived at our hotel, and the passengers ran from the bus into the building coughing and spitting, some having been nearly overcome by a cloud of tear gas that was drifting through the area. A few members of our group reported a burning smell in their rooms, and one noted that, as he descended the stairs to the lobby, his eyes burned and his nose stung briefly. I walked outside to assess and noticed a strong smell like burning fireworks.
For dinner that evening, we were split into smaller groups of five or six people, and each group was driven to the home of a local Christian family to share a meal. Melissa and I, along with fellow pilgrim Tony, hopped into a car driven by Elias, who had his young son, John, with him. As we drove, we noticed our eyes begin to sting and a burning in our nose and throat. It only lasted several seconds, but it was a bit of a reality check as to the situation nearby.
At Elias’ home, we met his wife, Salwa, and their son, Ephrem, who all greeted us warmly, showed us around their 500-year-old home, and served us the most delicious meal of our pilgrimage. A faith-filled Christian family, they made us feel very safe while also conveying that, sadly, the tension we were experiencing due to the fighting was essentially life as usual for them. They remained in the West Bank, they said, while many Christian members of their family had chosen to move to other countries. Grateful for their generous hospitality, and marveling that they regularly visited the nearby Church of the Nativity to pray and attend liturgy, we bid them farewell.
Returning to our hotel, we heard the airport in Tel Aviv had been closed because of the escalating fighting between Israel and Hamas. It was then we learned our tour company had made plans for us to return to the United States early. Although we were more than 50 miles from the battle, Select International had assessed that cutting our trip three days short would be the safest plan. While some in our group expressed relief, this decision took many of us by surprise, because we had felt very safe everywhere we had been.
We left Bethlehem early on the morning of Monday, October 9. At one point, we drove through the spot of the previous night’s protest, where a makeshift concrete barrier had been smashed by a bulldozer. At the security checkpoint into Israel, soldiers checked our passports and let us pass once they learned we were U.S. citizens.
As we traveled, Ossama informed us that we would have just enough time to make two stops in Jerusalem. We stopped at Mount Scopus, where we took a group photo at a beautiful spot overlooking Jerusalem, then attended our final Mass in the Holy Land at the Garden of Gethsemane.
Our time in Jerusalem cut short, we boarded our bus one last time to travel northward toward Jordan. Along the way, we passed by Jericho and saw the Dead Sea in the distance – both of which we were scheduled to visit later in the trip.
After several hours of driving through the Palestinian desert, we arrived at the Jordan border crossing. Here, our bus was boarded by armed soldiers who checked out passports. Once inside Jordan, we bid a sad farewell to our wonderful guide, Ossama, and our driver, Essam. Select International had arranged for a Jordanian bus, guide, and driver to transport us across Jordan to the city of Amman. This ride took several hours, and along the way, we passed through many small towns whose populations all seemed to suffer from extreme poverty due to Jordan’s population growth that led to devastating unemployment.
That evening, on October 8, we boarded a jet bound for Cairo, where we made our connection flight – a 12-hour overnight journey to Washington, D.C., where we landed at 4 a.m. local time. Our final flight took us from Washington, D.C., back to Chicago in the early afternoon, where a bus awaited us. Our pilgrimage came to an end the evening of Tuesday, October 10, at the Redeemer Radio office where our journey had begun.
Although we were sad to have missed the final three days of our planned journey, we felt blessed and grateful in many ways. Select International had lovingly and carefully planned an itinerary that provided us the opportunity to experience so many of the sites where Jesus, His apostles, and the early Church walked, lived, and prayed. We had a wonderful guide, Ossama, and a support team who made us feel safe and secure at all times. Immediately after the attack, Select International had acted decisively and worked around the clock to make arrangements for our safe return. Throughout the ordeal, we were reminded of the freedom and prosperity in America that we often take for granted.
The entire pilgrimage was an experience of learning and spiritual growth. In my heart, I continue to reflect on our visit to the Mount of Transfiguration. At every holy site we visited, there was a feeling of longing to remain there, as when Peter desired to build three tents atop Mount Tabor. But as Jesus counseled Peter, while we each had experienced our own transfiguration moments along our journey, we were called to return to our lives with renewed faith.
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