There were many highlights from our pilgrimage, but I’m going to talk about just a few of them here. This isn’t an exhaustive or comprehensive list by any means, but here goes.
Meeting the young Catholics of Beit Sahour
One of my biggest highlights was near the end of the pilgrimage, when we got to meet the young Catholics of the Beit Sahour parish.
It was illuminating to meet young Christians from the very land of Jesus; these were the Christians from the source. For me, this had a special resonance; it was almost like experiencing the authentic Christian faith, even though, of course, one can experience the authentic faith anywhere in the world.
We first encountered them after Mass on Sunday. Mass was celebrated in Arabic, which was quite an experience! I understood nothing that was said, apart from “Amen”, but the entire structure of the Mass was so very familiar – the universality of the Church in full view. After the Mass, we chatted with the young parishioners, talking about our lives and so on. For so many years, when one mentioned Palestine, it was difficult to put faces to the name; it was a distant and remote land. However, spending time with the Palestinian Christians here showed just how similar we are, in our dreams and desires, hopes and beliefs.
A couple of days later, we had another opportunity to meet young Palestinian Catholics, this time in a book store that is part of the Beit Sahour parish. Here, we listened to a talk by a professor at Bethlehem University and had the opportunity to chat with students about there lives. What came across very clearly was the struggles they have to endure every day, simply for being from Palestine. They are just like us, but are unjustly being denied the same rights and freedoms.
Our pilgrimage was blessed with an incredible man as our tour guide – Ibrahim (or ‘Papa’ as he affectionately became known!). A Palestinian Christian, Ibrahim was a fount of information throughout our pilgrimage, both on the road and in the hotel after our day’s travels. He was also very funny and could always be relied on to make the group laugh and smile. Indeed, the pilgrimage wouldn’t have been the same without him; and more than that, I saw him as an integral member of our community.
Praying the Rosary
This might sound like a relatively minor point to some, considering it can be done anywhere and at any time. However, for me, the simple act of communal prayer, whether on the coach, in a chapel or elsewhere, was a great blessing. We didn’t ever pray the whole rosary, instead opting for doing decades. But this practice made me realise how easy it is to do back here. Now, I keep one of my rosaries in my pocket and simply take it out and pray a quick decade whenever I want.
The Western Wall
One evening, a group of us decided to walk over to the nearby Western Wall (a short distance from our hotel in Jerusalem). It was an almost surreal experience. It was dark and pouring with rain, thus setting a dramatic scene. When we arrived, we had to go through security, like one would at an airport. Once through, we put on some free kippahs, as that seemed to be the thing to do, and approached the Wall. I wasn’t really sure what I should be praying, since this was more a Jewish place of worship. However, I decided to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. After this, we went further along the Wall and into a cave-like area, filled with bookcases, thousands of prayer books and hundreds of orthodox Jewish men praying. This was already surreal enough, but the way they pray – rocking back and forth, side to side, singing out loud and so on – was unusual and, because of this, very memorable.
Paddling in the Sea of Galilee
It was really a minor footnote on a day dominated by visits to Tabgha and Capernaum. However, putting my feet into the Sea of Galilee was really cool. Here I was, in the lake where Jesus and his apostles had been. The water was clear and fresh, and the surrounding panorama helped me visualise what it must have been like for the founders of our faith.
I think everyone on our youth pilgrimage to the Holy Land had an incredible experience, each with their own set of highlights. It was a privilege to be able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and so on, all in the company of the Cardinal and a great set of fellow pilgrims who I can now call friends.
If you’re interested in joining us on future pilgrimages, stay connected with us on our website and social media!