By John F. Fink
My quick two-day visit to Jerusalem and Galilee on June 14 and 15 of 2013 satisfied me in some respects and dissatisfied me in others. My satisfaction lay in the fact that I had returned to the land where Christ lived, died and rose again and that I was doing it with members of my family. The dissatisfaction lay in the fact that it was such a hurried visit that it could not possibly allow me to go to many places I longed to see.
Actually, this was not a pilgrimage at all, but a sightseeing tour. It was part of a Princess cruise that began in Rome and ended in Athens, and also included Pompeii, Capri, Patmos, Ephesus, Egypt and Santorini.
I recommend such a cruise for people who have not been to those places before, including those who have not been to the Holy Land, which, in this case, included my wife, three adult children, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. (My first wife, who passed away, had been with me many times.) But I don’t think that it’s the same as a pilgrimage.
My family members were able to experience the Holy Land differently from me since this was my ninth visit there. I spent three months studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Center in Jerusalem in 1997 and the other seven visits were pilgrimages, all of which lasted for more than a week. All that culminated in the book I wrote, Travels with Jesus in the Holy Land, that many pilgrims have told me was a valuable tool that they used when they visited.
I learned some lessons, or had them reinforced, on this short visit. One is not to schedule your pilgrimage during the summer if you can avoid it. It’s not just that the weather is hot, although it is. The biggest problem is the large crowds that make it difficult or impossible to see some of the things you want to see. It seems to be busier in the summer because most people travel when school’s out.
We found the crowds so large that it was impossible to visit the holiest shrines with the kind of devotion you’d like. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for example, it was impossible to get close to the altar on Calvary or into the Tomb of Christ. In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, there was a two-hour wait to go into the cave where Jesus was born, and we didn’t have that time.
We’re told that people are afraid to travel to the Holy Land these days, but that definitely was not our experience this summer.
The other lesson was that it’s best to have a Franciscan priest as your guide. I found both our guide in Judea and the one in Galilee extremely knowledgeable, even more than I expected, but it’s still not the same.
Our cruise ship docked at Ashdod and we took a bus to Jerusalem. We drove directly to the top of the Mount of Olives where our guide pointed out the various things we were going to visit. But that’s all we were able to do; we didn’t go to the Church of the Ascension or the Pater Noster Church, which are at the top of the Mount of Olives.
We drove down the Mount of Olives to the Church of All Nations at the bottom and the Garden of Gethsemane. The crowds were tremendous, but we finally got inside the church. Then we were taken to the Western Wall, which is sacred to the Jews.
Luckily we were able to walked the Via Dolorosa ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And that was it for Jerusalem. We saw what we could in about three-and-a-half hours.
In the afternoon, we went to Bethlehem. After visiting the Church of the Nativity, we went next door to St. Catherine’s Church. This church was built in 1881 by the Franciscans over a cave where St. Jerome lived while he translated the Bible into Latin, and we were able to visit the cave. But that was about it for Bethlehem. It was time to get back to the ship.
The next day our ship was docked at Haifa. On that day, we went to the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Capernaum, around the north of the Sea of Galilee and down the east side, to the Jordan River baptismal site, and then to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as the places in Jerusalem.
Our guide in Galilee had been a student of Dr. James Fleming, the same man who taught one of my classes while I was at Tantur. I found the trip to Galilee more satisfactory than the one to Judea.
All in all, even though it was a rushed journey, it was still very worthwhile.