The Franciscans’ Annual Lenten Pilgrimages to the Holy Places of the Passion

A special tradition of celebrating mass in the places where the events of Jesus’ Passion took place dates back to the first centuries of the Christian era. Every year the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land lead the liturgies of these Lenten pilgrimages. During each pilgrimage, the friars gather with the local faith community, as well as visiting pilgrims, to pray Vespers and celebrate the Mass.

The First Lenten Pilgrimage

The first pilgrimage took place on February 25 in the small church of Dominus Flevit on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. During his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus looked at the city from this place and predicted its downfall. Dominus Flevit means “the Lord cried,” and in fact, it commemorates the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying: “If this day you only knew what makes for peace [...] you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19: 41-44).

After the proclamation of the Gospel that recalls the biblical episode, as per the custom, a professor of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum said the homily. “Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem touches on our current lives,” said Fr. Luigi Epicoco. Jesus’ crying “is in a certain sense of ‘impotence,’ in seeing Jerusalem’s self-destruction. Sometimes our lives are characterized by self-destruction,” he said, “but the history of Christian salvation begins when we can do nothing more. The impossible can only be fulfilled by Jesus. Jesus does not teach us to save ourselves, but to let ourselves be saved.”

The Second Lenten Pilgrimage

The second pilgrimage took place on March 7 at the Basilica of Agony at Gethsemane. In the church built at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the time when Jesus prayed and suffered intensely is commemorated. As was the case at the previous pilgrimage, Fr. Epicoco said the homily. He explained that, at Gethsemane, Jesus represents all of our humanity. “Being a Christian means being human, and being human means making oneself needy of friends.” In the moment of the Passion, Jesus wants his friends to be near him, but he experiences profound solitude because they fall asleep. “Jesus was the loneliest,” concluded Fr. Luigi Epicoco, “but from that moment on, from that night on, no one can say they are alone [again].”

The mass was presided over by the Custodial Vicar, Br. Dobromir Jasztal, and it was concelebrated by many friars of the Custody. “I thank everyone for coming here, on one of these pilgrimages that are characteristic of the Holy Land," said the guardian of the monastery in Gethsemane, Br. Benito José Choque, at the end of the celebration. “These appointments help us to love the Lord more and to follow him, who first loved us, in his own footsteps.”

The Third Lenten Pilgrimage

The next Lenten pilgrimage was on March 14, when the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, along with local faithful and pilgrims, gathered at the monastery of the Flagellation. According to tradition, this is the exact place where Jesus was scourged and a crown of thorns placed upon his head. Fr. Epicoco's homily recalled that the pilgrimage took place in commemoration of the experience of Jesus' torture, in which he truly experienced physical pain. “A pain that leaves no room for explanations,” he said, “a pain that obscures everything and seems to make everything meaningless.” We know that when we have this kind of experience, Jesus can understand us: “it is believable because he also experienced this suffering.” Despite all of this, the only thing we can do is fulfill one word: “offering.” Offering up one's own suffering, “from being a wasted act, as it was seen, suffering can become an opportunity for growth,” explained Fr. Luigi Epicoco.

The Fourth Lenten Pilgrimage 

The fourth pilgrimage, on March 15, was celebrated in Bethany, and commemorated the biblical episode of Lazarus' resurrection. “It is a fundamental episode in understanding Jesus' resurrection,” Fr. Epicoco said in his homily. The key to understanding the place of this Lenten pilgrimage is “friendship,” that sincere and fraternal relationship that Jesus had with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. The priest said that “here in Bethany, Jesus shows us that there is no greater love than giving one's life for one's friends” and in resurrecting Lazarus, it is as if he were giving his life in the place of Lazarus'. Behind Lazarus is the whole of humanity,” said Fr. Epicoco.  Following the Mass and a quick breakfast, the friars processed to the tomb of Lazarus. It is tradition that on the same day of the Lenten pilgrimage to Bethany, other stops are also made: one at the place where Jesus ascended into heaven and one where he taught the Our Father.

Where the church of the Pater Noster stands today, the friars read the Gospel related to the episode of Jesus' prayer, while at the place of the Ascension, now under Muslim control, the procession made their entrance by singing the Te Deum. It was therefore a morning of intense prayer, with a single objective in mind: preparing for the “passage” of Easter.

The next Lenten pilgrimage will occur on Wednesday, March 21 in Lithostrotos, where Christ was condemned by Pontius Pilot.