For most Catholics, ministry and adherence to faith involves going to Church in their neighborhood and often helping to volunteer for others in their community. For a group who went on a trip to the Holy Land in May, their mission was a chance to learn a new culture and witness beauty of the holy sites of the Catholic faith, but also discover a small taste of the persecution Catholics often face worldwide.
From May 7-19, a group of over 50 clergy and laypeople, including Father David Muñoz, OMI, of Holy Cross Parish in Buffalo, and Father Richard McAlear, OMI, a former diocesan priest known for healing Masses, books, CDs, DVDs and speaking engagements, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The group flew from New York City to Tel Aviv, Israel, and they spent seven nights at the Gloria Hotel in Jerusalem. Later, they spent a total of four nights at the Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberias, which is located directly on the waterfront of the Sea of Galilee. Father Muñoz said he attended to accompany Father McAlear, who had been ill and needed assistance on the trip.
"There were people from all over the United States," Father Muñoz said. "We actually had one family from North Tonawanda who joined us, so that was exciting. They were from all over the place, and part of it is because Father McAlear knows so many people, and they came for that."
Father McAlear said this pilgrimage was the 38th time he has visited the Holy Land, and he also studied abroad there for a semester. Since he first visited in 1975, he has become "intimate with the land." He said, "There's a saying that goes back to the fathers of the Church, that there are five Gospels, four written and the fifth Gospel is the Holy Land, because everything about it speaks of Jesus."
"You're looking at the same scenery, walking the same rivers, the same roads, same stones," Father McAlear said. "There's something about it that's got the intimacy and touch with every living presence of Jesus, and you get a sense, I always get a sense of the incarnation, that He was really a human guy who walked these roads and probably swam in the lake like we did, slept under the stars ... the humanity of Christ stands out. You're in places where He preached, and it's amazing."
The holy sites included Jericho, the Mount of Olives, and the village of Capernaum, the site of many of Jesus' miracles. They also visited Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast that took place there. The pilgrimage also included the Holy Sepulcher, Bethlehem and Galilee, which he called "very beautiful." Father Muñoz said Jerusalem felt like a crowded city with many people and tourists, although, in terms of area and distance, it did not seem to be that large.
In addition, they visited the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth at more than 1,000 feet below sea level. It was named for its extremely salty water in which no sea life can survive, but the water is said to have healing qualities for those who swim in it. They saw the Church of the Nativity, located over where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, which is where Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of 5,000 people.
Father McAlear said seeing where Jesus fed the crowd affirmed the writings of the Gospel, since many scholars read the Bible and might wonder where that number of people would fit in an open space. He said of the Mount of Beatitudes, "You can stand on the hill, and it's a slope going down to the Sea of Galilee, and you could put 10,000 people there easy and, because of the contour of the land and the lake in the background, you could speak and be heard by 10,000 people."
"You didn't need microphones; you didn't need media. You got a sense that this was really very real. It wasn't just stories," he added. "If you're not there, your questions are, 'Well, where did you get 5,000 people, and where did you put them, and how could you talk to them, and how could they hear you?' Then you realize, that's a real thing, it happened. It was right here ... that kind of sense of the reality of the Gospel, the truth of the Gospel, the kind of hands-on reality, the nitty-gritty stuff."
According to Father McAlear, holy sites have largely remained unchanged over the years, but there were huge crowds at the Holy Sepulcher, to the extent that they could not enter the Church one day. He said more groups from more countries make pilgrimages, and people from countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Korea now joined the people from America, France and Italy who usually visit.
When asked about impressions of life in the Holy Land, Father Muñoz said, "The political situation is a little difficult; I think that's the one thing that struck me the most. What we get from our media here doesn't compare to what you actually see, and the suffering of the Christians, especially the Arab Christians, is amazing." He snapped a photo of an old, simple door, which he believed was a door to someone's house, with the words "Pray for the priests of Jerusalem" written on it in English.
Father McAlear said the political atmosphere is calmer now in the Holy Land than it had been in other previous years when he had made the pilgrimage there. He said the concrete separation barrier on the West Bank, which separates Palestinians from Israel, is an "atrocity and a blasphemy," and the people who live there are prisoners who cannot leave, and no one will let them through.
Father Muñoz said many Christians live on the West Bank, but they cannot come or go. Instead, they live there in a "jail, almost like a prison, and they can't do much other than that." He added, "We get these people who come over here, they're selling things made of olive wood at our parishes to send back to Palestine, and I understand why they do that now. It's the only way they can make any income."
Father Muñoz said most of the locals they met were welcoming, and "loved having people there and being hospitable to them, and wanted to show them this is who (they) are." However, others did display open hostility, and some even spit on members of the group for wearing crosses.
"Our tour guide said, 'Remember the Gospel: blessed are you when you are persecuted,' so we just kept walking and prayed for them," Father Muñoz said of their responses to these people's actions.
However, Father McAlear said the most difficult part of the pilgrimage was not political unrest, which he said would often "fade into the background" since the hotels they booked had no televisions in the rooms. Instead, the most difficult part of the trip was the fact that visitors frequently need to walk, and Father McAlear said the ancient cities do not allow people to bring cars or bicycles. He added, "You walk, you walk up and down the stairs, steps and alleys, so it's physically taxing. I go in May because we don't have the summer heat. If you have to do that, the summer heat is murder. I've done it."
Since Pope Francis visited the Holy Land at the end of May, shortly after the group had returned to the United States, the pope's trip was significant because it was a challenge for the Palestinian and Israeli governments. Before the papal visit, Father Muñoz suggested praying for people in the area, and said he hoped Pope Francis would say something to "change the hearts" of people who live there.
Father McAlear said of the papal visit, "The remarkable thing about Pope Francis, which is important, is that everyone loved him, which is unusual." Everyone seemed to accept the pope, including Palestinians, Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, which he said is an unusual occurrence.
"(Pope) Francis was loved by everybody, and he steered clear of any political minefield, and yet, at the same time, he affirmed rights and justice," Father McAlear said.
While on the trip, Father Muñoz said he felt some instances when he felt God's actions influenced and helped them on their journey. The group went on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and it was a very windy day, which was unusual. He "got the impression of what was going on in the Gospel passage" when they were on the boat. "For me, that was an eye opener as to the situation of the Church: sometimes we're rocked back and forth, and yet Jesus is the one who calms it all."