Holy Land pilgrimage a sacred learning experience for priests of Diocese
By Rose O’Connor, Correspondent, and Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor
There was a common sentiment among the 21 priests who recently returned from their pilgrimage to the Holy Land — they will never be able to read Scripture again without thinking about how they “walked where Jesus walked.”
“To see where our Lord walked, lived his ministry, died and rose from the dead was wonderful,” said Father Mark Kreder, pastor of St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River.
From Jan. 24 to Feb. 2, the group of priests journeyed and prayed at numerous sites mentioned in the Old and New Testaments on a pilgrimage that was initiated at the behest of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. The itinerary included visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of Olives. Together, they celebrated Mass at the Mount of Beatitudes; the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in 2000; the Church of the Nativity, the birth place of Christ; prayed the Stations of the Cross as they followed the “Via Dolorosa” (Way of the Cross), and celebrated Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Father Jean Felicien, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton, who chronicled the trip on his Facebook page, said it was meaningful to see the different places in the Gospels come to life, especially where Jesus preached. “It really touched my heart,” he said.
Msgr. Sean Flynn, pastor of St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt, and an ordained priest for 42 years, said he wished he had made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier in his priesthood.
Heartened by all he learned, Msgr. Flynn made special mention about the group’s “wonderful Christian tour guide,” George Stephan, a former seminarian who was familiar with the Scriptures and able to relate the places and events associated with the life of Jesus to the Old Testament.
For Msgr. Flynn, the most cherished part of the pilgrimage was walking the “Via Dolorosa” and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “I found it to be an amazing, transforming and life-changing experience,” he said, then added that he became better informed about the political situation in Israel and the serious plight of Christians in the Holy Land.
Before his departure, Father John Michael Patilla, parochial vicar of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, appreciated the concerns about safety when traveling to the Holy Land. But after the pilgrimage, he offered confident assurance to anyone considering a pilgrimage in the future. “It is safe,” he said.
Father Patilla said he was also moved when visiting the Church of the Nativity. Going “down into the cave and seeing and touching the place where our Lord Jesus Christ was born was just an awesome and humbling experience.”
He said the priests began singing “Silent Night” and “it felt like the Infant Jesus was there and we were like the Magi welcoming him. We didn’t bring him gold, frankincense and myrrh but only our empty hearts from home so that he can fill them with love.”
Father Patilla said he was touched during the stop at Gethsamane. There, he was able to imagine the human side of Jesus and what he was feeling as he prepared to respond to his father’s will and suffer and die because of “our sinfulness.”
Reflecting on traveling to the Holy Land with his brother priests, Father Patilla found it humbling since there were priests ranging in age from their 20s to 80s. “There was a great fraternity among many of the priests. That was a comment that recurred throughout… the importance of fraternity,” he said.
Father Jeffrey Lee, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, and diocesan director of pilgrimages, said his time in the Holy Land helped him to better realize how important such an experience is for people of faith, especially Roman Catholics.
“This is our history,” he said, “and to better understand where we have come from enables us to be prepared for where God might be calling us to go.”[[In-content Ad]]