The opportunities to celebrate Mass at Jesus’ tomb, visit the stone cave in Nazareth where Mary lived and swim in the Dead Sea may be ones that many Catholics dream of experiencing but rarely see fulfilled. For 14 people from the Diocese of Bridgeport, however, that dream became a reality in July when they traveled to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage sponsored by The Leadership Institute and witnessed firsthand the path that Jesus walked.
For some of these pilgrims, this journey was the ideal means to renew their faith life; for others, it was a way to explore their religion outside Sunday Mass and see the Gospels come alive and for still others, it was a return to a place that held spiritual significance for them in the past.
After Bishop Frank J. Caggiano led a similar pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 2018, he was inspired to plan another one specifically geared toward young adults ages 19-35 with a focus on studying scripture.
“Young adults by and large are at greater risk of disassociating from the Church than older adults are,” said Patrick Donovan of The Leadership Institute who coordinated the trip. “The bishop is committed to helping the youth stay active with their faith in the future.”
Following a traditional route from Tel Aviv to Nazareth and Galilee to Jerusalem, Donovan said the pilgrims began their journey at Haifa and Caesarea, allowing them a look at the early Apostles with an initial view of the Holy Land from a post resurrection experience. From there on, they gained a greater awareness of their faith and saw the Bible stories of their childhood come to life in different ways.
Marina Renzi, a student at Stonehill College who grew up going to Catholic schools, was in awe of the small details that clarified the narratives from her early religion classes, such as that of Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean Desert.
“Being out there with the vast nothingness that the desert offers really put into perspective how much Jesus would have suffered out there on his own,” said Renzi, remembering the unbearable heat and treacherous cliffs of the wilderness. “It was difficult to imagine how Jesus would have done this without his Father’s help, [but] we were out there, experiencing it, just like He did.”
The visit to the desert was profound for the other pilgrims as well, such as Keara Stewart, a nurse practitioner in New York. Sensing Jesus’ suffering as well as His promise of new life, Stewart said, “The desert signifies such a barren existence, but it contrasts so powerfully with the growth that thrives there.”
Feeling the presence of Jesus throughout the journey deeply affected Grace Shay, who accompanied Bishop Caggiano on the first pilgrimage and chose to return in July. She never imagined she would have the chance to visit the Holy Land twice in a lifetime.
“It was a blessing to revisit and rediscover the source of our faith by walking in Jesus’ footsteps,” said Shay, a parishioner at St. Luke’s Church in Westport. “Some of my favorite memories include celebrating an intimate Mass in the tomb within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, singing the Magnificat as a group in the echoing upper chapel of the Church of the Visitation, and wading in the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee.”
Not only did the pilgrims find the sites of the Holy Land inspiring and transformative, but their conversations and revelations as well, as they bonded over shared experiences. Each evening, Donovan led the group in reflective discussions beginning with the prompts of “What challenged you today?” and “Where did God surprise you today?” While some started off with mundane comments about the heat and the excessive walking, talk gradually moved toward contemplative responses such as how little they understood about the stories they learned as children and how they could live out Jesus’ message in the moment.
“As young adults, they wonder, how do I live this at home, with my students, on Wall Street?” said Donovan, adding that the small group of 14 was the ideal size for such intimate dialogue, though at times, the quiet moments of reflection signified even more.
Recalling “deafening silence” after a visit to the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was crucified and buried, Donovan said, “Everyone was so quiet. We were all moved in such a powerful way.”
As each pilgrim had their own individual reasons for making this journey, the experience affected them in individual ways as well.
“I came away with more of an awareness,” said Theresa Readey, an accountant with the Diocese of Bridgeport who accompanied the young adults. “I found myself wanting to talk to God with no distractions. The experience of being where Jesus was conceived, born, lived, died and rose again has given new life to my prayers, especially when I pray the Mysteries of the Rosary.”
Due to the success of the two recent pilgrimages, Donovan is hoping to plan future trips to the Holy Land, Greece, Turkey and Rome with a spiritual and catechetical focus for young adults.
“We want [them] to feel connected to the church and we invite them to tell their story of how they came to know Jesus,” said Donovan. “We want to accompany them on their journey.”
Such a journey is ongoing in both spiritual and personal ways for those who traveled to this sacred place back in July. As they reaffirmed a commitment to their faith individually, they continue to deepen it together. According to Donovan, the 14 have already had a reunion and are planning a future Bible study.
“They want to unpack scripture as they did in the Holy Land,” he said. “It’s easy to see our faith as detached from ourselves, but when you’re in such a place as the Holy Land, you see it’s not just ‘Sunday’ anymore. We listened, we breathed, we learned.”
And that learning came in ways as diverse as the pilgrims themselves who walked the path of Jesus. Whether it was similar to Renzi’s “greater appreciation of Jesus’ suffering” or Readey’s heightened “awareness of what the Apostles faced,” each one of these travelers grew in their understanding of Jesus’ missive.
“I learned that as a Catholic, we must open our arms to all,” said Stewart. “We must truly live by Jesus’ example of love and acceptance and open ourselves to the plans God has in store for us.”