By Father Erik Esparza
Parochial Vicar, St. Joseph, Barstow
Journal entries provided by Father Esparza as he goes on pilgrimage through the Holy Land along with 40 other pilgrims from the Diocese of San Bernardino, including Bishop Gerald Barnes.
Waking up bright and early, we ate then loaded the bus for another full day of miraculous sights. Our first stop was very near to our accommodations and the location of our days first miraculous sight. Found in all four Gospels, we hear the story of how Jesus fed the five-thousand men not counting women and children (Mt 14:21, Mk 6:44, Lk 9:14, Jn 6:10). Recounting this story and not too far from the Sea of Galilee, a Church commemorates this recorded miracle of Jesus.
A short distance away from the miracle of the Feeding of Five-Thousand, we experienced the area that is known as Peter's Primacy. This site is where Jesus after His resurrection met his disciples at the Sea of Galilee and asked Peter if he loved him three times and after each question asked him to "tend my lambs, feed my sheep" (John 21:9). We were then given an opportunity to go and touch the water of the Sea of Galilee, close to where Jesus would have shared a meal with his disciples after his Resurrection. This time gave us a quiet moment of reflection and an opportunity to gather some water and shells from the Sea of Galilee.
We then loaded the bus to encounter something also miraculous, just for different reasons. We visited a museum that houses a two-thousand year old fisherman's boat discovered only in 1986. This boat resembled a similar boat that quite possibility Jesus sailed over two-thousand years ago.
From there we headed to Capernaum where Jesus began His Galilean ministry. There we saw the remnants of a synagogue that dates back to the time of Jesus. Very close to that location, we visited a Church built over the sight of Peter's home, where it is believed that Jesus healed the mother in law of Peter (Mt 8:14-15). It is there at that Church where we celebrated our second Mass together. This time Bishop Barnes presided with the preaching assistance of our only Deacon on the trip, Steve Serembe. After experiencing another grace filled moment of our Lord in the Eucharist and on another special place, we journeyed back to our bus which was waiting to take us to lunch.
The afternoon lunch was another great choice by our tour guide, Johnny, a Jerusalem Roman Catholic with much knowledge about his homeland and its holiest sites, as well as our bus driver Fawz, a Jerusalem Muslim, who can work his own "miracles" driving the bus through the city streets! They have been wonderful guides along the trip and for that we are thankful. They were anxious to get us to our next stop, Mt Tabor where Jesus transfigured before three of His disciples, next to Moses and Elijah (Luke 9: 28-36). Buses were too large to make it up the steep mountain, so we unloaded off our bus to wait for multiple taxies' that would take us to the top. Holding on for our lives and what resembled more a roller coaster at Magic Mountain, we climbed the mountain to the top at what seemed to be a record speed. Once there, we awaited the rest of our group. After everyone arrived, we entered the Church of the Transfiguration. A beautiful designed Church that expresses the great joy of such an event that quite possibility if quiet enough, we could once again hear the voice of God proclaim, "This is my beloved Son, listen to Him" (Lk 9:35). After a moment to overlook the surrounding areas at the top of Mt Tabor, we went to catch a taxi back down the mountain. Making it safely down, we loaded our bus to the neighboring town of Nain.
At Nain there sits a small Catholic Church in an otherwise Muslim town. It is here that another miracle took place. It is believed that the widow's son was raised from the dead by Jesus (Luke 7:11). As a group we took the time led by Bishop Barnes to pray for all parents who have lost any children to death as well as to pray for all families. Prayer is indeed such a powerful tool to experience the strength of our Lord. As we know, prayer is not reserved to Christians, upon leaving the only Christian Church in Nain; we could hear the Muslim call to prayer over the loud speakers for the local people to join in common prayer. May we, as a Church, continue to pray for peace for all people of the world!
The last stop of the evening brought us to bank of the Jordan River. Although not the exact location of Jesus' baptism, we still had an opportunity to reflect on our own baptism. Gathered around the Jordan River, we were all asked to renew our baptismal promises. All together we were asked to affirm those promises and in essence recommit ourselves to the mission of Jesus the Christ. At the end of our simple ceremony, we each approached Bishop Barnes to receive the water taken directly from the Jordan River to sign ourselves with the mark of our faith, the Sign of the Cross.
We then loaded the bus and went back to the retreat center for our final meal for the day and to a nice comfortable bed to get a good night's rest. Tomorrow we head to Jerusalem!
Thank you Jesus for such a blessed day!
On this blessed morning after a night of rest, we were asked to gather our bags to have ready to go to Jerusalem after breakfast and Mass. We took a tour of the Church of the Beatitudes, which was very close to where we had been staying at the retreat center. In the lower level of the Church we celebrated Mass together once more. I was honored once again to be the celebrant for the Holy Mass. Joining us for Mass was a small Indonesian group. We were blessed to have present our brothers and sisters in the faith and a great example of our Catholic that is, universal faith. The homily afforded us inspiring words from Bishop Barnes. He reminded us that we were gathered in the same place that the crowds gathered to hear Jesus and His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' words were meant to give people hope despite their own struggle or difficulty. Bishop Barnes helped us to see that we are to be always a people of hope! After communion, Bishop Barnes invited the Indonesian community to lead us all in song. We got to hear the praises of God in another language!
Leaving the region of Tiberias, we began our trip to Jerusalem. Along the way we stopped in the City of Caesarea. There we got to take in the costal land of the State of Israel. The beach is always an opportune place to take in the beauty of God. Next we took a tour of some of the ancient ruins of Caesarea. The land was once home to a great Roman City constructed by Herod the Great. The City of Caesarea is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (10:44ff) where the Gentile man, Cornelius and his entire family were baptized. It is considered by some to be the birth place of the Gentile Church. Also, it is known here in the City that St. Paul was imprisoned for two years of his life (Acts 23:31ff). After the tour of the ancient City of Caesarea, we went to a much more new building, a local mall to enjoy a quick lunch on our way to Jerusalem.
After another hour on the bus we finally reached Jerusalem. Our tour guide, Johnny, identified important facts about the City as we headed into Jerusalem. Before we would reach our accommodations for our time in Jerusalem, we would first venture into the town of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Along the route we were made aware of the reality of the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories. A series of concrete walls begin to separate Palestinian territories from the other and from the State of Israel. Another stark reminder of the reality in the region where Jesus was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead.
The last part of the evening afforded us the opportunity for some local shopping in Bethlehem. The shopping allowed us to support the local Christian merchants and to buy special gifts for family members and friends. Beautiful handmade wood carvings were the highlight of the shopping experience. Most of the group left with wonderful gifts to share with family and friends back home. As we were returning to Jerusalem, we needed to wait in a very long line of cars and buses to seek permission to re-enter. Although the wait was long we were fortunate to pass whereas there are many others who aren't as fortunate as us.
We finally reached our accommodations at the Notre Dame Hotel in Jerusalem. We collected our bags and got our rooms before heading down for a delightful and tasty dinner. After dinner it was off to rest up for a new day as we prepared for another trip to Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord Jesus.
Thank you Jesus for another day!
This day began like the others with an early wake-up call and breakfast. We were asked to load the bus a little earlier to get a head start on all the crowds as we were to head back into Bethlehem. Today we were set to go to the place that it all began, the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was so difficult to imagine that we would soon be walking the very ground where God became man to save us from our sins! On our way there we began with prayer as we have done everyday together on the bus. We also began the praying of the rosary another thing we do each day while traveling. Morning Prayer and the rosary help us to remember that we are much more than tourists; we are pilgrims on a journey.
After a short ride and having crossed over the security wall from Jerusalem, we entered Bethlehem. As we drove the city we came across what seemed to be a familiar coffee shop, Star & Bucks! No, I didn't spell that wrong indeed that was the name of the coffee shop there. We all got a good laugh out of it. We unloaded the bus and came to what is known as Manger Square, a place that is beautifully decorated each Christmas and shown all throughout the world. Across from the Square sits the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of our Lord Jesus. We were the first large group to enter the old Church that was originally built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena in the fourth century. Like many of the Churches in the Holy Land, this Church was also once destroyed and rebuilt, but unlike all the others it was not destroyed a second time during the Persian invasion. The reason it was not destroyed was due to the paintings of the three Magi or Kings from the East. Having been dressed similarly to the Persians and looking like royalty, the Persian Invaders just couldn't destroy this Holy place, thus saving the Church of Nativity from further destruction and thus preserving the place of Jesus' birth. The entry way to the Church is built low to the ground for two reasons, one so that it would prevent looting invaders from riding in on horse and also to provoke a bow from all who would enter so as to remember that our God humbled Himself to be one like us.
While inside we heard a brief history of the Church and then proceeded to wait outside the stairs that would lead us to the known cave that housed Joseph and Mary when they found no room at the local inns (Lk 2:1-7). It was where Mary would deliver the Savior of the World, her Son, and our Lord Jesus. As we waited at the top of the stairs full of excitement and with a little disbelief of what were about to do, we could hear the sounds of prayer and Mass being celebrated below. We waited about forty minutes to enter, which gave us all a perfect opportunity to snap some pictures, but more importantly, to be in prayer and to profoundly reflect on the love of our God: the Word became flesh to dwell among us (Jn 1:14). When the time to wait had passed, our group was the first to enter truly the Holy of Holies, the cave of the Nativity, the known birthplace of our Lord Jesus. Very carefully we descended the staircase and came upon the marked place of the birth of Jesus. The exact spot was marked with a beautifully designed fourteen pointed silver star that reads in Latin: Hicde Virgine Mara Jesus Christus Natus, in English: Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary. One by one we lowered ourselves to touch the place that Our God lowered Himself to be man like us. To think that my hand with the hands of countless believers was able to touch the very location where our Savior Jesus was born to begin his earthly journey!
After a touching and profound realization, we ascended the staircase to enter the Church of St. Catherine in very close proximity. Because the Church of the Nativity is operated and shared by three Christian groups, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians, the Franciscans built the Church of St. Catherine as close to the place of the Nativity as they could so that Roman Catholics could have her own place to worship our Lord Jesus. It also makes possible every year to have the celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass that is broadcasted throughout the whole world.
While in St. Catherine's, we walked down to the lower part of the Church where sits two small chapels. One is the Chapel of St. Jerome, where it is believed that St. Jerome translated the entire Bible into Latin. It is reported that St. Jerome wanted to be very close to the birthplace of Jesus in order to do his very important work. The next chapel is known as the Chapel of St. Joseph, where it is believed to mark where Joseph had a dream to leave for Egypt so that the child Jesus would not be harmed by King Herod (Mt 2:13). The chapel also marks the Holy Innocence, in which the countless children under the age of two were killed by King Herod's armies in search of the child Jesus. May we pray for all the countless babies that are aborted each year and who never had an opportunity to see the light of day nor given a chance to make a difference in the world!
Leaving St. Catherine's and the Church of the Nativity, we walked a distance to visit the Grotto of the Lady Mary also known as the milk grotto. Sacred Tradition tells us that it was here that Mary and Joseph took refuge with Jesus before heading to Egypt. Tradition also says that here the Virgin Mary upon nursing the baby Jesus dropped a small amount of breast milk, which turned the surrounding areas white. After some pictures we headed back to the bus to our next stop, the Shepherd's Field, where we would celebrate Mass together.
At the Shepherd's Field, we experienced the beauty of the open aired space that one could find the necessary peaceful place for prayer. We immediately went to a wonderfully designed circular chapel where we would together again celebrate Mass. The Shepherd's Field commemorates the Angel of the Lord appearing to the local Shepherds telling them not to be afraid as the Angel proclaimed the good news of the birth of the Savior (Lk 2:8-18). Bishop Barnes presided at the Liturgy. I was able to offer what I hope was a prayerful homily about God becoming flesh in the birth of His son, our Lord Jesus. After receiving the love of God through the nourishment of His Son in the Eucharist, we captured some pictures of the peace filled place.
Lunch was next on the day's trip and we were super excited about this one for we were to eat lunch at the only Latin Patriarchate's Seminary with local seminarians. The Rector of the Seminary warmly welcomed us. As we walked into the Seminary grounds one by one the seminarians slowly came from the buildings and from what they were doing to join us. The Rector let us know some information about the Seminary. On the grounds there was a minor seminary for high school students and the major seminary full of twenty-nine students studying philosophy and theology to serve the Latin Church in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and surrounding areas. The lunch gave us the time to meet and hear the stories of the seminarians and priests first hand. It was a blessed time for the pilgrims. At the table with the Rector and other seminary priests was Bishop Barnes and a few others. At our table we heard stories about the Christian people and the entire struggle of the Palestinian people. This was an enlightening experience for me personally and reminded me of how important it is for us to stop and to hear the stories of others before we form our own opinion and thus draw our own conclusions. May each of us pray for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people! The people have not lost hope, but they need the support and prayers of the world. Our time together was educational and a moment of grace. Thank you to the entire Seminary community!
Our following stop would lead us to the Arab Rehabilitation Hospital which is a beneficiary of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher of the Western Lieutenancy. As we entered the grounds a plaque read, "Every patient is first and foremost a human being." The director of the hospital gave us all an overview of the fabulous and loving work that he and his staff are doing. He also shared how the work of this Catholic institution is one of love for all people no matter ones political or religious beliefs. He went on to state that love and respect of all people will be needed to make real change in that region and the entire world. He thanked the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher, who donated monies to buy an x-ray machine that has been used to help countless lives. We learned today how much we take for granted at times in our own life and how simple acts of love can do so much to change the lives of others!
It was now time to return back to our accommodations for dinner and rest. What a day! This simple phrase seems to be the only words that can sum up a day in which each of us were touched in so many ways. For myself, I began to really understand in a much more profound and complete way the deep love God as for you and for me!
Thank you Jesus for your love!