Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Destination Holy Land: In wonder and awe

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.

Day 7
We woke up to day 7 of our pilgrimage, the final day of our first week together. It is quite interesting to know just how much ground we have covered in such a short period of time. Today is the Day the Lord Has Made! It is Sunday and for us Christians it is our Sabbath. Taking this into account, our tour guide generously allowed for us to sleep in with a wake-up call at 7:30am.  We were expected after a warm breakfast to be boarded on the bus by 9:30am. 

At 9:30am we were ready to drive a short distance to a Catholic Christian parish community in Jerusalem. St. James was the name of the Church. It also was the community of our tour guide Johnny. Upon our arrival to the parish, the Pastor of the community, a Franciscan Priest, Friar Hijazin, warmly welcomed us. He gave us a short summary of the parish and then we entered to celebrate, which for most if not all of us, was our first Sunday Mass in Arabic. Bishop Barnes, Deacon Serembe, and I headed to the sacristy to vest for the Mass. Serving with us were two permanent deacon candidates in formation. They form the first class of permanent deacons who will soon be ordained for the Latin Patriarchate Church of Jerusalem. We entered for Mass as we would do in the U.S. with song. The song choice sounded very familiar to us. It was the hymn, Ode to Joy, the only difference, it was in Arabic.

The blessing of the universality of our Church is that we worship in a similar manner with a few exceptions and the Mass readings are the same at every Catholic Church throughout the world.  The priest generously allowed one of our pilgrims, Rich Herbst to proclaim the second reading in English and later to lead us in an after communion hymn. Additionally, the priest prayed the Eucharistic prayer in English for our group. With these exceptions, the other parts of the Mass were in Arabic. All in all, we had a wonderful celebration of the Banquet of the Lord with our Palestinian brothers and sisters. In the Mass, I also noticed some things which also were pretty universal to our Church. There were people coming in late to Mass, children playing in the pews, people sleeping or "reflecting" during the homily, and the lack of a teenage presence. I found it to be very interesting that some of the same situations found in our parishes in the U.S. would be experienced here in Jerusalem.

After the Mass, the community invited us over for some warm hospitality in the hall. They had coffee, soda, and snacks for each of us to enjoy. We were able to engage in conversation, to share our experiences, and of course to take photographs. Just like in the States as the parents were talking inside, the children gathered together outside. We were reminded that although the Churches we visit are special and holy sites, we cannot forget the living Church, the people, who form the Body of Christ. The pilgrims were very thankful for the great hospitality.

It was then time to leave the community and head over to Old Jerusalem. There we would visit the Muslim Holy Sites, the Jewish Wailing Wall, and the Temple Mount. Jerusalem is the holiest site for the Jewish faith because of the former temple site. The Jewish Temple has been built twice and destroyed twice, the last time by the Romans in 70 AD. There are still remnants that indicate the temple area, the same temple where our Lord Jesus was presented, preached at the age of twelve, and turned over the money changers' tables. Jerusalem is the third holiest site in the world, after Mecca and Medina, for the Muslim faith. It is also home of the well known, Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque. From the Temple Mount you can gain a panoramic view of all the sites that are so familiar to us in the Scriptures. At the Wailing Wall each of us were invited to enter and pray along the wall. It is also part of the tradition at the wall to insert into it little pieces of paper with some personal intentions one might have. The hope is that those personal intentions will be answered by God.

After spending the time in Old Jerusalem and before heading back to the Notre Dame Hotel, we stopped for a light lunch and then at a Diamond factory. The Diamond Industry is the number one source of income for all of Israel. We took a tour of a factory and found out more about the process involved in finding, creating, and marketing diamonds. After the tour, we were invited to purchase diamonds at a "discounted price".

We then returned back to the Hotel where we were to get dressed up a bit for a fantastic dinner at the famous restaurant within the Notre Dame Center, The Rotisserie. Everyone looked so nice as we gathered in the restaurant. All of us were treated to a five course meal and some wine. At times we needed help identifying what we were about to eat, but overall it was a great meal with delightful conversation.

Time for bed would soon come and we all headed up to our rooms. We needed to get our rest for another full day that would begin with a 6:00am morning wake-up call.

Thank you Jesus for the gift of faith!

Day 8
Monday morning would come very quickly with an early wake-up call at 6am. After breakfast it was time to load the bus for another full day around Jerusalem. 

Our first stop led us to Mt. Zion and the Church of the Dormition. This Church is recognized as one the places believed to be the location that the Virgin Mary fell asleep and was assumed body and soul into Heaven. The belief and tradition is that Mary went to Ephesus with the Apostle John and later returned to Jerusalem where she was assumed into heaven at Mt. Zion.

Not too far away we walked to the location known to be where Jesus shared the Last Supper with His disciples. While we were there, we sang all together, "I am the Bread of Life". It was a moment to pause and thank God for the great gift of the Eucharist. Even though we as pilgrims traveled many miles to walk the land of Our Lord Jesus, it's a comfort to know that in the Eucharist, no matter where we are in the world, we are the closet to Jesus! Near to the location of the Last Supper, we walked into a Jewish Synagogue where we visited one of the two claimed locations for the tomb of King David. As we did at the Wailing Wall, we separated the men from the women to enter the Jewish prayer space. While inside on the woman's side, we could hear the voice of a Jewish woman leading the other women in song of praises.

It was then time for us to walk a greater distance to the land of the former palace of the High Priest and the location believed to be where Jesus was brought after being arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane. Due to the time of the evening, Jesus is known to have been imprisoned one full night there. What now sits on this location is a beautifully designed mural Church now called St. Peter in Gallicantu. The murals express both the emotion of Jesus' arrest and the denial of Jesus by Peter (Jn 18:15ff). We were invited to descend a staircase to the lower levels of the Church where we were shown the old dudgeons of the palace. Our entire group entered into a small dudgeon where we meditated on Jesus' stay the night before He would die. We took a moment to pray for all those imprisoned throughout the world. We also sang a popular Lenten Hymn, "Were You There". Prior to the turning off of the lights to experience the space in a similar manner as would have Jesus, we heard a reading of Psalm 88 from the Book of Psalms. After some time of reflection we climbed the staircase back into the precious daylight. It was great reminder from Scriptures that we should be children of the light rather than children of darkness (Ephesians 5:8). Outside of the Church is a stone path that leads to the buildings. All historians agree that the stone is over two thousand years old and that it is possible the very same road Jesus was brought in from the Garden of Gethsemane leading into the house of the High Priest.

We found our bus driver Fawz and loaded the bus. We drove back into Old Jerusalem fighting the traffic. We reached a place in the road to unload from the bus. We took a short cut to reach the Shepherd's Gate (Jn 5:2). This gate is mentioned in the Gospel of John where Jesus finds a man outside the pools of Bethesda who had been ill for thirty-eight years and Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed. The answer was yes and so Jesus asked him to pick up his mat and he was healed. Our next stop takes us to the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda.

Close to the Pool of Bethesda is the Church of St. Anne's which is the believed location of the birthplace of Mary. Tradition tells us that Mary’s parents names were Joachim and Anne. The Church provided a beautiful echo for which our group, like many others, took full advantage of singing. We chose to sing, "Immaculate Mary". We then descended a staircase to the lower levels of the Church where lies the believed birthplace of our Mother Mary.

After a full morning, we went back to the Hotel for a three hour rest for our evening activities. It was also time for lunch, so a small group walked a short distance to the Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem to search out some lunch and to do some shopping. Many of us had heard of a local Pizzeria and so there is where we all headed. It was nice to get a taste of a food we were all very accustomed to, a hot slice of pepperoni pizza!

After a couple of hours of free time, we were asked to be ready by 3pm for a walk to the Co-cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate's for Mass. 

Bishop Barnes and I at the Latin
Patriarchate Co-Cathedral in Jerusalem.
We walked as a group to the Co-cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate. We were admitted inside where we were scheduled to celebrate Mass. Every location where we have celebrated Mass along our journey has come with a strict time schedule to accommodate all other pilgrims. The group entered the Cathedral to prepare for Mass while the Bishop, deacon, and I vested. We entered a very large Cathedral with very little pews for seating. And whereas we have all sat very close together at all other Churches, this time we were seated more distant from the main altar. This Church like all others had beautiful frescos and statues throughout. 

At the conclusion of the Mass we walked upstairs nearby to the offices of the Patriarchate, where we were welcomed and received by an Auxiliary Bishop and provided some light refreshments. Then the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher among us vested themselves in their gowns to prepare for a ceremony in the Cathedral, which they were to receive the Pilgrim's Shell for their visit to the Holy Land. The Auxiliary Bishop, whom just returned from the Synod of Bishops meetings in Rome, gave us a wonderful summary of their time together. He then proceeded to bestow onto five Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher, the Pilgrim's Shell for their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

From the Cathedral we continued our journey in procession led by the Bishop and the Knights and Ladies to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is there where we commemorate the Death and Resurrection of our Lord. This was by far the highlight of our pilgrimage for a few reasons. First, we remember Christ's great sacrifice for us. Second, the whole basis for our faith is built upon the Resurrection. Finally, as part of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher we were given a very special grand entrance into the Church. The whole Church came to a standstill for our entrance. Being given musical accompaniment of the organ for our entrance, we were taken right outside the tomb of our Lord Jesus. The same tomb that He would not be found, for He had Risen, He had Risen indeed! The Franciscans led us in prayer and welcomed us to the Church. The Franciscan Priest who led us in prayer, Father Fergus Clarke, once ministered in California and worked with Sr. Sarah Shrewsbury in Brea, Ca. Truly a small world! After the prayer service, our group was invited four by four to enter the tomb of our Lord. In a very cramped space, we each took the time to pray thanking the Lord for His sacrifice on Calvary and for making us a Resurrection people! We all left experiencing that Hope renewed, but also knowing we were called to share that Hope with others.

We walked back through the narrow and darkened streets back to our Hotel. The full day was almost complete. All that was left was dinner and rest. We would begin again the next morning with our usual 6am wake-up call.

Thank you Jesus for your sacrifice!

Day 9
A new day came and we were all so thankful to have awoken once more in the City of Jerusalem. We began early as we have each day of our pilgrimage. After our morning breakfast we boarded our bus for a trip to the Mount of Olives. Our first stop was at Pater Noster Shrine. It is where Jesus taught His disciples how to pray using what we know as the Our Father (Lk 11:1-4). This Chapel and surrounding buildings have displayed the Our Father prayer in almost one hundred and thirty different languages.  It was so interesting to see such a special prayer written and more importantly prayed in so many languages of the world.

We then began our walk from the top of Mt Olives down was is known as the Palm Sunday Road, which is the way that Jesus would have rode triumphantly into Jerusalem. The panoramic view of Old Jerusalem was amazing. We took many pictures as well as one group picture to always remember our pilgrimage. We began the steep hill down Palm Sunday Road. As we walked down we sang together, "The King of Glory." About half way done the road, we stopped to visit a small chapel, Dominus Flevit, the Lord wept. It is here that Jesus wept over Jerusalem prior to His death (Lk 19:41). This small chapel has the most beautiful view from behind the altar overlooking Jerusalem. It is where we would celebrate Mass for the day. Joining us for Mass was a large Filipino community also from California. At the Mass, I was to be the Celebrant and homilist. At first I thought no one would be paying attention at Mass due to the outstanding view behind the altar, however the group was most attentive to receive the Word of God and the strength of the Lord in the Eucharist. We, like Jesus, have wept at the activities or situations in our lives. Sometimes it is so easy to be discouraged and want to give up. However, we, like Jesus, must move on and be the people He has called us to be, a resurrection people, a people of new life!

We continued down the Palm Sunday Road to the base where we came upon the special prayer place of Jesus just prior to His arrest, the Garden of Gethsemane. Surrounding the beautiful Church to mark the place of Jesus' prayer are numerous olive trees. Our guide, Johnny, told us that some of the olive tree roots in the area are known to be over two thousand years old. How amazing it is to imagine that the very trees we looked upon could be the same ones that Jesus' eyes gazed upon during his agony in the garden. The Church there is called, The Church of All Nations. It was given that name to honor the many nations that contributed to the construction of the Church. High above inside on the ceiling are emblems of every nation that helped with the project. Towards the entrance to the Church high above one can find the United States emblem. In the Church also sits near the altar space, the "Rock of Agony" which is a section of bedrock identified as the place where Jesus prayed alone in the garden prior to His arrest (Mk 14:32ff). We didn't spend too much time there for we were told that we would be going back later in the evening for a quiet Holy Hour all by ourselves.

We soon found our bus in the midst of the crowded streets. The next scheduled visit was to the House of Peace, an orphanage supported by the Knights and Ladies of the Western Lieutenancy. We spoke with one of the sisters who welcomed us and shared the activities of the Orphanage. There in that loving home three religious sisters care for over twenty children between the ages of three and eighteen. Just being in the home we felt the love and peace. We also experienced the tremendous faith of the sisters would depend greatly on God to provide for the needs of the children. Unfortunately we didn't get to see or speak with any of the children, mostly because they were in school, but we did see once more the lived out experience of the locals whom are filled with so much hope.

Our next trip was something we asked our guide to add to our pilgrimage. It was a journey to the town of Jericho and home of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. We had a great buffet lunch at Temptations Restaurant. The name Temptation is used throughout the area to refer and commemorate where Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil (Lk 4:1ff). Jericho is a relatively small city compared to many of the others we visited. After the lunch, we headed for the lowest spot in the entire world, the Dead Sea. Along the way we stopped on the side of the road to be shown the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a local Shepherd looking for his lost sheep. The shepherd we were told was disappointed with his find for he expected a treasure and only found containers with a few scrolls! A gift for the world that wasn't expected, but truly was a treasure, sound familiar?

Up next was to relax for a bit at the Dead Sea. We were told that if we stayed in the water for one hour we would look ten years younger! Unfortunately it didn't work, but for those of us who entered the water, we were happy we did. It was an experience that few ever get. After an hour there, we gathered together to return to the Hotel for dinner. After dinner we reconvened for one last trip back to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. We were to have one hour of Adoration alone as a group in the very place our Lord agonized the night before He was to die. The Holy Hour was so powerful and the most fitting way to end the day full of so many experiences.

Thank you Jesus for saying yes to the will of the Father!


  1. Rarely am I speechless but this posting was breathtaking. I actually read it twice. Fr. Eric, I sure hope that you have all your postings transcribed to create a booklet with pictures. This would make a wonderful gift and something that we all could cherish, share and experience what you all experienced.

  2. Fr. Erik, I have enjoyed reading your daily blogs while on your pilgrimage to the Holy Land. You are an excellent writer, making one feel as though they were accompanying you on this very holy, spiritual journey. Your descriptions and details of places and events make your blogs even more interesting.
    Thank you for taking the time and effort to outline the adventures of this wonderful pilgrimage under the guidance of Bishop Barnes.

  3. Fr.Eric, The writings of your pilgrimage have been so touching. They at one point brought me to tears.I could actually visualize the places you have visited, and took me to the places of where Jesus actually set foot and spoke his words of Love and Hope for the world Thank you so much for sharing, and allowing me to live it through your eyes.


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