By Judy Tacyn
A contingent of 46 people set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on October 18, most of them visiting Israel for the first time.
The group of mainly Catholic parishioners was led by the Rev. Erik Arnold, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church.
Arnold has been coming to the Holy Land since 1997, the first time he was still a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He made the pilgrimage seven times, five as a leader. He designed an agenda full of the main places in the life of Christ, starting with the Annunciation, the moment when the Virgin Mary learned that by the Holy Spirit, she would conceive a son, he would name him Jesus and he would redeem the world through his life. , death and resurrection.
“I want our pilgrims to be touched by Jesus, to come closer to him by walking the same places he walked,” Arnold said. “It sounds so basic, but the gospels really come alive in our hearts when we see where he lived, where he began his public ministry, and most importantly, where he died and rose from the dead.”
While the group experienced the Holy Land from the Sea of Galilee, to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho and the Dead Sea, the 11-day trip was not for sightseeing; rather, this was a pilgrimage to get on the path of Jesus Christ, even if his journey was more than 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
For a pilgrim, the journey was for years. Bárbara Pérez de Arnold, parish of St. John the Evangelist, was raised by a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Catholic father. In 1988 she married Víctor Pérez, a Catholic.
Perez began thinking about converting to Catholicism during the past year.
“I’ve always believed in God and I talk to God,” Perez said. “I said, ‘God, if you really want me to do this, I want to be baptized in the Jordan River.'”
A few months after making that statement in his prayers, the Holy Land pilgrimage was announced. Perez contacted Arnold and asked if baptism was a possibility and he was delighted to find out that it was.
In front of the group, Perez and Arnold entered the muddy waters of the Jordan River, and Perez received his first sacrament of the Catholic faith. He will continue his preparation for full Catholic initiation, which he will experience at the Holy Saturday Vigil Mass on April 8, 2023.
Throughout the ancient and often stunning countryside, the reality of the conflict in the area was evident. While in the Galilee, the peaceful tranquility of the fishing town was momentarily broken by the sound of Israeli fighter jets flying low overhead, and again when the group was in northwestern Israel. Israeli passports and temporary visas were required for pilgrims to pass between Israel and Palestine while military guards with automatic weapons stood watch.
Stops in Burqin to visit the Church of the Ten Lepers and Jacob’s Well in Samaria were canceled due to the possibility of violence. The pilgrims later learned that several citizens had been shot on the evening of their planned visit.
In addition to the religious and historical experiences of the pilgrimage, the group found time for fellowship and relaxation, including a silent and prayerful boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, small group dinners in the homes of Christian families, bathing in the Dead Sea, and making a trip to an old tattoo shop where several pilgrims received a tattoo of the Jerusalem Pilgrim’s Cross made with centuries-old seals. Arnold celebrated Mass daily at a different church, and at the Wedding Church in Cana, the site of Jesus’ first public miracle, Arnold gave each couple a special marriage blessing and the couples exchanged renewed wedding vows.
“I feel much closer to Jesus and his humanity now that I have seen where he was born and lived his life,” said pilgrim Helen Kirby. “From now on, every time I hear the Gospel or read the Scriptures, the passages will be much more alive to me.”
Arnold said the Holy Land is considered the fifth gospel because knowing the context of what Jesus said, and specifically where he said it, makes the scriptures come alive. “I hope that each pilgrim returns home changed on a spiritual level and understanding God’s deep love for each of us,” Arnold said.