A contingent of 46 people set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land October 18, most of them visiting Israel for the first time.
The group of primarily 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 when he was still a seminarian with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He has made the pilgrimage seven times, five as a leader. He designed an agenda filled with the major sites of Christ’s life, beginning with the Annunciation, the moment the virgin Mary learned that by the holy spirit, she would conceive a child, 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 become closer to him by walking in the very places he walked,” Arnold said. “It seems 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 wasn’t for sightseeing; rather, this was a pilgrimage to put themselves in the path of Jesus Christ, even if their journey was more than 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
For one pilgrim, the journey was years in the making. Barbara Perez of Arnold, a St. John the Evangelist parishioner, was raised by a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Catholic father. In 1988, she married Victor Perez, a Catholic.
Perez began thinking about converting to Catholicism over the past year.
“I always believed in God, and I talk to God,” Perez said. “I said, ‘God, if you really want me to do this then I want to be baptized in the Jordan River.’”
Just months after making that declaration in her prayers, the Holy Land pilgrimage was announced. Perez contacted Arnold and asked if the baptism was a possibility and was thrilled to find out it was.
In front of the group, Perez and Arnold entered the muddy waters of the Jordan River, and Perez received her first sacrament of the Catholic faith. She will continue her preparation to full Catholic initiation, which she will experience on the Holy Saturday Vigil Mass on April 8, 2023.
Across the ancient and often breathtaking countryside, the reality of conflict in the area was evident. While staying in Galilee, the quiet peacefulness of the fishing town was momentarily broken by the sound of Israeli fighter jets flying low overhead, and again when the group was in the northwest of Israel. Passports and Israel temporary visas were required of pilgrims to pass between Israel and Palestine while military guards with automatic weapons stood watch.
Stops in Burqin to visit the Church of Ten Lepers, and Jacob’s Well in Samaria, were canceled due the possibility of violence. The pilgrims later learned that several citizens had been shot 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, swimming in the Dead Sea and taking a trip to an ancient tattoo shop where several pilgrims received a Jerusalem Pilgrim Cross tattoo made from centuries-old stamps. Arnold celebrated Mass daily in a different church, and at the Wedding Church of Cana, the site of Jesus' first public miracle, Arnold gave each married couple a special marriage blessing, and couples exchanged renewed wedding vows.
“I feel so much closer to Jesus and his humanity now that I’ve seen where he was born and lived his life,” said pilgrim Helen Kirby. “From now on, every time I hear the Gospel or read scripture, the passages will be much more vivid for 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, make scripture come alive. “I hope that every pilgrim will come home changed on a spiritual level and understanding of God’s deep love for each one of us,” Arnold said.