|Sunrise prayer service at the Sea of Galilee with Fr. John Solana, LC.|
May 31, 2008. Washington, DC. Some say it takes courage
to travel to the Holy Land. Or maybe it just
takes faith. To walk the dusty paths he trod, to
see the lilies of the field, to touch the glittering
waves of Galilee’s waters… for a heart of faith, these
are experiences that bring the human side of our Savior
closer at hand.
For the 28 pilgrims who touched down
in the Tel Aviv airport on March 6th, their 10
days in Israel were packed with a wealth of new
sights and experiences that brought their faith even more to
They were accompanied on their journey by two Legionary
priests, Father Daniel Ray and Fr Juan Solana, the Chargé
of the Holy See for the Notre Dame of Jerusalem
Pontifical Institute. They were also accompanied by tour guides from
the local area.
In the following interview, Mrs. Mary Bell
shares some impressions and photographs from the pilgrimage. Read on
to learn how President Bush encouraged her to go, why
Dormition Abbey moved her to tears, and why she is
planning to go back next year.
Tell us a little about
yourself, Mary. What is your background?
In my younger days,
I was a Registered Nurse, with a Master’s Degree in
Medical-Surgical Nursing. I taught nursing at Boston University. But after
I married and had my first baby, I happily became
a full-time mom. We had five children over 12 years,
and they are now all grown, and we have seven
grandchildren so far—hoping for many more!
|The Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center - where we stayed for 5 nights. It is a beautiful building owed by the Vatican and entrusted by Pope John Paul II to the care of the Legionaries of Christ.|
Was there anything
special about the timing of this pilgrimage in your life
story so far?
Absolutely not! I had not ever
thought of going to the Holy Land until my best
friend from high school called and asked if we would
be interested in going. I told her that I would
happily go almost anywhere in the world just to spend
time with her—but going to the Middle East might be
asking too much!
When she called the second time,
I asked her if we needed to decide so soon
for a trip that was still months in the future.
Who knew what would happen before March of 2008?
|This is the Jordan River near the place where we renewed our Baptismal Promises.|
But finally after I saw President Bush with the Franciscans
at Capernaum, on January 11, 2008, and heard what he
had to say about his visit to the Sea of
Galilee, I decided that we would go. Coincidentally, we were
at Capernaum just two months later on March 11. So
you might say that I got the final nudge from
What were you expecting from the trip?
I really did go with very low expectations. I
was ready to be inspired, but I wasn’t expecting to
be blown away by the experience!
some of your worries or fears about going to Israel?
My biggest fear was the security issue. I know
that other people go to the Holy Land and survive,
but I figured that we would likely not make it
home alive. But I decided that if it were my
time to go, what better place could I go from?
I would have to get some extra points from God
for having gone on a pilgrimage—even if it meant my
|Mass at the Mount of the Beatitudes with the Sea of Galilee in the background and birds filling the air with their songs.|
I was totally wrong in my fears. We
had absolutely no problems with security at all. We could
wander around the Old City of Jerusalem without a guide
at any time of day and we never felt any
threat at all. The Notre Dame Center is in a
very safe location, and with people coming and going all
day, it was very friendly and comfortable.
in all, I realized after I got there that any
fears that I had were unfounded. I would not hesitate
to go back again.Looking back, what was the
single most important grace that you received on your trip?
I’ve heard this so many times, but it
actually did make a difference to walk where Jesus walked
and touch the water of the Jordan River where he
was baptized, etc. More than anything, it made Jesus more
human to me.
Tell us about your experience of touching the
rock of Calvary and visiting the tomb of the Resurrection.
What did it mean for you in your spiritual life?
If we had been able to touch anything resembling
the rock of Calvary, I would tell you about that
experience. But of course, the rock of Calvary is covered
with marble now with dozens of lamps burning around it—all
|Fr Daniel Ray, LC, leads a meditation about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.sponsored by the University of Sacramento.|
emitting heat and soot into the church so that everything
looks dirty and in need of a good cleaning. And
the tomb is completely unlike what you would expect, so
you have to look beyond that for the inspiration.
I will be the first to say that I was
not inspired by all the Byzantine decorations in the churches.
It is not my style to the point that it
really disturbed me.
But I loved the simple
little church of Pete’s Primacy and walking along the shore
of the Sea of Galilee. And the Mount of the
Beatitudes and the private Mass that we had there transported
me to another level in my mind. I was astounded
that I was actually there looking at the same lake
where Jesus walked on the water.
The churches with their
beautiful artwork meant more to me than any of the
most significant places that have been completely robbed of their
original appearance and feel.
As I said to one
of my friends, the Holy Land is not Williamsburg! Since
AD 326, no attempt has been made to preserve it
in its original condition.
What was your experience of
Galilee rocks! This area of Holy Land is
surprisingly untouched. Miles of shoreline have not development at all.
If Fr. John Solana gets his wish, there will be
a new Notre Dame Center at Magdala for pilgrims to
stay. That will be wonderful.
I liked every
place that we visited in the Galilee area.
your experience of Nazareth?
The grotto of the Annunciation
was very special. Since it has been venerated as Mary’s
house since the first century, it is thought to be
the actual place of the Annunciation. Thankfully, it looks and
feels like a real place. It wasn’t hard to imagine
Mary there when the angel Gabriel appeared.
recently built the largest church in the entire Middle East
on top of Mary’s House. But it was done in
such a way as to not destroy the original grotto.
Our local tour guide was an Arab-Catholic from Nazareth, and
the Church of the Annunciation is his parish church.
was the place where you felt most moved and why?
On a completely personal level, the only place that
|The grotto in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. It was here that the Word was made flesh.|
actually brought tears to my eyes was Dormition Abbey. This
is the physical location where Mary is thought to have
lived the last years before her earthly life ended. Now,
of course, there is a large church on the spot.
But in the basement chapel, there is a statue of
Mary lying at rest. Above her head, on the ceiling,
is a beautiful mosaic that shows Jesus holding a swaddled
diminutive Mary in his arms. In a reversal of roles,
the son takes his mother into his arms to welcome
her into heaven. I’d never seen anything like this before.
It comforted me to think of Jesus gathering my own
mother into his arms when she finally died after years
of living with a vacant brain due to Alzheimer’s Disease.
For some reason, this just touched my heart.
my second choice would be the olive trees at Gethsemane.
They are as close to Jesus as we will ever
be on this earth. Eight of them have been dated
to have been alive when Jesus walked in Jerusalem. The
Franciscans call them “the silent witnesses” to Jesus’ agony. Since
they are living things, they seemed much more real than
the marble walls and the hanging lamps.
What were some
of the unusual contrasts that you noticed in the Holy
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Orthodox
Jews in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem walking along just
as comfortably as anyone else. There were Christians carrying replicas
of the cross of Jesus, Jews with their Orthodox clothing,
and Muslims in the marketplace all getting along just fine.
Another contrast that I was not prepared for was the
lush greenery of the Galilee area. I thought Israel was
mostly a desert, but Galilee reminded me of Ireland with
its verdant hills.
Share something that you learned
that was totally new for you.
I was not
expecting the fantastic artwork in many of the churches. But
of course, then I realized that most of my favorite
places were churches designed by
|The ancient olive trees of Gethsemane are the "silent witnesses" to Christs agony. Eight of them have been dated to show that they are more than 2000 years old so they would have been there as Jesus prayed.|
Barluzzi in the 1920s-1950s.
The Basilica of the Agony is one of the
most impressive churches that I have ever seen. It is
built over the rock that is venerated as the rock
that Our Lord leaned against as he prayed that the
passion be taken from him. Almost everyone in our group
said that they felt something there that they had not
felt anywhere else. For one reason, we had a beautiful
Mass at that church and were able to pray just
a few feet away from the rock. We could reach
out and touch it during the Mass.
were so fortunate that our Legionary priest who was traveling
with us was able to say Mass for our group
in these very special places. I almost felt sorry for
the other people (tourists) who were not part of our
group. At the Rock of the Agony, a woman stood
right behind me but outside of the railing and wept
during the whole Mass. She did take Communion from Fr.
Daniel, and she spoke to him after Mass, so I
hope that she was comforted by his words.What
did you learn from the experience that the other pilgrims
on your trip shared with you?
Part of the
whole experience was spending time with other pilgrims. We were
a very diverse group, coming from all parts of the
country and from all ages and backgrounds, but my husband
and I found that we had never been with such
a nice group of people.
On a personal level,
I found that most of the people were a lot
holier than I am. I admired them for that, and
was convinced that I should probably pray more myself. Would you like to go to Jerusalem again?
Yes, now I have to go back to The Holy
Land! I’ve learned so much since my return that I
wished I had known while I was there, that now
I want to go back and see the same things
with a new background of knowledge.
What would you recommend to
someone who is thinking about doing the pilgrimage to the
Try to read something about it before
you go. I will admit that I was pretty much
totally ignorant about the holy places that we were going
|The Church of Dominus Flevit (Our Lord Wept) on the spot where Jesus wept as he looked over Jerusalem. The altar is situated so that the priest looks over the city as he says Mass.|
to see. I went basically to see what I could
When I returned from the pilgrimage, I looked at
everything differently. I spent hours doing research to learn more
about the significance of the holy places. I relived my
pilgrimage many times over.
If I had read a
book like the one I made upon my return home
BEFORE I went on the pilgrimage, everything would have meant
more to me. I would not have been such a
wide-eyed tourist seeing and hearing things for the first time.
I would have been prepared to be a spiritual pilgrim.For more information about the Holy Land book, readers
can contact Mary Bell by going to her webpage: http://www.mycmsite.com/marybell
At the upper right corner of the
website, click on "Contact Me" to reach Mary Bell and
request the link to see the preview of the Holy
Land book. Since this is just a preview, you must
remember that the actual book is 11” wide, so that
in the book, the text is clearly legible and the
pictures are larger than they appear on the screen. If
you look at the preview, you will get an idea
of the places included on the pilgrimage, but you will
not be able to read all the information that has
been included in the book.
* * * * *
find out more about upcoming pilgrimages to the Holy Land,
Cecilia San Miguel
Corporate Travel & Pilgrimages
2112 Queensberry Road
Pasadena, CA. 91104