Three years ago, when Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi, Kathleen Nichols, began her six-year assignment in Magdala – the hometown of Mary Magdalene on the shores of Galilee – she had no idea of the immense challenges and changes that she was about to encounter. But it’s no wonder, since Magdala itself is a place founded on God’s mysterious and surprising generosity.
In 2009, construction began on a retreat center under the direction of Fr. Juan María Solana, LC. As the papal appointee in charge of Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center – a pilgrimage guest house in the heart of Jerusalem entrusted to the care of the Legionaries of Christ by the Holy See- Fr. Juan felt called to build a space that would provide comfortable accommodations to pilgrims seeking an encounter with Christ in the place where he had walked, taught, and preached in the synagogues, right there in Galilee. As the workers began digging the foundation for the retreat house, they unexpectedly unearthed a first century synagogue and, in the center of it, the Magdala Stone, one of the most significant recent archaeological finds in the Holy Land. Although only 10% of the area has been excavated to date, archaeologists have already discovered an entire first century Jewish town, complete with a marketplace, baths, villas and houses, and fishermen’s work area, warehouse, and wharf. Ten years after construction began, in November of 2019, the Magdala guest house was inaugurated.
However, the guest house hadn’t been open long before the pandemic forced it to close its doors to guests. Without the ability to host guests in person, Fr. Juan and Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi, Paola Trevino, came up with the idea of offering virtual pilgrimages that would bring the richness of a pilgrimage experience to those who could not travel to the Holy Land. With the help of many people, including Adam Pangan, a volunteer from the United States, the Magdala team began offering virtual pilgrimages, Fr. Juan conducting them in Spanish and Kathleen in English. Every day, online pilgrims received virtual visits to significant holy sites, including daily meditations and supplemental material helpful for prayer.
Although the pandemic forced pilgrimages to move online, it also provided a unique opportunity for Kathleen and the Magdala team, which consists of several Legionary priests, Consecrated Women, and lay people, to experience these sites in a way they normally wouldn’t be afforded, as Kathleen explains:
“We have been so blessed to be able to have visited, and continue to visit, so many different sites all around the Holy Land, but we were also able to see them in a time when everything else was closed. We had to ask permission to have the sites opened so that we could come in and film, so places like the Holy Sepulchre, which is normally packed, were completely quiet. In the grotto in Bethlehem, in the church, in the shepherds’ field, or here on the Sea of Galilee, there was no one, and the only thing you heard was nature. It was unreal, and such a golden opportunity – it was incredible the things we were able to do and see.”
For many people, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when most were locked down in their homes, the virtual pilgrimages, still available on YouTube, were a lifeline that provided spiritual nourishment in a time when the sacraments were inaccessible. One couple who had not been practising their faith for many years but found themselves suddenly experiencing loneliness and anxiety were encouraged by their daughter to attend the virtual pilgrimage. Although it was their first time accessing YouTube and social media, the couple devoured the virtual resources, including all the supplementary material, and have returned with gusto to the sacraments. “We’re not just Holy Land pilgrims, or virtual pilgrims,” say the couple, “we are pilgrims making our way to the Lord.”
Halfway through her six-year position at Magdala, and especially now that pilgrims have begun to return in-person, Kathleen has begun a new role focused on the Magdala Experience for guests. In this role, she is responsible for facilitating unique experiences for overnight guests of the retreat house, all designed to provide the time, the space, and the silence to fully encounter Christ in Galilee. Guests might choose a “Sunrise Stroll and Chat” experience with Fr. Eamon Kelly, LC, as the sun rises above the Sea of Galilee, or participate in the “Morning Catch” to learn how first century fishermen cast their nets while reading about their encounters with Jesus in the Gospel. The “Walking on Water” tour has guests paddleboarding at sunrise out from the port in Magdala and sometimes all the way to Capernaum, stopping at times to rest with their feet in the water and listen to scripture about the Sea of Galilee. Guests can also climb the nearby Mount Arbel for the “Sunrise Ascent”, to a place where Jesus could have gone and prayed at night. Other opportunities include going out onto the sea in a small fishing boat, similar to the ones the apostles would have used, to celebrate Mass or join together in a time of Eucharistic adoration. Kathleen also helps as a spiritual leader for small groups of guests staying at Magdala, so they can enjoy prayerful visits to important holy sites in Galilee such as Nazareth, Capernaum, or Kursi, where Jesus cured the man afflicted with a legion of demons. Depending on the time of year, guests can go on one of the “Wildflower Photography Hikes” (in mid-February to mid-April), go birding in the Hula Valley during the migratory seasons (in late fall and early spring), help in the archaeological dig (in summer), or participate in the Magdala olive or date harvests (in August and November).
It is no surprise at a pilgrimage site devoted to one of the most important women in the Gospel that the women who visit would also have a special place in this holy space. The church on site, fittingly named Duc in Altum (Latin for “put out into the deep”) consists of six chapels, three of which highlight images of Gospel women: Mary Magdalene, the hemorrhaging woman, and the daughter of Jairus. (The main chapel aptly features a boat-shaped altar.) In the Women’s Atrium, there is a column for each of the female followers of Jesus who, as it says in the Gospel, “served him from their substance.” Starting in mid 2023, to honor the special role that women play in the Church, each woman who comes to Magdala will receive a small vial of olive oil from the trees in Magdala mixed with nard, to symbolize the oil Mary Magdalene took to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. All the guests to Magdala will also receive a small bottle that they can fill with water, sand, or small shells from the Sea of Galilee as a holy souvenir.
This is just the beginning of the unique activities that will be offered beginning this fall as part of the Magdala Experience. But for Kathleen, living and working right on the shores of Galilee is a blessed experience all on its own. “I am right here, in the first century hometown of Mary Magdalene, where Jesus walked with her and the apostles. I can just walk outside through ancient Magdala and look at the synagogue that our Lord preached in. I can walk right down to the beach and wade in the Sea of Galilee. What an extraordinary blessing!”
To find out more about the Magdala guest house and grounds, visit their website at magdala.org. You can also read some of Kathleen’s blogs about Magdala on the website, or access all past virtual pilgrimages and their supplemental material for free. You can follow Magdala Media productions at Experience Magdala on YouTube, and follow the activities at Experience Magdala on Facebook and Instagram. If you would like to help promote the Magdala pilgrimage ministry, consider making an online donation or sponsoring a tile in the Magdala Mosaic, or sign up to become a full-time volunteer for one month or longer!