By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
Greetings from Jerusalem, Israel! I am writing this column from the Notre Dame Hotel right outside the Jaffa Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem.
Twenty-three pilgrims from all over the metropolitan area made the commitment to journey together for eight days. We began our pilgrimage as strangers but are leaving as real friends who shared the journey of a lifetime.
Our pilgrimage began by landing in Tel Aviv where we boarded a bus that took us to the ancient seaport of Jaffa. From there we drove along the Mediterranean coast to the ruins of the ancient Roman capital of Caesarea built by Herod the Great in around 22 B.C.
We then went on to see the great Roman theater and the aqueduct in the Herodian port. From there we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. I celebrated Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes. We then proceeded to Capernaum — the city of Jesus and St. Peter. After that we visited the famous biblical city of Caesarea Philippi.
We began day 5 with a visit to the ancient city of Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. We visited the ruins of this first-century town and its synagogue, where tradition tells us Jesus himself visited, taught and preached. In the afternoon, we visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where tradition says the child Jesus was born. It was breathtaking.
On days 6, 7 and 8 we visited Masada, the fortress where Jewish zealots held off the armies of the Roman Empire — choosing suicide over surrender. We went to the Dead Sea where one floats and never sinks. It was 110°F that day and most of our trip. We visited a variety of other historical and religious sites outside of Jerusalem.
The rest of our pilgrimage was spent in the Old City. We prayed at the famous Western Wall, visited the room of the Last Supper as well as the Garden of Gethsemane. I had the privilege of saying Mass at the Church of All Nations, where Jesus prayed to be spared of the cross. After Mass, we had a panoramic view from the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. We went into the Old City and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and actually walked the Stations of the Cross — Jesus’ final walk to the cross and crucifixion.
Each day was a powerful reminder of history and faith. By the end of our journey, we had gone from being a band of strangers to a community of friends grateful for the journey.
This is my third visit to Israel. Each time I feel more enriched when I return home. The Scripture becomes more real and alive because I’ve seen firsthand the places of which it speaks.
This trip was unique because we went to Israel prepared for a lot of upheaval because of the news reports here in the States. We saw some signs of a nation at war; however, I heard firsthand a very different account of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
On my free day, I spent my time walking in the old and new city of Jerusalem talking to Jews, Muslims and Christians hearing their stories about life in Israel. Each person had the same hopes and expectations that we do — to live freely with respect, dignity and untapped possibilities to dream and make those dreams come true!
For every believer and/or lover of history, Israel should be on your bucket list. You will not be disappointed!
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.