For Christian pilgrims to retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ in Palestine is to bring us back to the Gospels.
Go with new eyes and be open to the surprises that the Lord sets for us… FATHER JOHNPAUL TAN
Pilgrimages have been in existence for as long as the Christian faith has been around, going as far back to the time of persecution. The earliest archaeological evidence of pilgrimages points to early visitors to the home of Mary in Nazareth and scratching an ‘M” on the walls of the cave home. Today we would call this graffiti! If not for this, we may not have been any wiser to the significance of this little home in Nazareth. Now, a huge basilica dedicated to Our Lady’s Annunciation is built over this site and encases it within its thick walls.
Being human beings and needing the tangible association to our faith underlies the spirit of pilgrimages. In some ways, this human journey to the source of our belief reflects also the sacramental nature of our faith. Pilgrimages hence developed overtime for Christian pilgrims to retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ in the land of Palestine. When Christianity was established as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine undertook her own pilgrimage to Palestine and thus opened the doors to countless pilgrims over the course of the next millennium and more.
In this first journey of Empress Helena, she initiated the building of two of the world’s oldest churches; the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity of our Lord in Bethlehem. These significant basilicas were built ostensibly to preserve and protect the ‘ground zero” of our salvation event; the birth place of Jesus in Bethlehem and the site of Crucifixion and the Resurrection in Jerusalem. These solid structures ensure that the shrines are preserved and that pilgrims will have access to these historical sites. Today, we have many other pilgrimages to different shrines over the world.
These shrines in their own way preserve an event or a miracle for the continued memory and spiritual renewal of those who visit today. Pilgrimages in a small way reflect our own pilgrimage of life. The Holy Land being the principal pilgrimage destination stands at the apex of our spiritual journeys. While we can visit many shrines and churches around the world, the journey to the Holy Land brings us back to the source of our Gospels. The reason why people continue to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is because it touches the very soul of the Gospels and for every Christian, walking on the very stones that Jesus Himself walked invites one to a deeper walking in the footsteps of Christ. The mindset or attitude with which one (both young people and seniors) takes on any spiritual pilgrimage, be it to the Holy Land or to other shrines is that they should be open to the history, geography, culture and traditions of a certain place.
Leave the tendency to want the familiar and the predictable at home. Venture to these new places with new eyes, so that we can be open to the surprises that the Lord sets for us. It is also very important to encounter not only the Lord but the people of the land who embody a living tradition over the centuries of preserving the living faith. Listen and learn from these peoples. That is how the stones and the archaeological shrines will speak out to us.
Like the main basilicas of the Holy Land, many more of the other basilicas and churches there preserve the archaeological scriptural foundations of the places mentioned in the Gospels. Franciscan Friars have been in the Holy Land continuously for the last 800 years, and over the years had engaged in archaeology, study and research to establish the many other historical places related to the Bible both in the Old and New Testament. The services of the Friars involve the preservation of these places by building churches and shrines in order to protect these fragile bits of history.
In turn these shrines are now made available for pilgrims to celebrate Mass and to offer prayers while acquainting themselves to the historical significance of these places to their Gospel faith. For me, Galilee today remains the serene place where Jesus preached, called His disciples and healed many. It is dotted by a number of shrines amidst this peaceful setting and continues to echo to the rhythm of the Beatitudes (Matt 5: 112).
Father JohnPaul is a Franciscan Friar and the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Singapore.
This article was first published in The Catholic News on Sunday May 19, 2019.