Local Prisoners Touch Calvary

Left: Looking up from inside the cell, seeing the hole from which Jesus would have been lowered by a rope around his waist. Right: Pilgrims gather inside the cell to pray.

Jesus was held captive within the ancient cistern pictured above, which is located beneath the former house of Caiaphas in Jerusalem. Today, a church called St. Peter Gallicantu surrounds the cistern and the house, to preserve the sites where Christ began his Passion.

Two pilgrims who journeyed with us to the Holy Land last year, Gene and Terri Espinoza, were so touched by their pilgrimage experience that they decided to enter bereavement ministry and prison ministry. Recently, Terri shared with us about how going on pilgrimage with Pilgrim Center of Hope (PCH) impacted and transformed her and her husband.

At Calvary, where Christ was crucified, Terri had a moving experience; she recounted her realization, “I felt so grateful to have a merciful Jesus, who through his suffering gives us everlasting Life. […] That became very real….life is going to go on because of his death.” The faith of Terri and Gene came alive on pilgrimage, in a way it never had before.

Now, the Espinozas share their hope and sense of being loved by God with the prison inmates to whom they minister. When they pray together, Gene and Terri share with inmates from their personal experiences of being where Jesus, too, was a prisoner and suffered out of love for them. Each inmate has a chance to hold an olive wood crucifix from the Holy Land that contains a stone from Calvary (a gift especially for this purpose, from PCH Directors Deacon Tom and Mary Jane Fox).

Terri became emotional as she told us how inmates bathe this crucifix in their tears, while she and Gene remind them that, “Jesus is waiting…if we just open our lives to him and make him part of our everyday lives.”

Join us on a life-changing journey of faith! Learn more about our Ministry of Pilgrimages here.

Our Faith Alive! – Priest from Fatima

Father Jonathan Felux, Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, served as Spiritual Director for our 2017 Pilgrimage to Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, and Shrines of Portugal. While in Fatima, he recorded the following testimony:

You can see the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary over my shoulder and, in a few moments over here, on the other side, you’ll see in that chapel behind me the international Rosary of people from throughout the world will begin just a few minutes from now.

I’m here as part of a pilgrimage from Pilgrim Center of Hope, a beautiful, wonderful organization that understands the importance of pilgrimage – the importance of going and seeing and touching the places that are important to our Faith – and to do it prayerfully, to do it with a great deal of devotion. It’s been a wonderful pilgrimage for us. We’re a little over halfway through, and looking forward to what is to come still.

I’m making this video to offer my support for Pilgrim Center of Hope, to thank them for this opportunity, and to encourage all of you to think about supporting Pilgrim Center of Hope – or coming on a pilgrimage yourself, asking Our Lord where he wants to take you, where he is leading you in this world. There are so many beautiful sights and so many beautiful ways to encounter our Faith alive. I thank Pilgrim Center of Hope for making that possible for so many people in the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

God bless you.

Founders on EWTN Radio

How did pilgrimage change our lives? EWTN Radio & TV Host Johnnette Benkovic hosted Pilgrim Center of Hope founders Deacon Tom & Mary Jane Fox on Women of Grace Live, and discussed the power of pilgrimages, special graces received, and what distinguishes a pilgrimage from a religious tour. Enjoy this enlightening and unique, spiritual discussion among friends!

Permission granted by Jane from Women of Grace.

Pregnant pilgrim: “I named her Ava Marie”

I went on a Marian pilgrimage, which included Fatima, Lourdes, Lisieux, and Paris. Everything was very exciting for me. I had never traveled outside the country other than Mexico, so seeing another country was really interesting, but the fact that I was seeing places where Mary appeared, places where St. Thérèse lived, and St. Bernadette, was just awesome.

When I saw the pilgrimage through the Pilgrim Center of Hope, I inquired about it and got some information. I thought, “Oh my gosh. I don’t think I could ever go on this tour!” It was there for me and it was ready, just like I had wanted it, and I was scared. But it happened! It all happened the way that it was supposed to happen.

Gloria getting water at the Lourdes grotto

Gloria getting water at the Lourdes grotto

It wasn’t confirmed yet by a doctor, but I knew that I was pregnant when I went on pilgrimage.  It wasn’t until I returned that I got the confirmation. But the whole time that I was there, I was excited to know that I was carrying a baby with me, and even though she couldn’t see the things that I could see; I felt that she could feel the feelings that I was having.

What solidified her name is the fact that I went on the Marian pilgrimage, and everything about Mary that I loved. I thought, “What better way to thank my Mother Mary than to name (my daughter) after Her?” That’s how I chose to name Ava, Ava Marie, because Ave Maria means, “Hail Mary”, and I wanted to give Her the glory of me having this baby.

The pilgrimage experience that stood out for me was being in Lourdes; taking in the Shrine and everything, but actually getting in the baths. It was extremely cold, but it was an experience that I’ll never forget! It was very exciting to go through the baths with Ava in my womb. That stood out the most.

In Fatima, the town is very humble. I told myself after I went on the pilgrimage, that I would return there with my husband. I just felt very ‘at home’ there, even though I had never been there. I felt very peaceful. At all the places, I felt peaceful, but there it was a different type of peace.

At the time, I knew about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and I knew her story, but I didn’t have a particular devotion to her. When I went to Lisieux, something about her really attracted me. I was there, at the place where she lived, at the place where she was in the convent. Just being in her footsteps around her town, I was so excited. I wanted to know anything that I could about her when I returned. Now, she’s actually my favorite saint! I really like her for the fact that she was so very simple.

One of the places that we visited was the Sacred Heart of Jesus Shrine [in Paris]. There, I learned so much. The only word that came to mind was, “Wow.”People there devote themselves to praying, twenty-four hours a day, for everybody. Later, after I returned from my pilgrimage, I learned that St. Joan of Arc was there, Pope John Paul II, and so many other people were there, and I had been there!

We went to Rue du Bac in Paris, to the Miraculous Medal Shrine where Mary appeared. When I was young, my father had given me the Miraculous Medal, and I thought, “Okay, whatever…” and I set it aside. I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now, to appreciate a lot of my Catholic faith. Now that I’m older, I have those little bits of knowledge I remembered. So, a lot of things on the pilgrimage made me come home and say, “You know what? I have that medal! My dad gave it to me.” Knowing that my dad, who has passed away, gave me that medal, and having been to Rue du Bac, that was something that I brought back with me. I wear that medal, and I didn’t before. I didn’t know the story of how it came about.

I still refer to my Pilgrim Book (a customized book for every pilgrim). It’s actually like a teaching guide!  It has so much information for you about the places that you visited; everything about that place. It’s something that I’ll always keep, for that reason.

Gloria and fellow pilgrim Susie, at the home of St. Therese in Lisieux

Gloria and fellow pilgrim Susie, at the home of St. Therese in Lisieux

The pilgrimage has had a tremendous impact. Before I went, my faith was strong, but I felt that after the pilgrimage, I really knew Mary and St. Thérèse. Just being in those locations really impacted me a lot. I actually did St. Louis de Montfort’s Consecration to Jesus through Mary. I had gotten a little booklet about it at one of the Catholic Women’s Conferences and saved it, thinking, “Oh, I’ll read it later…I’ll read it later.” When I returned, I said, “Where is that book?! I want to look for that book so that I can consecrate myself to Mary.” I couldn’t find it, and I forgot about it. Then, after Ava was born, I found the book! I thought, “I’m going to do it now,” and I did it. If it wasn’t for that pilgrimage, I don’t know if I would have done that, but I felt like I really wanted to be very close to Mary.

I have my mother on earth, but I feel like now I can just talk to Mary as if she’s with me. I say, “Oh Mom…” this and that… “I’m going through this…” or “How was it when Jesus was acting this way?” or “Did Jesus ever…?” I think I pray a lot more fervently. My husband joins me, and my daughter; she has a rosary, and of course, she doesn’t know what we’re talking about, but when we’re praying it, she’s walking around with her little rosary… It makes it a lot more meaningful.

Another thing that I did when I returned: I didn’t even know that I had St. Thérèse’s book (Story of A Soul)! I was going to have a garage sale, looking through some books, and I found that book. “Oh my gosh!” I thought, “This means that I’m supposed to read the story about you!” I did, and I just love her.

I couldn’t stress it enough: If you want to go as a tourist, then maybe you should go on another tour. But if you really want to go and get something out of it, and really learn about your own faith, and learn about whatever location… this would be the pilgrimage to go on. Not only are you visiting the sites of these holy places, but you’re also being taught about these saints. It’s just a great experience. Deacon Tom and Mary Jane really put a lot of thought into everything you do in the day. When they make these pilgrimages, I really feel that they put themselves in the position of being a first-time pilgrim; thinking, “What would I like?” “What would I enjoy?” or “What would open my eyes?” They don’t take any shortcuts anywhere. Everything is really well thought-out, from the morning until the time that you go to bed. I couldn’t ask for a better pilgrimage. I feel like I was guided individually.

So, if you can afford it and are really serious about learning about your faith, then this is the trip that you should go on. Your money is going to be well spent, and you’re going to learn so much – not just on the pilgrimage, but even after the pilgrimage.

– Gloria Chapa-Solano

It increased our faith in a tangible way

Carmen and Jimmy Reno at the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem

Carmen and Jimmy Reno at the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem

My wife Carmen and I had the blessings to be able to go to the Holy Land July 6-16, 2016. We were blessed to be able to go with the Pilgrim Center of Hope out of San Antonio, and Tom and Mary Jane Fox were incredible leaders! This was their 49th trip leading pilgrims just to the Holy Land. Their insight was invaluable, as you will be able to tell by the rest of this story, and I cannot thank them both enough for their faith, professionalism, courtesy and knowledge. We were able to do so much more than the average pilgrimage because of their numerous contacts. As the old saying goes, “It is not how much you know, but who you know,” and they knew the people of the Holy Land. That made our trip incredible. I am not trying to make this sound like a commercial for the Pilgrim Center of Hope, however I would be remiss if I did not give them the credit that they deserve.

Arriving in Nazareth, what struck us about this town is that there is an upper Nazareth and a lower Nazareth because of the steep hills. You can see why when Jesus told the Nazoreans in Luke 4: 29-30 that he had fulfilled Scripture, and they became angry and tried to throw him over the cliff, how easy that would be to do. This is what is so incredible about going to the Holy Land, because the Bible becomes so much more alive.

The Rosary will never be the same for me after this trip. We actually visited 19 of the 20 mystery sites where they actually occurred, with the only one that we did not visit was the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth. I hope that you and I will also see that one as well one day, when we are in our glorified bodies.

Jimmy and Carmen enjoying the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

Jimmy and Carmen enjoying the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, we stayed at The Notre Dame Hotel, a Pontifical Institute which is owned by the Vatican. We were blessed to have a gorgeous chapel within the Hotel. Carmen and I were able to go to Eucharistic Adoration, and what a great way to prepare oneself for the sites we were about to see. Looking at the old city within the walls reminded me of all the history that has taken place in this city.

We were blessed to have Mass not only in the Holy Sepulcher Church, but at the very tomb of Jesus. During the Mass, Carmen and I were able to go into the tomb for a couple of minutes. Can you imagine that?

I would also be remiss if I did not mention how important it was for our pilgrimage to have a Christian guide. Without going into detail, just know that having a Christian guide is a must! I just want you to know that our guide was from Jerusalem and his family have been Christians for 2,000 years. His Christian insight to the Holy places we visited was unbelievable. His perspective on the Holy Land and the relationship between Palestine and Israel was also eye-opening.

As we left Jerusalem, I again was so thankful for the Pilgrim Center of Hope for making this not a site seeing trip but an actual pilgrimage that increased my faith in such a tangible way. Jesus was real and I was able to walk in his footsteps! Reading the Bible, praying the Rosary, listening to the Scriptures in Mass have become alive. In the event that my account of our pilgrimage, which barely touched the surface of what we saw and witnessed in the Holy Land, inspires you to make this journey, please contact Tom and Mary Jane.

– Jimmy and Carmen Reno

Pilgrim couple with their daughter at Tabgha

Our toddler was a pilgrim!

Pilgrim couple with their daughter at Tabgha

Shawn and Audrea journeyed with us to the Holy Land in July of 2016, and they brought their baby girl with them!  She was placed on the Tomb of Christ, on the Birthplace of Our Lord, on the rock where He multiplied the fishes and loaves, and so many more sacred places. Everyone loved having her around.

Her parents shared with us…

Words cannot express what a blessing our pilgrimage was, and will no doubt continue to be.  We felt as if you had welcomed us into your home!  Deacon Tom and Mary Jane, our Pilgrimage Group Leaders, are a beautiful example of a married couple answering God’s call and living out their vocation.  We could think of no better way to thank you than by giving a small donation to the Pilgrim Center of Hope to help you continue in your ministry.  We have been blessed by our experience in the Holy Land, and hope we can continue to share that message with others.

On the way to priesthood, I was a pilgrim

Going to the Holy Land, going on this pilgrimage, really gave the almost “final glazing” (if you will) of formation for me, because it put so many pieces together. It was letting Deacon Tom and Mary Jane, who love the Holy Land so deeply, show us the place they love. It was like going to their own homeland; them opening their house to us.

What touched me was the ability to understand Jesus Christ, both his divinity and his humanity, in a deeper way. For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when I was there praying, I could have a better understanding of Jesus Christ on that night before his crucifixion; his humanity, his prayer to God in that way. Then, on his divinity side, being able to serve as a deacon of the Mass at the Tomb of Jesus Christ offered such beautiful graces, such an opportunity to be where Our Lord rose from the dead, where he conquered death and sin for us. At Mass, being able to celebrate that gift that he’s left for us really offered a glimpse into his divinity. I would say those are the things that helped me to grow in love.

The most direct method of going forward, and I’ve already seen it today, is really being able to use experiences, using knowledge, using the encounter with Christ that I on the pilgrimage, in preaching. Really, that’s the first call: always to preach the Good News. To be able to do that from having walked in the footsteps of Jesus Christ is tremendous.

Then-Deacon Wilcox serves at Mass on Mount Tabor, site of Jesus' Transfiguration

Then-Deacon Wilcox serves at Mass on Mount Tabor, site of Jesus’ Transfiguration

The Pilgrim Center helped me on this pilgrimage understand universality in a very special way. When we see Christians in Palestine who are praying the same way we’re praying, when we attend Mass – the Mass that we pray but it’s in Arabic, we understand that yes, we as pilgrims are a Body of Christ in and of ourselves, but we are Body of Christ with people on the other side of the world. We really do have a universality to the Church, and not only to the Church, but to our call to each other.

We need small conversion experiences (this, of course, being a larger conversion experience for us) in growing deeper in understanding who Christ is, so we come to know how he lived, why God came down to earth for us, and how we can live with him today in that way, but then, more importantly, in the Heavenly Banquet, as well.

A pilgrimage is more than a vacation, and I think the Pilgrim Center of Hope really understands that a pilgrimage is an opportunity for prayer all along the way. That each of these locations and moving toward each location, is the opportunity to grow in love of Jesus Christ through a conversion experience. So, the Pilgrim Center of Hope, helping people to be able to do that on large scales, on small scales, are really living out one of the Gospel messages, which is to bring people closer to an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

– Fr. James Wilcox

Father Wilcox journeyed with us as a Transitional Deacon and was ordained to the Priesthood shortly after this Holy Land pilgrimage. We remain united in prayer for his ministry!

The truth about holiness: Jack’s Italy pilgrimage

On our pilgrimage to Italy, we started off in Assisi. St. Francis of Assisi was a radical person. To be Christlike, you have to be radical! That was a strong discernment that I realized there. I realized that for ministry today, or any time, people have to be radical, to put aside things. St. Francis was on fire for Christ. When you put forth that kind of life, you attract many people, as he did.

San Giovanni Rotondo moved me. St. Padre Pio was a Capuchin monk who lived there, and he was a saint for our times. I’d heard of Padre Pio when I was in the Army in the late 1950s.  He was well-known throughout Europe.  To be there, at that very site, was surely special.

Even though St. Padre Pio was so holy, he was very joyful. He would tell jokes to his fellow monks, and they would tell jokes back! He had a lot of camaraderie with them, and I think that’s important. Why did he have this joy? Because he had God. That’s the true joy; through Christ and through His Mother. St. Padre Pio had a saying: “Don’t worry!” That’s a good one, isn’t it? And why should you worry? If you’re living the life you should, and doing what you should, why should you worry?

I felt, at all these places, I was getting guidance from the saints. They tell us of the great treasure of the Church, the great majesty of it, the depth of it.

I’ve been on several pilgrimages with the Pilgrim Center of Hope. On pilgrimage, you have all kinds of people. You have the Cradle Catholics, who already have a large glass, and it’s pretty full. But it gets even deeper for them. You hear them say, “Wow. I’ve been hearing that Gospel all my life, and now I was at the place where it actually occurred.”  For some, they’ve been away from the Church, and maybe they have a smaller glass. But it’s just a beginning. They can move forward. Every Catholic should take a pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is only the beginning. When you come back, you have to be on guard so that you don’t just resume your normal life. You go back to work, you have the dynamics of your employment, your family, so forth. But you have to change. The pilgrimage is only part of the journey. For the rest of the journey, you have to become a different person. That’s the opportunity for transformation provided by a pilgrimage.

– Jack Moynihan

A complete change: Jack’s Holy Land pilgrimage

I’ve been on several pilgrimages. It’s been a gradual journey. Each pilgrimage has brought me closer to Christ, and to wishing to serve him.  I certainly went to Sunday Mass (in my life before these pilgrimages), but I didn’t have the depth of faith and devotion to Christ and his Mother that I do now. My whole attitude was that I wanted to be in control. Basically, I’ve spent my life doing just that! I would conclude what I wanted to do, and then move forward to accomplish that. Now, I realize that I have to put myself at the disposal of God; I have to do what He wills me to do, and not what I will to do. It’s a complete change in emphasis. That was a gradual process, and it was assisted by each of the pilgrimages.

My most treasured recollection of the Holy Land pilgrimage was at the Mount of Beatitudes. It’s a very peaceful place, and probably not much different than it was from the time of Christ. It’s a little hill, and then you look down to the Sea of Galilee. I was fortunate enough to see it at sunrise and also at sunset. It was a beautiful experience for me; spiritually enriching to be there and witness the scene that Christ would have seen at his time and what he looked out upon. After the Resurrection, he told his disciples that he would return to Galilee and see them there. It’s very understandable why he did that, because that was a place of love; where he won over people, the performing of miracles… it’s just such a peaceful place. Of course he would want to return there!

JackMoynihan_ViaDolorosaAt the place of Christ’s death, we were able to place our hand at the site of the Crucifixion. We could see the stones that had been moved by the earthquake. We could see the coming together of the Truth of the Gospel with what we were observing as people, firsthand. That was extremely powerful.

The Gospels that we read every Sunday became more meaningful because we were actually there.

We went to Mass at a local parish—it was a beautiful Mass! The children came forward; wonderful children! We interacted with the people after Mass, and they were wonderful people, wonderful Christians! They’d been Christians since the time of Christ! So for them (as Palestinians) to be considered extremists, terrorists, is just absurd; they’re anything but! They’re holy people, in a difficult situation, surrounded on all sides. I think the world in general is aware of their problem, but certainly people in the United States aren’t. They’ve incurred a great injustice… I think it’s very incumbent on us as citizens to tell the story, and to inform the general population that there’s a great injustice going on.

The Holy Land pilgrimage started me, personally, on a deeper relationship with Christ. Also, I started to have more of an appreciation for Mary. I’d never been particularly devoted to her; I can’t explain why. I didn’t have that connection with her. The pilgrimage was the beginning of my journey to her.

If you’ve never made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, make one!

– Jack Moynihan

An overwhelmingly glorious experience

The most significant thing for me was the blessing of being able to go to the Holy Land. I never thought I would have the opportunity. The significance between a pilgrimage and a tour to me is very important. I’ve been on many tours of Europe and the continent, and realized that a tour is a lot of sight-seeing, a lot of facts. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. The preparation for the pilgrimage was significant. I believe that Mary Jane and Tom set us up with all the right information; both prayerful and informative. We did a couple of novenas to prepare, which was significant to us as we were preparing… That was important; not just to get on a plane and go.

The phenomenal experiences for me in the Holy Land… the Garden of Gethsemane was probably the most significant experience. We were given the opportunity for two-and-a-half hours of silent prayer, and that was an overwhelmingly glorious experience. I was able to relate to Jesus in his loneliness when he was there, how lonely he must have felt, and yet the presence of God there; knowing that he wasn’t totally alone. Nor was I totally alone. The olive trees were significant to me because they’re old, and I thought, “Some of them may have been there when Jesus was alive.” That time was beautiful. I was able to identify my loneliness, and that God is with me.

The Gospel comes alive. Now, I prepare every Sunday to teach a Special Needs Faith Formation class. I do a pictorial card for them of the Gospel, and it’s just awesome…I can actually explain to them what happened and where that was, and that I actually walked where Jesus was. Bringing the Gospel alive is a wonderful aspect of the entire pilgrimage. You couldn’t ask for anything more than knowing that, all these years you’ve read the New Testament and tried to picture where it was, and now all of a sudden you didn’t have to try. To stand on the foundation of my Faith was a high point for me; I was there where my Faith began.

When I read Scripture now, I can have a vision of possibly where it happened; that it was a real place and not just written. I’m a lector, and I was able to relate to the New Testament better than I ever was before by having that experience of seeing the Gospel alive.

Stone in the Chapel of the Angel, Tomb of Christ

Stone in the Chapel of the Angel, Tomb of Christ

My other highlight was in the Tomb, in the Holy Sepulcher. I was asked to be a lector. We actually were able to get all of our pilgrims into the Tomb, into the very small area where the Tomb is. Another friend of mine and I were both able to read, and to this day, when we see one another, we reflect on what an honor that was, celebrating the Mass of the Resurrection.

The Mass every day was another part distinguishing it as a pilgrimage, versus a tour. Having Mass in sacred places was a wonderful experience, and brought most of those places—We had Christmas Mass in Bethlehem, for example…We were able to bring the liturgy into the spiritual experience.

Mary Jane and Tom also brought us into reality of the people that live there, and who they are, and how they are understood or misunderstood, and their spiritual journey. That was pretty amazing. Mary Jane and Tom brought the situation to light better, probably, than a lot of pilgrimages do, because their heart is there with those people.

A pilgrimage is not impossible. Make it happen. Your first response would be, “It’s too expensive.” A lot of things we do every day are too expensive, and you can cut back. You just have to make a decision that you’re going to go, and maybe make a little sacrifice to save for it. Once you pay for it, it’s all yours.

I was OK with going to the Holy Land and not fearful. I knew I was going in good hands. In the pilgrimage layout and journey, you’re well looked-after, never left alone. Make a decision and go with it. Don’t think it’s something you can’t do.

I took home with me that I walked in the footsteps of Jesus, I met him there, and I brought him home with me. It was glorious.

I don’t think I knew much about the Pilgrim Center of Hope before the pilgrimage. I am overwhelmingly impressed by the ecumenicalness of them, the amazing outreach that they’re doing, the simplicity of the Center, the genuineness of “We’re just here to be for the people.” I continue to be impressed that all of you who work here are not looking for the “big dollars” that your intellect and wisdom may be able to take you to, but that you’re doing God’s work. And that’s the most important thing.

– Mary Jo Quinn