Archbishop Paul Etienne: “A true pilgrimage”

Bishop Paul D. Etienne with Mary Jane and Deacon Tom Fox in the Holy Land

Bishop Paul D. Etienne with Mary Jane and Deacon Tom Fox in the Holy Land

I wish this morning to thank the Pilgrim Center of Hope for their outstanding work in preparing for and leading this pilgrimage.  More specifically, I wish to thank Mary Jane and Tom Fox for their faith-filled ministry and service to our pilgrim group.

Mary Jane and Tom have been leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the early 1980’s.  It was in an early visit to the Holy Land as a couple that they felt the Lord calling them to dedicate their life to this unique ministry of bringing pilgrims here to encounter the Risen Lord and to deepen their faith.  Our pilgrimage was (I believe) their 46th group to the Holy Land.

This couple are people of deep faith.  Our group was so blessed to have been introduced to the Pilgrim Center of Hope, and to have them serve as our guides.

I have been very intentional about referring to this trip as a pilgrimage, because that is indeed what it was.  It was not a tour, not a vacation, not another international trip.  Mary Jane and Tom were instrumental in making it a true pilgrimage, focused very intentionally on seeking the Lord, encountering Him in this land he made holy by his very presence.  We literally prayed our way across this land, and indeed, met the Risen Lord, his mother, Mary and so many of the other holy men and women who lived and died here.

RulaAnother critical component of our pilgrimage was not just visiting the ancient stones and sites, but also meeting the ‘living stones,’ those descendants of the early Christian community who still live in Palestine and Israel.  One such Palestinian Christian was our guide, Rula Shubeita.

Rula grew up in the old city of Jerusalem and is Greek Orthodox.  She and many other Palestinian Christians can trace their Christian roots through their ancestry to the time of Christ.  She knows the faith, and she certainly knows these sites where Christ lived, ministered, suffered, died and rose from the dead.  This community of faith is truly our “Mother Church.”  It was such a privilege to meet so many of these Palestinian Christians, and to worship and pray with them.  They need our presence, prayers, and support.

People are curious if we felt safe during our time in the Holy Land.  The answer is a definitive “Yes.”  From the time we departed the US throughout our stay and our flight home, I never once worried about our security.  The Christian community in the Holy Land needs our presence, needs Christians from the rest of the world to continue to make pilgrimages and support them in their day-to-day life.

MohammadOne other person who gets an honorable mention is Mohamad, our bus driver.  He, too, is a local Palestinian, and he is truly the best bus driver in the world!  He is a servant in every sense of the word.  He was amicably present for every move of our group, including a few very early morning starts.  He made sure we always had water, he handled the luggage, and miraculously maneuvered our bus through streets and spaces I never dreamed possible!

Finally, Mary Jane and Tom handled all of the details of our trip with professional excellence.  From arranging for Masses in the many basilicas and day-to-day schedule, to daily meals and wonderful lodgings.  The preparations materials for the pilgrimage to an excellent pilgrimage book that contained all the daily schedules, prayers and Mass readings, along with important and helpful historical information about the Holy Land.

If you are wishing to plan a pilgrimage of any sort, but particularly to the Holy Land, I highly recommend to you, Pilgrim Center of Hope, San Antonio, Texas, and its founders, Mary Jane and Tom Fox.

– Most Rev. Paul D. Etienne

Read all of Archbishop Etienne’s pilgrimage reflections:

“Holy What?” A blind pilgrim’s testimony

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The night before my 14-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I must admit that I had a moment of second thoughts. I paused as I contemplated being in unfamiliar places with new people, different food, and possibly unforeseen circumstances.

Father Pat Martin, a priest who is blind, had been on several pilgrimages with the Pilgrim Center of Hope. I imagined that he had probably “broken them in.” I called Mary Jane Fox, PCH’s co-founder who said, “We take turns guiding Father Pat.” “May I be included?” I asked. Certainly,” she said. So I signed up to go. I want to thank Tom and Mary Jane Fox, as well as all of those on the pilgrimage who assisted me.

Walking As A Pilgrim

I joined the group in Houston for the 13.5-hour flight to Istanbul, followed by another 2-hour flight to Amman, Jordan.

The trip tested almost every adaptive skill I possess: spiral staircases with railings of differing heights or none at all, steps on the streets with parallel ramps which when wet are very slick, different hotels every few days, etc.

We visited a number of holy sites: the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over Jesus’ tomb, the Wailing Wall, the Garden of Gethsemane, just to name a few.

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One of the highlights of the trip for me was being able to proclaim God’s Word in the church at Mount Tabor. The architect, Antonio Barluzzi, built churches on many holy sites after World War I. I understand that the visuals are stunning, but for me, the acoustics in his churches are truly amazing! I have never sung in churches that magnified sound like that.

We took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and were able to see the fishing nets similar to those used during the time of Jesus.

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Living Stones

One of the most important things I learned about on my pilgrimage was the plight of the Palestinian Christians who comprise 2.8% of the population living in the Holy Land. (When I speak of the Holy Land I am including Jordan and the West Bank.)  On the official website of the visit of Pope Francis in the Holy Land, the Media Commission states that the Holy Land is home to approximately 180,000 Christians who are Palestinian Arab according to their culture and history.

In the Holy Land, 75% of the population is Muslim, 20% is Jewish, and 5% is represented by other religions, 2.8% of this population is Christian.

The Palestinian Christians’ numbers are diminishing because they are emigrating to countries which provide more opportunities.

We visited what some call the Security Fence and others call the Separation Wall, which goes right down the main street of Bethlehem. Its construction began in 2002 and when it is completed, the cost will be approximately four billion dollars. Its height is greater than any of the walls of Israeli prisons.

This wall has precluded employment for many living in the West Bank. We received a small taste of what occupation is like, but these people experience it every day!

Our worship with the Palestinian Christians at the Church of the Annunciation at Beit Jala near Bethlehem was very inspiring, even though the service was in Arabic. The community welcomed us warmly, and it was good to pray in solidarity with them.

Obviously, my two-week visit does not make me an authority on the Holy Land, and this article does not begin to do justice to the complexities of the situation there. All I can share with you is what I observed. However, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to walk where Jesus walked and to meet so many generous, warm-hearted Palestinian Christians, as well as the people who went on this pilgrimage; with me. I never felt unsafe.

Please pray for peace in the land so many call Holy!

– Alco Canfield

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