Father Mark in the Holy Land

1926941034_HL04.jpg Father Mark Madden, Parish Priest of St Oswald and St Cecilia, Liverpool, travelled to the Holy Land with Archbishop Patrick Kelly at the beginning of January.

After three days of pilgrimage they celebrated Mass in the Parish of St Justin, Nablus, which is twinned with Father Mark’s parishes. After Mass Archbishop Patrick opened a new Youth Centre financed by donations from Liverpool and from the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

They then travelled to Jerusalem for the meeting of the Holy Land Coordination.

Father Mark recalls his experiences on pilgrimage.

Day One: Liverpool - Galilee

‘As over continent and island the dawn leads on another day. The voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.’

There is something very magical about a sunset no matter where you may see it; your little portion of the world waking to start a new day, a new dawn, a new life. Landing at Ben Gurion airport at 5.30 am after a long day which included an overnight flight to Israel, eight of us including three priests from the Archdiocese: Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, Father Lucian Bobarnac and myself together with officials from the Bishops’ Conference accompanied the Archbishop, his sister and nephew and began a three day short pilgrimage to Galilee. Not many people can truly rest on a plane, so a road journey lasting over two hours was not very welcome when all we wanted was sleep. But the sight of sunrise over the Sea of Galilee rising above the mist gave us the burst of energy we needed. The sun welcomed us to this special place where, following in the footsteps of the Lord, our lives would hopefully be refreshed and renewed.

Almost immediately we left our lakeside hotel and started our pilgrimage with Mass at St Peter's church at Capernaum. Father Peter suggested that the words of the First Reading should form the base for the purpose of our pilgrimage:

‘Bless the God of all things, the doer of great deeds everywhere,
Who has exalted our days from the womb and acted towards us in
His mercy. May he grant us cheerful hearts and bring peace in our time.
May his mercy be faithfully with us, may he redeem us in our time.’
(Sirach 50:24-26)

With brief visits to the sites of the miracle of loaves and fishes and where Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection we had, I think, the highlight of the day, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee:

‘In simple trust like theirs who heard, Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.’

With a wink from the Archbishop the captain stopped the engine and we floated for twenty minutes on the cool calm sea. It's in this setting that you can hear the gracious calling of the Lord to follow him. He asks to walk alongside us to carry whatever yoke he has given us. Throughout his Galilean ministry he invited people to put their trust in him and ‘come, follow me.’

This long day finished in the perfect surroundings of the Mount of Beatitudes where that silence still permeated our time there. By following the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are you...’ we will find true blessedness and true happiness because we shall be following a way of life moulded by Jesus himself and in following his way we embrace the vision of his Kingdom.

There was a pleasant surprise for the local Catholic community celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany as the Archbishop celebrated Mass with them in their parish church. And after a very belated birthday party for the Archbishop we've now retired to bed. The sun, after giving us what we need today, is now somewhere else for people to look in awe and wonder. As we take some needed rest it 's now the task of others to carry on with the ceaseless voice of prayer which is never silent, until it heralds a new day for us to carry on that prayer and praise and answer the cry of the Lord to, ‘come follow me!’

Day 2: Cana - Nazareth - Tabor

Travelling today up to the Upper Galilee region, our first stop was the site of Jesus' first miracle at Cana. As we arrived a Renewal of Marriage Vows was taking place for many Italian pilgrims. We stopped briefly for private prayer before looking at one of the very large stone water jars and the excavated ruins. The Archbishop reminded us that the miracle of Cana was one of the signs Jesus gave that looked towards Calvary.

As we drove towards Nazareth the scenery is quite spectacular, spotting Nazareth in the distance getting closer and closer. Nazareth is a huge town with a mixture of Muslim and Arab Christian communities, with the mighty Basilica dedicated to the Annunciation being the focal point. Sadly, this holy town has seen a fair share of conflict in recent years with the threat of the local Muslim community building a mosque higher than the Basilica and as close to the site as possible; thankfully resolved for the time being.

The Basilica itself is an amazing and truly fitting building to the event it remembers; 'you are to conceive and bear a son whom you shall call Emmanuel, a name which means God-with-us.' The Basilica is built over a number of ancient caves of which, it's believed, 'a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the House of David' lived. The Archbishop reminded us of the facts about the circumstances of those living in such caves and the high probability of Mary being one who lived there. In the centre of the Basilica is the grotto where a cave is situated and is believed to be the one belonging to Mary. It was here that Father Lucian celebrated Mass with us. In his homily he pointed out that we all need to be inspired by the message of the Annunciation in order to give us hope and courage to not be hesitant in giving our 'yes' to the Lord. This is a beautiful setting for a beautiful message. The Basilica uses natural light shining through beautiful coloured glass to give a feeling of peace which I’m sure we all felt. With brief stops at the House of St Joseph and the Synagogue used by the Holy Family we continued to our next appointment.

Bishop Marcuzzo is an Auxiliary Bishop to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Patriarchal Vicar for Israel and is based just a few hundred yards from the Basilica. We were fortunate to spend some time with him in his home and he welcomed us with liqueurs, coffee and sweets. We spoke about many things which included the recent Synod in Rome on the Church in the Middle East which he and the Archbishop attended.

Our last visit of the day was to Mount Tabor and the Basilica dedicated to the Transfiguration. Yet another stunning Basilica set in equally stunning grounds and the view from the top is worth the coach, taxi and sharp winding bends up the Mount. In Scripture the image of a mountain is an important one. Anyone wanting to get closer to God climbed a mountain and every pilgrim truly feels the presence of him who was transfigured in this holy place. It's that presence which we all long for and is the purpose of any pilgrimage.

Today’s sunrise has given us yet another great day and we head back to Tiberius ready to once again bid it goodnight.

Day 3: Jordan Valley - Jericho - Jerusalem

I began this blog by describing the sunrise which greeted us on our way from Tel Aviv to Galilee. We bade farewell to Galilee, it's lake, mountains, beauty and tranquillity today to make for the 'road to Jerusalem.' Driving down the Jordan valley the sky was incredible as the rays of the sun lit up everything around it with colours of yellow, red and orange. Like countless number of pilgrims before us we leave with many sacred memories as we look at a view unchanged in 2000 years. What I could see out of the coach window was a view that Jesus himself saw many times during his lakeside ministry. 'Do this in memory of me,' certainly was true.

Yardenit is a site on the River Jordan to commemorate the Baptism of Jesus. Though not the original spot as that's on the far side of the river, nevertheless its a picturesque site which draws pilgrims wishing to be baptised in its waters, as was the case when we visited. The river is calm, its waters green and a group of wanting to dedicate their lives to the Lord. Some of us were fascinated by the beaver swimming in the river who came out looking for food which Katarina had.

The main visit for the day was oldest city in the world, Jericho, 'City of the palms.' After a brief look at the Mountain and desert where Jesus fasted for forty days and was tempted by the devil we viewed the sycamore tree made famous by the story of Zaccheus and celebrated Mass in the local parish church. In today's homily we were reminded of the story and how Zaccheus was willing to suffer for the sake of receiving forgiveness and love from Jesus.

A short ride took us to the lowest point on the earth - the Dead Sea. The particular resort we stopped at was popular with many people floating in the sea and enjoying the therapeutic sea mud. Having recently been in the sea, I resisted a swim but some of the group, including the Archbishop, went for a paddle. It was funny to see him in clerical dress, trouser legs rolled up and clearly enjoying every minute. Later as he washed the mud from his feet he was holding on to the shower which looked like a huge crozier. Was he imitating Moses ready to part the waters or a shepherd watching over his flock?

Back in our minibus and the short journey passing camels and bedouin tents to the Holy City of Jerusalem. A place so very different from all we have left behind but the experiences of the last few days has certainly fed our minds and souls, given us much peace and rest and prepared us for the next few days of meetings and visits to the local Christian communities. That Galilee sun has certainly looked after us!