JERUSALEM—More than 500 priests from around the world converged on the Holy Land in June to take part in a pre-millennium spiritual retreat. They were joined by 250 local priests from Israel and the Palestinian-ruled territories.

For many, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the land where Christianity was born. Bibles in hand, they retraced Jesus' life in Bethlehem, Galilee and Jerusalem.

Although the visit was not officially linked to the Holy See's Jubilee activities, the participants said the timing of the retreat — the fourth such event in as many years — added a sense of excitement and purpose to the gathering.

This excitement was palpable during the group's visit to the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the site where Jesus took his last steps. Retracing the final journey, some of the priests brushed tears from their eyes.

Another moving experience for many was the celebration of Sunday Mass at the Pater Noster Church on the Mount of Olives. The old stone church, which is located in Arab East Jerusalem, has an expansive courtyard shaded by cedar and pine trees. There, in a sea of long white robes, the priests looked on as three young men were ordained before the assembly.

At the end of the proceedings, Pope John Paul blessed the gathering via a live radio feed. Sitting in the stately courtyard, many of the priests said that the retreat had given them a new sense of faith and wonderment.

“It's been inspiring to see scenes from the Bible, things you've read in the Gospel, come alive,” said Father Gus Acob from the Philippines. “It's an inspiration to see the places where Jesus was traveling and teaching.”

Referring to the many priests he had met during the conference, Father Acob marveled at how “the power of God can erase all differences.

At times it seems as if we are one, as if there is something inherent inside us that unifies us. Despite our different colors and languages and places of origin, there is no divisiveness among us.”

For Father Acob, the best part of the visit was walking through Jerusalem's ancient walled city, which is home to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“When we went to Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to the cross where Christ stood and was buried, it was so moving. We really felt the death and resurrection.” Given the opportunity, Father Acob said, “I think every Christian should visit the Holy Land once in his lifetime.”

Father Charles Decker, from the West African nation of Sierre Leone, called the retreat “a very Christ-full experience. I've been envisioning things in the Bible for so many years, and now I've had a chance to see them in reality. It's really wonderful.”

For Father Decker who, like Father Acob had never before visited the Holy Land, the trip was a spiritual shot in the arm. “I'll never forget our trip to Bethlehem, where Christ was born, to Shepherds' field. That was special.”

Father Decker said the retreat also enabled him to share his country's many problems with priests who were eager to listen. “I've met so many people from so many different countries,” the priest said. “I told them about the war in Sierre Leone and they showed signs of sympathy for us.”

He also learned about the Church in other countries. “Prior to the retreat,” he said, “I hadn't known that all of the bishops in Mozambique are black — that they're all local clergy. In Sierre Leone, only one of our bishops is local. The rest are expatriates.”

Msgr. Rey Monsanto, from the Philippines, said that this, his second visit to the Holy Land, was an eye-opener. “I'm happy to be back, and especially to see the progress that has taken place in the area. Most of what I know about the peoples here is garnered from the radio, the newspapers and CNN. There's nothing like meeting the people face to face.”

Pleased though he was to be in the land of the Bible, Monsanto noted that “there is something sad about it. It seems kind of ironic that in the place most sacred to the three monotheistic religions — and where Jesus pursued the search for peace — that our Savior is not so accepted here as God. The Jews and Muslims don't see him that way.”

Yet Msgr. Monsanto called the retreat “a faith-strengthening experience. I'm happy to be at the holy places not only as a Christian, but as a priest.”

Michele Chabin writes from Israel