A Moving Pilgrimage: The Holy Land Starts to Reopen
EWTN’s Colm Flynn visits sacred sites.
I found it difficult to comprehend what was in front of me. Standing in the grotto of the Basilica of the Nativity, it felt almost dreamlike. “Am I really standing in front of the spot where Jesus was born? This is surreal,” I thought to myself. A metal circle on the ground surrounded by candles in beautiful silver lanterns marked the spot where, 300 years after the death of Jesus, St. Helena announced what was the most likely site where Jesus lay in a manger 2,000 years ago.
What made my first trip to the Holy Land even more incredible was the timing. Traveling to these places during a pandemic meant there were no tourists or the usual crowds you would find at this time of year. So at the sites where you would normally line up for hours, only to be hurried through, now we could walk in alone and spend as much time as we pleased in these incredibly sacred places.
The small group I was with was from Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a section of the Vatican that organizes pilgrimages and religious/cultural trips to Rome and different parts of the world. We were one of the first pilgrimage groups to return to the Holy Land after it had been closed to outsiders for the better part of the year and a half, due to the pandemic.
In fact, the country is still not open to individual tourists; only small pilgrimage groups who are fully vaccinated are being granted entry on a trial basis. We were lucky to be one of those groups. Our trip lasted four days and took us to the main sacred sites across the Holy Land, like Bethelahem, Nazareth and the Garden of Gethsemane. Our group of 19 people was made up of journalists and priests and was led by Cardinal Enrico Feroci.
As well as visiting the holy sites, we also had the opportunity to meet the local people. In Bethlehem, right next to a wall known as the Israeli West Bank barrier, a contentious border in the Israeli-Pelestinian dispute, I met a shopkeeper named Rony Tabash.
His small shop sells hand-carved wooden statues of religious figures and has been in his family for more than 100 years. Rony is a character, upbeat and jovial. But he quickly turned serious when I asked him about what the past year has been like for him and his family.
“To see the Nativity Church without any pilgrims, this is something like a dream. We feel like we are dreaming, and we are sometimes afraid; when my father, Victor, tells us he has never seen anything like this in his life, we feel like it’s the end of our lives.”
Eighty percent of the people in Bethlehem rely on tourism as their main source of income, and so for the likes of Rony and his family, when the country closed its borders because of COVID-19, struggles ensued.
Now, almost 70% of Israel's population is now fully vaccinated. In fact, Israel was hailed as a world leader in an early vaccine rollout after striking a deal with Pfzer. As a result, the number of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths were quite low for some time, in the single digits daily. However, the country is now experiencing a spike in cases, reaching more than 1,200 positive cases a day due to the Delta variant.
Previously, older generations were more at risk, but this time around, the burden has shifted to younger unvaccinated Israelis. The Israeli government had announced it would reopen to solo tourists and pilgrims in May.
That date was then pushed back to July, then August, and now it is looking like September or even later.
Rony is trying to stay hopeful: “We are praying the pilgrims will come back and things will get better. I don’t want to say that we have lost hope, but it is very hard.”
A few hours drive north of Jerusalem is the city of Nazareth, where it is believed Mary was from and where Jesus spent his childhood, earning him the name Jesus of Nazareth.
The sun was beating down outside the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Tradition says the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
In the courtyard I got talking to a Franciscia friar named Father George Lewett. He is the organist at the basilica and has lived in the Holy Land for exactly 30 years. “The only thing I can compare this to is when I lived in Bethlehem during the ‘Siege of the Nativity’ in 2002. After that violent incident, there was a quiet period with little pilgrims,” he told me.
Father Lewett was clearly happy to see our group in the courtyard: “This gives us a great thrill to see people in the square again. This is part of the Franciscan vocation. We’re supposed to be out with the people.”
Inside the basilica there is a small cave that was home to the Virgin Mary. Normally closed to the public, it was opened especially for our group, and Cardinal Feroci processed through the basilica and down into the cave for the Angelus. It was a really beautiful moment.
A small museum next door has artifacts excavated from the area. One is the base of a column that has been dated to the first century after the death of Christ. Amazingly, there is a graffiti carving on it from that time in Greek that says, Χαίρε, Μαρία, meaning “Hail, Mary.” It’s strong evidence that there was a devotion to Mary in the early Church, right from the beginning.
Back in Jerusalem, and one of the final stops on our tour, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Located in the heart of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, this magnificent church dates back to the fourth century, and inside are two of the holiest sites in Christianity: the site believed to be where Jesus was crucified and Jesus’ empty tomb, where he was laid to rest and from where he rose from the dead.
I found this to be the most moving and special part of the entire trip. Having the opportunity to enter the dark and small tomb and kneel to pray for a moment was very special and moving. You could feel in the air that this place was sacred and hugely important.
The visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre brought to an end what had been a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for this small group. Carmen Salvemini organized the tour for Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi and told me that she hopes the trip would help restart tours by showing people it is safe to visit: “To come here in this period is not so easy, but it is possible. It’s important for the local community and a wonderful experience. I think everyone should experience the Holy Land at least once, regardless of your religion.”