Following the Pilgrim Footsteps of the Pope

Experience the Holy Land in Three-Part EWTN Series

Image courtesy of Diana von Glahn
Image courtesy of Diana von Glahn )

Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the print article.


EWTN viewers will get a unique glimpse of what life as a pilgrim is like in the Holy Land come June, when the television network airs The Faithful Traveler’s Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

Producer and host Diana von Glahn and Register staff reporter Peter Jesserer Smith, who met in Jerusalem covering Pope Francis’ 2014 pilgrimage, recently connected again.


What did you want to show people by following in Francis’ footsteps?

I wanted to explain a little bit about the history of papal pilgrimages — why they went out there, what was the whole point — and then I wanted to show people some of the places that our Holy Fathers visited.

The other thing was: We wanted to meet some locals, because Pope Francis did a lot of that when he was in the Holy Land. I’m sure you remember he met with the dignitaries, and he said the Masses, but he also met with refugees and people who were suffering. When he was in Jordan, he met with some of the refugees you met there; and when he was in Bethlehem, he met people who are suffering as a result of the separation wall; and when he was in Israel, he met with religious and disabled people.

So we had dinner with a Palestinian family of Christians, and we went to one of the markets in Jerusalem, which was such a great opportunity to experience part of life in Jerusalem that a lot of people don’t get to see. So what we did was show people that living in the Holy Land is normal.


The Pope started his Holy Land journey in the kingdom of Jordan. A lot of people don’t really think of Jordan as part of the Holy Land, so why is it significant that he started his pilgrimage there?

You know, every pope that has gone to the Holy Land on pilgrimage has started in Jordan. Every one of them —  they all start in Jordan. And I think you’re right: Jordan gets the short shrift, when it comes to the Holy Land, from most Holy Land pilgrims, because people just think of “Jerusalem” or “Israel” or “Bethlehem,” and that’s it. But Jordan was so huge — aside from the fact that the beginning of Christ’s ministry is in Jordan. They [the Jordanians] have proven through a number of different things — with archaeological ruins, pilgrim histories and that kind of thing — that they know where Jesus was baptized, and all of our Holy Fathers have visited the baptismal site. Jordan also has the Old Testament sites: Moses died on Mount Nebo, which is in Jordan; Ruth was in Jordan; Elijah was in Jordan … so much of the Old Testament happened in Jordan.


So there’s a lot of things for pilgrims to experience in Jordan?

Absolutely. One of the places that we visited was the place where St. John the Baptist was killed, which was called Machaerus at the time. It was Herod’s castle. … It’s out in the middle of nowhere, the ruins are everywhere, and then you get to this big hill on the top. You’re overlooking the Dead Sea, and you just get this feeling that something huge and sad happened here — and, of course, it did. The last prophet was killed there.


In your show, the Christians in Jordan told you that they have good fraternal bonds with their Muslim neighbors. Did you ever feel apprehensive?

When you go to a country that’s Muslim-majority, you worry as a Westerner that people are going to look at you askance because you’re not wearing the hijab or whatever. But we didn’t get any weird looks at all. Everybody was just doing their own thing, everybody was happy, and, of course, not all the women were wearing hijabs. Some of them were just dressed in Western clothing, and so there’s very much a kind of “live and let live” atmosphere.

And people were glad to see us. I think that’s the most important thing that pilgrims need to know: Everyone in that area, whether they be Israeli, Palestinian or Jordanian, they’re all happy to see pilgrims, because we are their lifeline. They need our money, they need our business, and they’re so proud of their country — they want to share it with us. So, yes, I’ve been to the Holy Land three times, and I’ve never experienced any kind of anti-American or anti-Christian behavior.


Let’s talk about the Pope’s second day in Bethlehem: What was the most memorable part of that trip?

Well, the Mass in Manger Square was so just so overwhelming — you definitely get that from the footage in the second episode. There was a choir singing, and then this guy who had the mic, he just started screaming, “The Pope is coming! The Pope is coming!” And just the excitement in his voice — I still cannot watch that scene without crying. There’s just so much emotion and excitement.


As a pilgrim in Bethlehem, you show many of the holy sites are built from caves — such as the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto, which boasts more than 5,000 miracles attributed to the site — why is this?

Our guide explained that Jesus was not born in a Western barn; he was born in a cave. That’s something that a lot of us don’t realize: In Bethlehem, a lot of their homes started in caves.


You also went all over Israel and saw so many beautiful holy sites. Can you tell us about the archeological mystery you discovered in Nazareth?

The first-century home underneath the Sisters of Nazareth convent is significant. First of all, there’s the “Tomb of the Righteous Man,” and as we all remember from reading the Gospels, the Jews did not bury people inside the city; they buried them outside the walls. So it was significant they found a tomb right next to a home. And it was clear that it was for a first-century Jewish family, because of some of the things they found in the home. And then, right next to the home, they found the remains of a church.


And so this place could be the home of the Holy Family?

Yes, there’s this archaeologist who believes these ruins built atop of that home are the lost remains of the Church of the Nutrition, which would then make that home the home where Jesus grew up, and then would make that the tomb of St. Joseph. And why does that follow? Because back in the day, [Jews] would bury their dead apart, except for someone who was very holy — they wanted to keep that person close. So they buried this person close to the home, and that person would have been St. Joseph.


When you were in Jerusalem, what was the most powerful experience?

Well, it’s hard to pick one in Jerusalem, because there’s so much! From the Jewish perspective, you have the Western Wall, which I think a lot of Christians may find odd, but for Jews, this is the remnant of one of the holiest places ever. It’s not even a remnant of the Temple — it’s like a remnant of the wall that held the hill that held the Temple. For us Christians, well, Jesus is down there in the tabernacle of the church down the street. So you might think to yourself, “Why stick a prayer in the wall?”

But I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to understand the reverence we should have for God. One of the things that I remember was: People walk away from [the wall] without turning their backs to it. And I remember thinking, “Why do I not do that to the tabernacle?” It really struck me that these people have such a reverence for a wall, and what reverence do we have for the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ? The foundations of our faith are obviously in Judaism, and so I think that was a reminder about sacredness for me.

Also, of course, visiting Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial museum], which I never had an opportunity to do before. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all went there. It is haunting.

But then, from a Christian perspective, there’s nothing like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


You got to stay there overnight, as I recall. What was it like to be right in the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead?

We did! We got to stay overnight, and it was cold and uncomfortable. But you know, it was such a good reminder to think that “Here, Jesus spent the night.” And Jesus had spent the night in prison, and being in that situation was not comfortable either. But being on pilgrimage, it was also a reminder that life is not necessarily meant to be comfortable all the time. So, yeah, it was an amazing experience.


In your show, the Christians speak of themselves as the “living stones” of the Holy Land. What did you discover?

There was something so — and I don’t know if you felt this way, too — but I felt I grew closer to Christ and the Virgin Mary and the disciples, because I saw them in the faces of the people that I met there. Did you feel the same way?


Absolutely, without a doubt.

I mean, this is what Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph, St. Peter and all of them looked like. They looked like them.

Meeting these people: I feel like it probably brought me closer on a personal level to Jesus, Mary and the disciples, but it also made the Holy Land feel more vibrant in my prayer life. For me, it’s personal now. I mean, now I can say, “Jesus, I want peace in the Holy Land, because I love my friends who are out there, and I want them to continue living happy lives, and I want them to be alive and at peace. I want them to be able to go shopping or enjoy their beautiful foods.” So it increases and strengthens my prayer, but also my relationship with God.


What do you hope people watching your papal-pilgrimage series will take away from this?

I hope it motivates them to go to the Holy Land. I hope it also motivates them to continue to pray for peace in the Holy Land. I think those are the two most important things. One of the things I wanted to do with our show — and I do not think that I have the power to change anyone’s heart — but what I want to do is to bring people to a place where God can change their hearts. So, if I can encourage them to get to the Holy Land, then I know God will knock them over [with the power of the experience]. That’s my goal: I want to be God’s travel agent.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a

Register staff reporter.

This is a longer version of the print article.



EWTN will air (all times Eastern) the Holy Land pilgrimage: Episode 1: June 26 at 10pm, June 30 at 5am, July 2 at 1am; Episode 2: July 24 at 10pm, July 28 at 5am, July 30 at 1am; Episode 3: July 31 at 10pm, Aug. 4 at 5am, Aug. 6 at 1am



Diana Von Glahn is returning this year to the Holy Land, leading a pilgrimage Nov. 10-19, with a three-day extension to Jordan, with Select Tours International. See here for more information: Another pilgrimage is planned for 2017:

Image courtesy of Diana von Glahn