By Dave Peters
Editor’s note: Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers.
Though my father and I arrived at the Big E fairgrounds precisely one minute after 2:30, the luggage of our fellow pilgrims was already in the trunk of the large white van. When our gang (consisting of Father Warren Savage, Don D’Amour, Steve Marcus, Gene Cassidy, my father, Joe Peters, and myself) was gathered and ready to depart, a ceremonial picture was taken at the steps of the Brooks Building, and we piled into the van that would be our transport to JFK. As most of us, excluding Fr. Savage and Steve, were making our first trip to the Holy Land, the conversation buzzed with excitement and anxiety. We sped south on 91, rapidly switching topics between hopes for the sites where Jesus preached and ministered, and divulging our anxiety about the conflict in the Middle East. Still our personal lives and community concerns were never too distant, and the trouble of funding Catholic education, the stress of preparing a good homily, and the challenge of maintaining Catholic identity in the workplace crept back into the conversation frequently.
Preparing for the trip ahead of time, I often wondered how a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or Israel, as I like to refer to it, would affect me and my faith. It seemed though, starting out, that all of us were scratching at the surface of the same problem, not knowing just how this trip would change us, but being eagerly ready and willing to accept the call for transformation. After living the past two years in Taiwan, first as a teacher and the second as a student, and recently relocating to Denver where I manage a glassblowing studio, the ground slowly shifting beneath my feet has been a familiar feeling. I could relate when on the topic Catholic education, Fr. Savage pointed out, just calling a school Catholic isn’t good enough; there needs to be something substantially characteristic in the identity of the institution. And as I ate a cup of pretzel bits at a pit stop in Norwalk, I figured the same was probably true for humans, especially each of us pilgrims; this would be a trip to discover our Christian roots in their native soil.
Church of the Annunciation:
As all good flights, Delta flight 468 was perfectly uneventful, and with the exception of passing Danny DeVito (he really is as short as you imagine) at the gate, and an unnecessary second security screening before boarding, we had nothing to complain about whatsoever. On the road to Nazareth, the late afternoon sunset shone on Deeb’s forehead when he turned from the front seat to explain to us of the difficulties for Palestinians living in the Jewish state of Israel. Deeb, along with Tony, our tour guides for the week, are both Palestinian Christians whose families have survived more than five generations in the crowded old infrastructure of Jerusalem.
“Just look at the wall,” Deeb said pointing to a fifteen foot concrete wall which sat behind olive trees along the right side of the car. “Behind that wall is the West Bank, the largest Palestinian-governed territory in Israel. It was built to keep the Palestinians inside.”
Both Tony and Deeb, who were Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, had been issued a permit, serving as their IDs. It was this permit which allowed them freedom of movement within Israel.
“If you are born inside Gaza, or the West Bank, you do not have this privilege,” Tony said. “You are trapped there.”
Nazareth was a large city bustling at six in the evening. Neon lights advertising clothing and candy shops blinked and lit up the glass windows of compact cars lining both sides of the road. Sandwiched inside a complex urban system of large concrete buildings all on different levels is the Church of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, asking her to bear the Son of God. The site of this event, in my memory, had always been depicted as a small grassy grove with a fresh water spring, but there we were getting hassled by the parking attendant in what could easily have been Tremont Street in Boston; Tony took the attendant by the shoulder and distracted him in Arabic while the rest of us scuttled through the steel double doors into the bright lights of the sanctuary.
The main floor was a large open space with diagonal concrete beams supporting a large white dome which resembled the tent from the scripture passage of the Annunciation. Arabic songs with church organ could be heard coming from a wide hole in the floor which revealed the ground level where Saturday evening Mass was being held. The altar was set about ten feet below the basement floor on a platform surrounded by the white stone ruins of the original Byzantine church commemorating the actual site of the Annunciation. This was then enclosed once more by another set of ruins dating from the church which was erected by the European Crusaders.
Outside, Saleem the gate keeper introduced me to the large door of the church on which was depicted the life of Jesus in six scenes. He said that over the course of ten years as gate keeper there he has seen hundreds of thousands of tourists. He gestured to the ceramic murals of the Annunciation which came from artists all around the world exhibited in and around the church.
“So many people, so many styles,” he said. Just then bells began to ring signalling the end of Mass and a haunting call to prayer came out from the next door mosque. We said a quick prayer in front of the statue of the Virgin and dashed off to the car. There was still so much more to see, but we would need to get on the road if we were to reach the Sea of Galilee before too late.