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St Joseph's Statue

By Fr. Brian McGrath

Pastor, St. Mary Parish in Lee

Holy Land Pilgrimage January 23-31, 2018

The Eucharist stood before us on the altar. Several hundred persons from all over the world knelt in silence before the mystery, a mystery all the more profound because we were gathered at the house where the angel Gabriel greeted Mary. Her “yes” resounded through the ages, echoed in our hearts as we gathered in adoration and wonder and awe.
It was the end of our first full day in Israel. Monsignor Shershonovich  (of St. Joseph Parish in Pittsfield) and I were leading a group of pilgrims through the Holy Land. It was fitting that we ended the day where most of our Gospels begin. From Tel Aviv we traveled up the coast to Galilee. What was once a small little village is now a medium-sized city. Nestled in the heart of Nazareth are two churches, one at Mary’s House and up the hill another at Joseph’s.
It takes a little imagination to see beyond the bustling city to the little village of Jesus’ day. For me it was captured inside the church. The sounds of the city melted away. The humble house so well preserved in the lower church.

Mary's House
On the altar is a word we will see over and over throughout the trip. “Verbum caro factum hic est.” We all know the phrase: “the word was made flesh.” But there is a little word in the middle of quote: “hic” … “here.” “The word was made flesh here.”
We celebrate a historic faith. Jesus really walked our earth. He was conceived in Nazareth. Born in Bethlehem. Fled to Egypt. Raised in Nazareth. Ministered throughout Galilee and Judea. Died in Jerusalem. Rose from the dead and ascended on high in Jerusalem. We would be visiting these places. We would be walking in his footsteps.
There is a bizarre movie “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzi Across the 8th Dimension”. If you like bad 80s science fiction, you will love the movie. There’s a line the hero of the movie keeps saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We were not just there … we were here! Hic. Verbum caro factum hic est.

Church of the Transfiguration
We spent several days traveling around Galilee. It is a mountainous region surrounding the central Sea of Galilee. It was on those mountains that we celebrated the feeding of the 5,000, the giving of the Sermon of the Mount and maybe my favorite the Transfiguration.
It was a cloudy, rainy day when we drove up Mt. Tabor. The church materialized out of the low lying clouds like an apparition. It was so powerful to be up on the mountaintop where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. There is a beautiful church there now. I can’t help but smiling thinking of Peter’s request to build booths. Now we have a stone church. Off of the main church there are two side chapels. We had Mass in the chapel of Elijah (the other chapel would be in honor of Moses). There were 45 pilgrims packed into a tiny space retelling the story, reflecting on the mystery, worshiping our loving God.
When we came down the mountain we visited many sites along the lake: a Jewish kibbutz, the house of Peter, the excavations of Capernaum. They were all around the Sea of Galilee.

Sea of Gallilee
The Sea of Galilee is actually a fresh water lake, about the same size as the Quabbin Reservoir. We saw it in a storm with waves cresting a couple of feet high, and we saw it in the sun with the light sparkling off the surface like so many diamonds. You could see how it dominated the lives of many of Jesus’ first disciples. When he called Peter, Andrew, James and John, they were doing what many still do today,  making their livelihood as fishermen. The images of casting nets, calming the storm, becoming fishers of men was palpable in the docked boats, the crashing waves and the pilgrims I journeyed with those who now make up the next generation of fishers of men.
We traveled through Jericho, a city whose first settlement was over 11,000 years ago! We waded into the Dead Sea. You can’t swim in it because the salt content is so great you just pop out … besides the day we were there the waves were so strong the lifeguards wouldn’t let us in over our knees. We walked on the plateau of Massada.
We visited Bethlehem. What was once a small hamlet south of Jerusalem is now a small city in Palestinian Territory. Even getting there was an adventure with military checkpoints reminding us that not all is well in the Holy Land.

St Jerome at the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is run by Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholics. I was lifted by the chanting, the various forms of dress and worship. The statue of St. Jerome watches over the courtyard outside the Catholic section of the church. His hermetic lifestyle was extreme but his zeal for the Word of God brought the various books and languages of the Bible into one, the Vulgate. In the main church the line is long to descend the stairs to the place of Jesus’ birth. There is opulence beyond description in the icons and gilded decorations. But in the end, I knelt on the stone and put my hand on the star where countless Christians before me have put their hands. I was in that stable on a cold winter’s night in the meekest of places where Jesus Christ was born to us.

Dominus Flavit
We spent our last three nights and three days in and about Jerusalem. “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem” Psalm 122
We had an amazing walk into the city from the Mount of Olives. It is a stunning view across the Kidron Valley to the ancient walls and the Temple Mount. From inside the church of Dominus Flavit we could see the old city of Jerusalem spread before us. Jesus wept over Jerusalem from this spot, desiring the love of the people. I was swept up in emotion. On that holy mountain Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed, David united the 12 Tribes into one nation, the temple was built by Solomon and rebuilt by after the Babylonian exile. Jesus would have ascended to the Temple on the major feast days along with countless faithful through the years. And in that city he would give his life for me and you and all of creation. Now I was going to be walking through the Garden of Gethsemane across the Kidron Valley and into the city!

Garden of Gethsemane.jpg
The Garden of Gethsemane remains an olive grove even today. Surrounded by enormous churches there is still a profound spirit of prayer. I have been in the Garden at night as a seminarian so many years ago. Now in my 25th year of priesthood I was blessed to return and pray and pause in silence. “Not my will, but yours” was Jesus’ prayer on the night of the Last Supper. I pray it is my prayer too.
One of the mornings we walked the Way of the Cross with our group. Everyone took turns carrying the cross from Pilate’s House and the Chapel of the Flagellation through the narrow streets all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Later that day the markets would be bustling and you nearly have to elbow your way through the crowded streets. But for that morning we were nearly by ourselves, able to feel the wood of the cross, the stone of the pavement, the passion of our Lord. We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. Because by your holy cross you have saved the world.

Way of the Cross
A thing I forgot from my previous journeys to Jerusalem but is so obvious when you think of it, is that the last five stations are within the compound that makes up this amazing church. It is called the Holy Sepulcher, the Holy Tomb. So we climbed the stairs to the roof of the basilica. It is now the home to a small but faithful group of Ethiopian Christians who literally live on the roof! Talk about doing anything you can to get close to the holy site. We descended into the beauty of the church itself. On one end of the church is the stairs that sheath the hill of Golgotha where I knelt to put my hand into the niche that held the very wood of the cross. Down the stairs again we prayed at the stone that marks where Jesus was placed in his mother’s arms before his burial. But most intense was the tomb itself.

Holy Sepulchre
Once again the line is long. But it gave me time to reflect on this great mystery. We had just finished Mass in the side chapel. As a priest I am still overwhelmed by the gift of holding Jesus’ very body, blood, soul and divinity in my hands as I pray the Eucharistic Prayer: “This is my body which will be given up for you.” These words of the Last Supper are fulfilled on that holy mountain and brought to their fullest meaning in the empty tomb. We don’t stop our faith at the Last Supper. It is not petrified in the rock of Golgotha. We go to the tomb and encounter the Risen Christ!
We rounded out our days in Jerusalem visiting the four quarters of the Old City. To see so many cultures and faiths trying to live together is both a concern and a great hope. I was reading a book while we were on pilgrimage that told the history of the city. Thousands of years of triumph and catastrophe. Intense times of great faith and the depths of apostacy. There were two places that made tangible for me both the complexity and the profundity of this amazing city.

Western Wall
The Western Wall is the remnants of the foundations King Herod the Great put into place to take Mount Moriah and make it into the Temple Mount. What was an uneven hill was made into a flat hilltop that contained the Temple and various courtyards and gathering spaces around it. When the Romans destroyed the Temple they literally tore it down stone by stone, carrying away the precious items as booty. The top part of the wall was rebuilt (you can see the difference in the stones from the foundation stones on the bottom) so the Temple Mount is still a flat hilltop. Faithful Jews and people of all faiths gather before the Western Wall to pray. One of the customs is to slip pieces of paper into the cracks between the stones so your intentions remain there. The temple was the place of the Holy of Holies … the very presence of God. This is as close as you can get to the “temple” today. So people pray before it and place their prayers within it. I put my family and parish and school and prayer intentions people asked me to bring and my personal prayers within a little crack, nestled among many other slips of paper. I was surrounded by orthodox Jews and fellow pilgrims as we sought the grace of God.

Dome of the Rock
We also ascended to the top of the Temple Mount. After the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD it was never rebuilt. Instead it was used for many different functions. For the early Christians it was not nearly as important as the places of Jesus passion, death and resurrection … so our ancient site is the Holy Sepulcher. But in the Muslim faith this is the place where Mohamed was transported in a vision. There is a rock there which is said to contain the footprint of Mohamed. Over it is built the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent shrine covered with elaborate tile mosaics and a gilded dome. Also, on the Temple Mount are various other Muslim shrines and the Al Asqa Mosque. We were blessed to be able to visit the Temple Mount and walk amidst the various shrines. I know in these modern times there is still too much division amongst the faiths of this world. It was good to be reminded of the beauty and depth and fervor of others.

Solomon's Mine
We had a free afternoon before our flight back to the U.S. I was able to fulfill a hope of mine that I have had for many years. I toured the newly excavated foundations of the Temple Mount. You enter over by the Western Wall and journey underground through the arches that held the ramps up to the Temple, along a nearly 1500 foot section of the original stones (that haven’t seen the light of day since the Romans buried them in the rubble of their destruction back in the first century) walking all the way past the fortress of Herod and through the original mines of Solomon. I entered over in the Jewish Quarter by the Western Wall and came above ground in the Muslim Quarter almost at the Gate of Herod. It was a spectacular tour with profound insight into the various stages of the development of Jerusalem and the Temple.
I was one of 45 pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem. For me it was a wonderful time of renewal in my faith, deepening in my understanding of our faith and dwelling in the mystery of salvation history. We live a beautiful and profound and wonderful and gritty and jubilant and tragic and amazing faith. God be praised!





By Peggy Weber

Photos courtesy of Catholic News Service

There are only two weeks left until Easter. For many, this Lent might have been transforming. Perhaps you prayed more. Maybe you got to Mass more often. And maybe you have been able to avoid the sweets, chocolate or whatever else you gave up.

For others, like myself, there are always stumbling blocks during Lent. It seems as if I am running a marathon and not keeping pace. I mean to get to daily Mass but do not make it. I could blame the weather or my busy schedule but I also know I could get up earlier and make it to a 7 a.m. Mass in the area. I have stayed away from ice cream and lottery tickets. However, I have faltered with my “giving up butter” idea.

But Lent is not over! I can sigh and bemoan what I have not done or rejoice that there is still time left to make this Lent special.


Here are three tips that I think can help.

  1. Go to confession. It will really bring home the penitential season and re-calibrate your thinking.
  2. Attend a talk or mission or parish activity like the Stations of the Cross or a luncheon or fish fry. The iobserve calendar is filled with choices.
  3. Just take one minute each day to sit in quiet. Five would be better but one is a start.

Good luck and have a good and blessed end of Lent.