HOUSTON – Dr. Scott Hahn and his wife Kimberly led over a dozen Houstonians, who were among 200 pilgrims from around the world, on a 10-day pilgrimage to The Holy Land, a trip organized by Milanka Lachman, president of 206 Tours in New York. I was glad to be part of this experience.
This was a rare once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel along with internationally respected theologian Dr. Hahn, to the land where Jesus walked and to visit the Holiest Churches in the world.
- Photos: Holy Land Pilgrimage Part I
- Photos: Holy Land Pilgrimage Part II
- Photos: Holy Land Pilgrimage Part III
- Photos: Holy Land Pilgrimage Part V
Dr. Hahn is a professor of Theology and Scripture at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio and has authored over forty books, including best-selling titles like “Rome Sweet Home,” “The Lamb’s Supper,” “Hail Holy Queen” and many more. He is an exceptionally popular speaker and teacher around the world and in 2012, was awarded the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990. He is the founder and President of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and in 2005, was awarded the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation at St. Vincent Seminary.
My Holy Land Experience
The Holy Land pilgrimage with Dr. Hahn and his wife took place January 4-14, 2014 and included several Spiritual Directors including Fr. Robert Ketcham, Chaplain of Saint John the Baptist High School in West Islip; Fr. Sebastian Kajko from Bradford, England; Fr. Luke Fletcher, member of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Bronx and host of a YouTube series called “The Faith Side,”; and Fr. Peter Purpura, Priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, currently pursuing a doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
When you visit The Holy Land and walk where Jesus walked, every step you take, every stone you touch, every sight you see tells a story. And, you are able to see first-hand the wonders and Churches throughout Israel that have inspired the Christian and Jewish faiths.
When I returned from my trip to The Holy Land, one of the first questions everyone asked was, ‘is it safe to travel to Israel?’ It is surprising to many to learn Israel has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Each year, millions of tourists visit Israel and want to go back again and again.
Personally, I have been to Israel five times and it is never the same – each trip, you will experience something new and see something that may have gone unnoticed before. It’s an indescribable experience that you have to see first-hand to fully understand.
Holiest Churches in the World
Throughout our pilgrimage, we celebrated daily Mass in the holiest Churches in the world. These included the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth; The Basilica of Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor; The Church of St. Peter’s House, Tiberias; The Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem; The Shepherd’s Church, Jericho; The Church of All Nations (Basilica of Agony) at Gethsemane; Church at Notre Dame Centre, Jerusalem; and finally High Mass at the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.
After exploring and walking to all the Holy sites, pilgrims enjoyed a wrap-up lecture each evening from Dr. Scott Hahn, who took our daily journey to new heights when he underscored the meaning of each place we visited. His words of wisdom throughout the day and at night were a gift and he truly inspired everyone about the meaning of our journey.
It is nearly impossible to cite one historical landmark as a favorite. They are all favorites including a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, a chance to sit in the room where the Last Supper took place, a walk along the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, a ride on a wooden boat on the Sea of Galilee, a visit to Capernaum, the Wedding Church of Cana, the birthplace of Jesus in the Church of the Nativity, and a camel ride. Each place had its' own special meaning. The finale was marked with a Celebration of High Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (at the Tomb of Jesus), a highlight very few pilgrims are able to experience.
Other highlights included the opportunity to be lectured by Dr. Scott Hahn and baptized at the Jordan River, a visit to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, a chance to float in the Dead Sea, a visit to the Dome of the Rock and the Golden Gate, and a visit with His Excellency, William Shomali, Bishop of Jerusalem at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, located in the heart of Jerusalem - one of the significant Catholic Pilgrim's centers in the Holy Land currently belonging to the Vatican.
Our day in Nazareth, Mary’s home and the town where Jesus lived as a child, was filled with so many highlights. We began the day by traveling up the beautiful Mediterranean coast to the Church of Cana, the site where Jesus performed His first miracle – turning water into wine at the request of His mother. We visited the Franciscan Chapel – The Wedding Church of Cana in Galilee - where members of our tour group renewed their wedding vows. After lunch, our group celebrated Mass at the Church of Annunciation, visited the Byzantine Church of St. Joseph and Mary’s Well, an underground spring in Nazareth which served as the city’s main water source for several centuries, and also the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
The group left Nazareth and traveled to Tiberias checking in at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel which provides spectacular views of the beautiful shores of the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias was where we started to unfold the Ministry of Christ in Galilee.
Tiberias is a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Since the 16th century, Tiberias has been considered one of Judaism’s four Holy cities, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. Tiberias has been known for its hot springs, believed to cure skin and other ailments.
Our first day in Tiberias began with a beautiful morning boat ride on the Sea of Galilee to take in the beautiful landscape Jesus loved so much.
We rode in a replica of an ancient wooden boat and everyone soon found themselves surrounded by beautiful calming landscapes held sacred for thousands of years. The Sea of Galilee has much history including the time when Jesus walked on the water, calmed a storm, and showed His disciples the miraculous catches of fish.
After this, we visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the location of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. Then, we went to Tabgha to visit the Church of the Loaves and Fish where Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000 and onto the site known as “Peter’s Primacy.” Here, Jesus met with His disciples and told Peter “feed my lambs; feed my sheep” confirming him to be the first Pope.
This was followed by a short drive to Capernaum, a fishing village where Jesus launched his Ministry. Capernaum is located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee and it was here, according to tradition, Jesus healed the sick, preached in the synagogue and performed many miracles. We walked in the remains of the synagogue where Jesus taught and visited the church built over the site of Peter’s home. Pilgrims were excited to enjoy a lunch of the St. Peter Fish at a local restaurant and the locals are glad to see tourists, because we provide them with jobs.
The West Bank
Our drive up to Mt. Tabor and visit to The West Bank were memorable moments on the pilgrimage. Our drive up to the Basilica of the Transfiguration consisted of very narrow roads with multiple switchbacks to the summit, where the views, especially those west to Nazareth and east to the Sea of Galilee, are dramatic. We celebrated Mass here and then headed south to Samaria, a land rich in Old Testament, history and enjoyed lunch in Sebastia, rebuilt by Herod as the capital of the region.
In Samaria, we saw the twin peaks of Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, known in the Old Testament as Mt. Blessing and Mt. Cursing. We stopped at Jacob’s Well which is mentioned in the Gospel of John. The water at the bottom of the well is fed by flowing water which is why ancients gave it the name of “living water.” It was here at the well that Jesus met the Samaritan woman and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” Many pilgrims from around the world like to drink from the well.
The Holy City of Jerusalem
Our final leg of the pilrimage was spent in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the largest city in Israel and one that is rich in culture and history. We checked in at the wonderful five-star Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, within walking distance to the Jaffa Gate. Jerusalem is a city where three faiths come together - Christian, Jewish and Islam and most residents speak at least three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
We could have easily spent our entire pilgrimage here. It is most rewarding to explore the city of Jerusalem on foot, walking down the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and exploring the walls of the Old City, where you’ll see some of the oldest and most powerful religious sites in the world including the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb.
The Garden of Gethsemane is full of beautiful olive trees believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Did you know olive trees never die? It is believed Jesus came here with his disciples after the celebration of the Last Supper.
One key highlight of the pilgrimage was our visit to the Jordan Valley and the River Jordan, the site that marks the spot where Saint John baptized Jesus. Here, we enjoyed a lecture from Dr. Scott Hahn and a renewal of Baptism vows.
We stopped at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, drove through Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the World, viewed Mt. Temptation and the Sycamore Tree, and celebrated Mass at the Good Shepherd Church.
Many pilgrims wanted to personally experience the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea is a salt lake bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. With 33.7% salinity, it is nearly 9 times saltier then the ocean and animals cannot live here, nor will it allow you to swim or sink. Biblically, the Dead Sea was a place of refuge for King David. People also use the salt and the minerals from the Dead Sea to create cosmetics.
Our group visited the village of Ein Karem, birthplace of John the Baptist. According to tradition, it was here that Mary met her cousin Elizabeth and sang a hymn of praise, a song of gratitude to God which came to be known as the Magnificat.
We then made our way to Bethlehem which is under Palestinian territory. This means, you have to go through security checkpoints to get in and out of Bethlehem which is a walled city. We began our tour of Bethlehem at Manger Square, which stands in front of one of the oldest of Christian churches, the Church of the Nativity. We then celebrated Mass at the Church of St. Catherine which sits adjacent to The Church of the Nativity.
Over fifty percent of the Pilgrims on this tour had never visited The Holy Land before. So, their experience at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - the birthplace of Jesus - was very moving to them. The Church of the Nativity is a Basilica located in Palestinian territory. It is considered to be the oldest continuously operating Christian church in the world and is still considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
Pilgrims were able to go down into the Grotto of the Nativity, which marks the spot of Jesus’ birth. Beneath the Altar, there is a silver star with the Latin inscription: HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). We then celebrated Mass at St. Catherine’s Church at Sinai presided by Father Sebastian.
Our visit to the Mt. of Olives, Mt. Zion began with a stop in the Upper Room of the Last Supper. On the Mt. of Olives, we were able to take in the panoramic view of Jerusalem, stopped at Gethsemane, where we reflected on Jesus’ final night. The Garden contains trees, the roots of which go back to the time of Jesus. We visited the Church of all Nations to celebrate Mass and pray at the ‘Rock of Agony,” a section of bedrock identified as the place where Jesus prayed alone in the garden on the night of His arrest.
We then walked down the Palm Sunday road to stop at the beautiful little church, Dominus Flevit – “the Lord wept.” It was here that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Dominus Flevit is a Roman Catholic Church located on the Mount of Olives facing the Old City of Jerusalem and Dome of the Rock. Dominus Flevit was fashioned in the shape of a teardrop to symbolize the tears of Jesus. While walking toward the city of Jerusalem, Jesus became so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Second Temple and predicted its future destruction, he wept openly.
We also visited the Church of Peter in Gallicantu (“crowing rooster”). This beautiful Church commemorates Peter’s Denial of Christ, his repentance and then being forgiven by Jesus. Our group also dropped by the Upper Room, commemorating the Last Supper.
One emotional stop was our visit to the Western Wall and our walk on the Sacred Ground of the Temple Mount. We remember the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the confrontation with the money changers. The Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism, and for many, the most powerful site in all of Israel, the retaining wall of the Temple Mount (built by King Herod.)
The Temple Mount at The Dome of the Rock, is one of the most important religious sites in the Old City. At least four religions are known to have used the Temple Mount: Judaism, Christianity, Roman and Islam.
Today, there are dual claims by both the Judaism and Islam religions and the Temple Mount is one of the most contested religious sites in the world. As the site is part of the Old City, controlled by Israel since 1967, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim sovereignty over it, and it remains a major focal point of the Arab-Israeli conflict today.
Our visit to the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center marked a special occasion as pilgrims joined the Israel Christian local community in a pre-scheduled lecture in the John Paul II Auditorium and Convention Center delivered by Dr. Scott Hahn. Hundreds of local Christians and local Church leaders, including His Excellency, William Shomali, Bishop of Jerusalem, came to hear a 2-hour lecture with Dr. Scott Hahn, and it was a honor to have them with us.
On the final day of the pilgrimage, we walked the Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross) at the Antonia Fortress, where Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. From there, He was taken through the Old City of Jerusalem to be crucified. This mile-long devotional route through the old City of Jerusalem, leading from the site of the Antonia Fortress to Golgotha (Calvary), the place of the Crucifixion. The Via Dolorosa is marked by 14 Stations.
Who can walk these steps without feeling the weight of the cross that Christ carried for all of us?
The Holy Land experience is something all of us will carry with us for our entire lives. Just walking through the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem and exploring the land where jesus walked is an experience that invites the entire world to reflect on the history of humanity.
If you have the opportunity to visit The Holy Land, chances are you will never read the Bible the same way again. The pages of the Bible come alive and take on an extra special meaning. The most important thing to note is when you travel to The Holy Land, you are at a special peace.
206 Tours brings many pilgrim groups to The Holy Land and also travels to Holy places such as the Shrines of Italy, Medjugorje, Fatima, Spain and a walking tour through El Camino.
Editor's Note: Thank you, Dr. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, for making my 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, unforgettable once again. Heartfelt gratitude to Milanka Lachman and the entire 206 Tours staff, for the personal touch to make sure everyone optimized their experience in The Holy Land.
Photo Credits: Contributed by Lisa Lacourse and Christine Di Stadio