Tag Archives: Holy Land

Steve Ray – 2019 Summit speaker


Steve Ray sat on a hotel balcony, watching a group of pilgrims swimming and relaxing in the Sea of Galilee.

“Every time we come, there are always new things to discover and new things to learn,” Ray, 60, a well-known Catholic apologist, speaker, author, and filmmaker, said during a break from a pilgrimage in early October that he led to the Holy Land.

Ray, who was a Baptist before he and his entire family converted to the Catholic faith 24 years ago, will be speaking at the Legatus Summit in January, and will also lead Legatus’ Holy Land pilgrimage in 2019.

Known as “Jerusalem Jones,” Ray and Janet, his wife of 41 years, have been to the Holy Land more than 160 times. They also travel throughout the world, speaking at conferences. While in Galilee, Ray spoke with Legatus magazine.

What will you be speaking about at next month’s Summit?

The talk is going to be related to the upcoming pilgrimage, the working title being, “The Beauty and Truth of the Fifth Gospel.” When Pope St. Paul VI went to the Holy Land, he said, “This land is the fifth Gospel.” When you come here, it makes the other four pop into technicolor widescreen.

What is on the itinerary for the 2019 pilgrimage?

We’ll spend three nights in Galilee. We got a nice hotel right on the shore of Galilee so they’ll have access to the water. The first day we’ll go have Mass at the Mount of Transfiguration. We’ll renew our marriage vows in Cana, then we’ll have lunch in Nazareth. Then we’ll go to the Church of the Annunciation, where Mary was visited by the angel and given the good news, and where God became man. We pray the First Joyous Mystery in front of the cave at the altar where the angel spoke to Mary.

The next day, we have Mass at the Mount of Beatitudes. We go up to the Golan Heights and have lunch up there. We actually look out over the country of Syria and Lebanon and talk about the political situation going on here in the Middle East. Then we come back down and look at some more sites along the Sea of Galilee. The next day we have Mass at the place where Jesus said to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” in Capernaum.

How spiritually enriching can a pilgrimage to the Holy Land be?

There is no other place you can travel to where God actually walked with His own feet. I tell people, “You come here, you want to touch the land. But be careful, because the land is going to reach out and touch you.” This is sacred ground, this is where God himself walked, this is where the Mother of God walked. You can’t come here with an open heart and not be touched by it and changed forever.

You’ve been to the Holy Land more than 100 times. Does it ever get old?

Never. I always tell the pilgrims that I see it again for the first time through their eyes. It’s always exciting to see newcomers, people who have never been here before, and to see the tears well up in their eyes and the excitement when they realize this is where Mary and Jesus stood.

What projects are you working on now?

I have a new book coming out with Ignatius Press called The Papacy: What the Pope Does and Why It Matters. Also, we have nine of the Footprints of God movies done. I have one more to do. In 2020, we’re going to do Doctors of the Church. I’m also in the middle of another book with Ignatius Press on the Book of Genesis and we have pilgrimages already planned for the next five years, not only to the Holy Land but also to places likes Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Mexico, Poland, and Ireland.

Connecting to Christ

Holy Land pilgrimage brings the Bible to life for Legatus members . . .

While there was peace in the Middle East when Legatus members signed up for an Oct. 8-18 Holy Land pilgrimage, the news in September was saturated with stories of fighting in Gaza. Still, the trip went on.

The group of 41 included Legatus founder Tom Monaghan, as well as executive director John Hunt. It was Steve Ray’s third time leading a Legatus Holy Land pilgrimage. Father Shane Tharp of Chickasha, Okla., served as the spiritual director.

“I told them to trust me,” said Ray, who has traveled to the Holy Land more than 130 times. “This wasn’t my first rodeo.”

Up-close access

Notre Dame Center, the Vatican-owned hotel where Legates stayed in Jerusalem.

Notre Dame Center, the Vatican-owned hotel where Legates stayed in Jerusalem.

The group saw all the major holy sites and experienced many perks along the way. They swam in the Sea of Galilee, renewed their baptismal vows in the Jordan, and renewed their wedding vows at Cana. They met the bishop of Jerusalem, and four Knights of the Holy Sepulchre obtained their pilgrimage shells at that site. Pilgrims also participated in an afternoon Bible study with Fr. Tharp, discussing the various sites and Bible passages of the day.

Steve Peroutka, a member of Legatus’ Baltimore Chapter, said he was inspired to attend the pilgrimage with his wife Debbie after having attended two previous Legatus trips to Ireland and Italy.

“Every one of us, to a man, was told by others ‘don’t go,’” said Peroutka regarding safety concerns. “Those who did go were rewarded for their courage. Instead of 50 buses at each of the holy sites, there were only five, so we were able to get up close and personal to see these places.”

Larry Eagan of the Western Massachusetts Chapter first learned of the pilgrimage at the 2014 Legatus Summit in Orlando.

“Steve Ray made an appealing case for it,” said Eagan. “When I spoke with him afterwards, he told me it would be one of the nicest trips he had ever done. He sold me on the quality and the TLC.”

Eagan attended the pilgrimage with his wife, Mary Anne. The highlight for Eagan was Gethsemane.

“We were there after Mass one morning and it was very tranquil,” he said. “Seeing the rock where Jesus prayed and sweat blood was very emotional, but seeing the living olive trees that were 2,000 years old, more than any other site, made me connect to the time of Christ.”

Footsteps of Christ

Steve and Janet Ray (center, sitting), together with Legatus pilgrims, pose with the Jerusalem Auxiliary Bishop William Hanna Shomali

Steve and Janet Ray (center, sitting), together with Legatus pilgrims, pose with the Jerusalem Auxiliary Bishop William Hanna Shomali

The pilgrims had high praise for their leaders: pilgrimage directors Steve and Janet Ray, Fr. Shane, and Amer Shedareh, a Catholic guide from Nazareth.

“We didn’t know anyone else, but enjoyed getting to know a group of like-minded people,” said Eagan. “That made the event even better. It was a pilgrimage during the day, with celebrations of the day’s events at night. There was great camaraderie and fun.”

“It was fabulous because the people you’re traveling with are such faithful people,” added Debbie Peroutka. “I also enjoyed getting to know Tom Monaghan. He’s always been this man who did so many things, but spending 10 days with him was pretty neat. He is an inspiration with what he’s done with his faith and for other people.”

Eagan said that the Gospel came alive for him while visiting Caesarea Philippi, where Christ said that he would build his Church upon the rock of Peter. “The setting and the background of this was a real eye-opener. I had no idea that it was such a pagan site.”

“To be there and know that you are there — you have no doubt that this was the place,” explained Steve Peroutka. “These sites are documented enough. We saw where Jesus ran around as a child, and where he lived with Peter. Now, when I hear a Gospel passage I can call to mind where it happened.”

TIM DRAKE is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus

Author and evangelist Steve Ray will lead Legatus’ Holy Land pilgrimage in October . . .


It’s safe to say that Steve Ray and his wife Janet feel right at home in the Holy Land. The renowned Catholic convert, apologist and filmmaker and his wife have been to Israel over 130 times.

Together they have led over 60 pilgrimages — about 10 per year — and they will lead Legatus’ Holy Land pilgrimage from Oct. 8-17.

The Footprints of God

Those who have been on a Ray pilgrimage say the experience is life-changing. Ray’s deep knowledge of scripture and his passion for the Holy Land are among the reasons pilgrims love to travel with him. Pilgrims also say they have developed a deeper understanding of Jesus and the world he lived in.

“Steve has a way of explaining things that anyone can understand,” said Rosie Cunningham, a member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter. The Cunningham family has gone on three pilgrimages with Ray.

“He adapts to anyone — from the most educated person to the most simple. We took six of our children and they all fell in love with him,” she said. “Today all of my children have an intimacy with Christ. We saw this on the trips. Every day they were praying on their own.”

Steve Ray

Steve Ray

Ray’s business background is another reason his pilgrimages are so successful. He began cleaning offices in high school and went on to found a janitorial company that, at its zenith, made $12 million per year and employed 600 people. The experience taught him how to take care of people and pay attention to detail.

“I was a Legatus member for 10 years,” he explained. “I know what businessmen want. We are very punctual, organized and structured.”

When Ray converted to Catholicism in 1994, his interests changed from business to the New Evangelization. After writing three books for Ignatius Press, Ray had a brainstorm in 2000.

“I woke my wife up and told her that I had a great idea: I had to make a series of videos on the history of salvation! We would film each video on location in Israel. My wife told me we didn’t even take good pictures. How could we possibly do a video series? She told me to go back to sleep,” said Ray.

Nevertheless, Ray embarked on the Footsteps of God project which has filmed seven out of the 10 episodes. The couple went to Iraq earlier this year to film the latest episode on Abraham. Leading pilgrimages was a natural outgrowth of Ray’s many years of studying and capturing the Holy Land on celluloid.

Life is a pilgrimage

holyland-1Ray has been leading groups to the Holy Land for nine years, and his program stands out from the others.

“Most groups go with a licensed Jewish guide and a Muslim driver,” he said. “I only work with Christians. We eat at Christian shops and try to stay in Christian hotels. In Jerusalem, we stay at the Notre Dame Center, which is owned by the Vatican. In this way, we support the local Christian population.”

Janet Ray assists her husband on all pilgrimages. Through the years, the couple has collected countless stories of lives changed while on pilgrimage.

“We have had many conversions — not just of lapsed Catholics, but also of Protestants,” he explained. “One couple had come on the trip hoping to convert me back to Protestantism.”

Another woman came on pilgrimage and never spoke the entire time. On the last day, she told Ray that she had been an alcoholic. Before the trip, she had planned to kill herself. Her children had convinced her to go on the pilgrimage and, through it, she had experienced real healing.

Highlights for the upcoming Legatus pilgrimage include a trip to the Garden of Gethsemane and stops at sites of the rosary.

holyland-2“You will never pray the rosary or read Scripture in the same way again,” said Laura Sacha, Legatus’ conference director, who was on the last Legatus pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009.

“We go to the wedding church in Cana,” she said. “This is very special for our married couples who can renew their wedding vows. We go to the Sea of Galilee and take a boat ride. We have a Mass at St. Peter’s house in Capernaum. We travel along the Via Dolorosa. We go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Legates will also swim in the Dead Sea and sample wine at a local winery.

“We get olive wood rosaries made in the Holy Land and everyone is allowed to touch places at Calvary, Bethlehem and the Jordan River,” Ray explained. “These rosaries then become third class relics.”

Safe and secure

holyland-3Ray is always asked about the safety of pilgrims in Israel.

“It is perfectly safe,” he said. “I have taken thousands of people to the Holy Land. We have never once had a problem. Israel gets 3.5 million tourists every year. None of them have ever gotten hurt. There are a few hot spots in Gaza, but we don’t go there. By the end of every pilgrimage, people laugh about how safe it was. Don’t let the devil steal this opportunity from you.”

Louise Rainey, a member of Legatus’ Orlando Chapter, went to Israel in 2007. “There were issues in the Middle East at the time and quite a few people backed out. We decided to go anyway and were so glad we did. We never felt any threats at all.”

“I was really nervous about going,” said Maria Cunningham, 16. “But Steve Ray knew where to go and he made us all feel like he had known us forever. Being in those places was basically stepping out of my world and stepping into a new one.”

Pope Francis will visit Israel and Jordan from May 24-26. One of the stops on his packed itinerary is Mass in the Upper Room — the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost. The last person to celebrate Mass there was St. John Paul II in 2000.

“Local Christians will get a shot of encouragement and pride by his visit,” said Ray. “Pope Francis will charm everyone and hopefully effect some changes. He will address the persecutions and limitations imposed on the local Palestinian Christians.”

Ray said security for the papal trip will cause headaches for the local populations and pilgrims, “but if they do get to see him by some chance, the pilgrims will remember it for the rest of their lives.”

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

To register for Legatus’ October 8-17 Holy Land Pilgrimage:

Call: (313) 565-8888 x 150

Email: conferences@legatus.org

Knights of the Holy Sepulchre

Legates invest in the Holy Land by supporting the Church in the land of Christ . . .

The word “knight” usually conjures up images of fierce battles, shining armor and damsels in distress. Countless knights traveled to the Holy Land during the Crusades to safeguard the holy city of Jerusalem between the 11th and 13th centuries.

In Catholic circles, however, knights are still a reality. One group of knights has never stopped working to protect the Holy Land’s Christians and sacred places. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem has been active more than 900 years, ranking it as one of the Catholic Church’s oldest institutions.

Worldwide influence

Cardinal John Patrick Foley

Cardinal John Patrick Foley

“We want to make sure that a Christian presence continues in the land of Our Lord,” said Cardinal John Patrick Foley, the first American to be named the Order’s Grand Master. “We don’t want it to be a place of dead stones, but of living stones,” he told Legatus Magazine. “We’re called the Order of the Holy Sepulchre because the tomb is empty. Jesus has risen.”

Needless to say, the Order ceased all military activities centuries ago. Today, the organization focuses on building up the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, which encompasses Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and Palestine. It provides a full two-thirds of Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal’s annual budget.

The Order has 26,000 members in 53 different jurisdictions called lieutenancies. The organization has a worldwide reach with constituents in 35 countries and more than 12,000 members in the U.S. alone.

“The evaluation process for membership is quite thorough,” said Rita Deiss, Legatus member and Lady in the Order. “I consider it quite an honor to be a member.”

Women and men are equals in the Order, with the highest rank being Knight and Lady. Deiss is the first female chancellor for the Western lieutenancy of the U.S.

“We made a Holy Land pilgrimage very early in my membership and feel very strongly about Christian people living there,” said Deiss. “Christians make up less than 1% of the population, and we are the only group supporting these ‘living stones.’”

When on pilgrimage, members are encouraged to visit projects the Order supports. They are also asked to pray daily for peace.

“Members have a great commitment to the Holy Land,” said Monsignor Chris Connelly, a member of the Order and chaplain of Legatus’ Western Massachusetts chapter. “We get a newsletter for our lieutenancy and an annual report from Rome. We are connected through our different spiritual events and investitures of new members.”

Building the future

Prayer and financial donations are members’ primary means of protecting and building the Church in Israel, Jordan and beyond.

“Despite all the problems in the Holy Land, vocations are increasing,” said Cardinal Foley. “In fact, we’re working on building 10 new rooms for the seminary in Bethlehem.”

The Order has built 43 schools and Bethlehem University over the past 10 years, and a maternity wing is under construction at St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem — the city’s only Christian hospital.

Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre have donated more than $50 million for the work of the Latin Patriarch since 2000, Cardinal Foley said. Most projects are suggested by the Patriarch. However, members also initiate projects.

“Our members visited a school in Zarga, Jordan,” Deiss explained. “They noticed there was no library. So they took it upon themselves to build one for them.”

Some American members import olive wood figurines. Others sell Christmas cards and rosaries produced in the Holy Land. But the economic impact of these projects is minimal, Cardinal Foley said. In a land where discrimination against Christians is not uncommon, stable employment is crucial for those who follow Christ.

The Order would like to develop a microcredit project for small Christian businesses, the cardinal said, but checkpoints at the Israeli West Bank security wall make such an endeavor incredibly difficult.

“I was in D.C. recently for the investiture of new members,” he said. “While I was there, I met with two senators and two representatives to speak about the freedom of movement issue.”

Stability and peace

Christian institutions, like those initiated by the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, have contributed to peace and stability in the region. The majority of students at Bethlehem University, for example, are Muslim — and St. Joseph Hospital’s new maternity ward will serve Jerusalem’s Muslim sector.

“We partnered with Rotary International to build science labs in the Holy Land,” Deiss explained. “We also provided wheelchairs for a rehabilitation hospital in Bethlehem.”

The Order’s construction projects themselves help build bridges between Muslims and Christians by employing people of all faiths.

“The idea is that all of the works are open to everybody,” said Cardinal Foley. “King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abbas of Palestine, and President Netanyahu of Israel have all said that Catholic schools are a great source of mutual understanding.”

“On my first big trip to Galilee, I visited a school where a Greek Orthodox Boy Scouts band played ‘Oh Susanna’ on bagpipes,” he explained. “It was really something. It’s so important to meet with the Christian community when you go to the Holy Land. You have Druze, Muslims, Latin-rite Christians, Melkite, Armenian, Orthodox Christians, Syrian Catholics all living together. The Holy Land is a real ‘salad’ where people want to maintain their identity while accepting the other.”

Monsignor Chris Connelly

Monsignor Chris Connelly

Cardinal Foley, who has participated in many of Legatus’ pilgrimages to Rome, said there is a unique connection between Legatus and the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre.

“As business leaders, Legatus members could have lots of ideas for the Holy Land,” he said.

Both groups have similar requirements, which may account for the high number of Legates who are also members of the Order.

“Knights have to obey and observe Catholic ethics and principles when carrying out professional and social duties,” said Monsignor Connelly. “Legates, in the marketplace, also observe Catholic ethics. A knight is asked to set an example as a Catholic in word and deed, and people in Legatus are proudly Catholic.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.

Pilgrimage brings the Bible to life

Legatus members’ nine-day tour of Israel’s holy sites has renewed their faith . . .

holyland-groupAs Legatus members packed up to head home from their nine-day Holy Land pilgrimage, many of them were at a loss for words to describe how they had been affected by walking in the footsteps of Jesus, Mary and the apostles.

“Bible reading and sermons are forever changed now that I have explored the very caves, tombs, mounts, seas and shorelines — the places known to Jesus, His family and followers,” said David Mossy, who accompanied his father, Wiley Mossy of Legatus’ Houston Chapter, on the pilgrimage.

The Mossys were among 47 Legatus members and family members who took part in the Oct. 10-19 pilgrimage led by award-winning author and filmmaker Steve Ray and his wife Janet, both registered tour guides in Israel.

Holy ground

Legates visited Nazareth, Galilee, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Gethsemane, Bethlehem and Jericho. Pilgrims walked the Via Dolorosa and visited the Holy Sepulchre. They renewed their wedding vows at Cana, floated in the Dead Sea and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Steve and Janet Ray, said Mossy, “emphasized that it was a pilgrimage, not sightseeing.” Mossy said that he and his father were “overwhelmed by the sacred nature” of their journey.

Lou Caravella and his wife Patty of Legatus’ Cleveland Chapter said they were so thrilled with the pilgrimage they would like to take another one.

“I knew it was going to be good, but it was far better than we expected or anticipated,” said Lou Caravella. “I hope we can go on another pilgrimage with our kids.”

Maurice Glavin, his wife Ann Maria, and their three sons were also part of the pilgrimage group. The Glavins, members of Legatus’ Wilmington Chapter, are on a year-long tour of Europe.

“We found the pilgrimage just a fantastic experience as a family,” said Maurice Glavin “That says a lot.”

Life changing

holyland-deadseaLegatus’ executive director, John Hunt and his wife Kathie, members of the Chicago Chapter, were first-time pilgrims to the Holy Land.

“This was a life-changing experience for me, for Kathie, and for everyone who made the commitment to come to Israel,” he said. “It was truly a spiritual, cathartic experience.”

David and Lisa Fischer of Legatus’ Fort Worth Chapter made the pilgrimage with their four young children — Emily, Megan, Henry and George.

“We went on the pilgrimage to give the kids a better sense of their faith, so they could experience the actual places in the Bible,” David Fischer said. “When we say a family rosary now, we have a visual picture of where that mystery took place. It makes it more real for all of us.”

Emily Fischer, who just turned 13, agrees. She said that even though floating in the Dead Sea was the coolest thing she did in the Holy Land, her experience in the Garden of Gethsemane was more powerful.

“We had Mass near the rock where Jesus sweated blood and saw the olive trees,” she said of the ancient trees, which could be more than 2,000 years old.

“It was amazing to be where Jesus was and to see how he lived and experience the heat and rocks and everything,” she added. “Now when I read the Bible, I have a picture in my mind of where it actually happened.”

Patrick Novecosky is Legatus Magazine’s editor.

Pilgrim of peace

Pope calls for Palestinian state during Holy Land pilgrimage to Jordan & Israel. . .

May 10 Papal Mass in Amman, Jordan

May 10 Papal Mass in Amman, Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI stepped into the fray of Middle East politics by endorsing a Palestinian state during his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

During his May 15 farewell speech at the Tel Aviv airport, the Pope stressed the need for universal recognition of Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ “right to a sovereign independent homeland.

“Let the two-state solution become a reality,” the Holy Father said, noting that six decades of bloodshed in the Holy Land has distressed him.

“No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war!” he pleaded. “Instead, let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice; let there be genuine reconciliation and healing.”

A model for peace

The impassioned speech was one of the many highlights of Pope Benedict’s May 8-15 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which began with a four-day stop in Jordan. In many ways, his visit mirrored that of Pope John Paul II, who visited Jordan and Israel in 2000.

Pope Benedict began his journey with a stop at Jordan’s Mount Nebo, where tradition says Moses gazed out upon the Promised Land before his death.

“It is appropriate that my pilgrimage should begin on this mountain.” This holy place, he said, should remind all Christians to “undertake a daily exodus from sin and slavery to life and freedom.”

The Pope visited a mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman before participating in vespers at St. George Melkite Cathedral. It was inspiring to see the Jordanian Christians’ affection for the Holy Father. When he entered the cathedral, their applause was almost deafening.

More than 30% of Jordan’s 109,000 Catholics piled into Amman International Stadium on May 10 for the papal Mass. The youth presence was impressive. Thousands of young people cheered and sang long before the Holy Father’s arrival. A song written especially for the papal visit — “Benvenuto Benedetto in Jordania” (Welcome to Jordan, Benedict in Italian) — rang through the crowd dozens of times throughout the morning.

In his homily, the Pope exhorted the Middle Eastern Christians to stay in the Holy Land and give testimony to Jesus in this conflict-plagued region.

“Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the Church’s mission in the Holy Land demands of each of you a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition; the courage to engage in dialogue and to work side by side with other Christians in the service of the Gospel.”

In his farewell address in Amman on May 11, the Holy Father hailed Jordan as a model for peace and religious tolerance in the Middle East.

“I would like to encourage all Jordanians, whether Christian or Muslim, to build on the firm foundations of religious tolerance that enable the members of different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect,” he said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has gone to great lengths to foster interreligious dialogue, the Pope said. “This spirit of openness … has contributed to Jordan’s far-sighted political initiatives to build peace throughout the Middle East.”

Two-state solution

The Holy Father wasted no time getting down to business after touching down in Israel. He called for a Palestinian state in his first speech. He went on to meet with other religious leaders, visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and celebrate Mass in Nazareth for about 50,000 pilgrims.

Together with Israeli president Shimon Peres, the Pope planted an olive tree at the presidential palace as a sign of the close relationship between Jews and Christians. He called this gesture, along with meeting with Holocaust survivors at the Yad Vashem memorial, the most memorable of his pilgrimage to Israel.

“So many Jews … were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred,” he said. “That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied.”

The Holy Father also met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian territories. He called the security wall separating Palestinians from Israelis “one of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands.” Acknowledging how hard it will be to achieve lasting peace, the Pope said said he had prayed “for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation.”

Patrick Novecosky is the editor of Legatus Magazine. He was in Jordan for Pope Benedict’s four-day visit to that country.

Journey of faith

Pope Benedict  XVI’s May 8-15 visit to Jordan and Israel will hold deep significance. . .

Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Holy Land in May

Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Holy Land in May

Pope Benedict XVI will see many contrasting images on his first papal trip to the Holy Land — the soft hills of Israel’s countryside and the security wall cutting through Palestinian territory; ancient churches built over biblical sites and bullet marks on the church of the nativity.

It’s a reminder of the deep spiritual heritage of this land as well as the ongoing strife between Palestinians and Jews. Against this backdrop, the Pope’s every word and gesture during his May 8-15 visit to Jordan and Israel will hold deep significance.

Christian minority

One of the primary reasons for any papal visit is to strengthen local Christian communities — and the Holy Land’s Christians are in dire need of support. Israel is home to about 150,000 Christians — less than 2% of the population. About 35 years ago, Christians made up 80% of Bethlehem’s population; today they are 9%. The decades-long conflict has caused a mass migration.

Additionally, unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank tops 85%. Besides poverty, Christians also face harassment by Muslim neighbors.

“They can’t baptize anyone but their own children, and they can’t build churches,” said Sandra Keating, theology professor and interreligious dialogue expert at Providence College. “They cannot live as Christians where they are, just as martyrs. Many have simply left, and those left behind are in a worse situation.”

The security wall in the Palestinian territories was built to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel, but it has also trapped innocent Palestinian Christians.

Steve Ray, a registered tour guide in Israel and At Large Legatus member from Michigan, knows its effects firsthand.

“My friend Raji’s brother had a heart attack,” he said. “They went to a checkpoint and were held up for three hours before they could get to a hospital. The brother ended up dying. If the wall hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Papal journey

During this trip, Pope Benedict will visit sites that are sacred to Jews like Mount Nebo and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. He will also meet Israel’s two chief rabbis.

Pope John Paul II prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 26, 2000

Pope John Paul II prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 26, 2000

Like John Paul II, who visited the Holy Land in 2000, Pope Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and meet with Holocaust survivors. However, his stop will avoid the memorial’s museum, which includes a controversial placard denigrating Pope Pius XII’s efforts to aid Jews during World War II.

“The placard is a huge problem and scandal,” said Ray, a best-selling author and evangelist. “It presents Pope Pius as being silent at best or collaborating with the Nazis.”

The Vatican’s relationship with Jews was strained in January when the Pope lifted the excommunication for a Lefevrite bishop who was later discovered to be a Holocaust-denier. Since then, the Pope has clarified the Holy See’s position on the Holocaust and apologized for the lack of a better background check.

“Though this caused a ruckus with the Jewish community, enough good will already existed from years of dialogue,” said Keating. “This issue has really passed.”

Muslim dialogue

Besides Jews and Christians, Pope Benedict will also meet with Muslim leaders. He will visit mosques in Jordan and Israel, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem — the third holiest Muslim site after Mecca and Medina.

“This is a major event for the Muslim world,” said Keating. “It is the place where Muslims believe that Mohammed made a night journey to heaven by the help of angels.”

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most challenging issues for Israel because it forms the basis for Muslim claims to the Holy Land. It’s built on the site of the Jewish temple destroyed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

“Our Holy Father has done an outstanding outreach to the Muslim world,” said Steve Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development. “He invited Muslim scholars to the Vatican in response to an open letter written by Muslim leaders to the Christian world in 2007. They met in the Vatican in November 2008. The Pope will be well received by Muslim leaders.”

The open letter written by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders was the first time a group of high-profile Muslims united to call for peace. The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is expected to help build the Church’s relationship with Islam.

Call for peace

Another relationship on the Holy Father’s mind will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pope Benedict continues to call for peace and dialogue despite talks being at a standstill. In his Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday, he said that “reconciliation — difficult, but indispensable — is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence” in the Middle East. His trip should give renewed energy to the peace process.

The Pope is also expected to reach out to the Israeli government. The Vatican is asking for protection of Church lands, a clear juridical status for Church entities in Israel and tax exemptions for property. Discussions on these issues have been at a standstill since 1993 when the Fundamental Accord between the Vatican and Israel was established.

Pope Benedict will carry the weight of these troubles as he travels the land where Jesus walked. When Pope John Paul II traveled to Israel in 2000, he won over both Israelis and Palestinians. He is especially remembered for slipping a prayer note into the crevices of the Wailing Wall.

If the past few years are any indication, Pope Benedict will certainly win over the region’s heart with his humility and sincere concern for its people.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.


Legatus Holy Land pilgrimage

Steve Ray

Steve Ray

Legatus will host a Holy Land pilgrimage from Oct. 10-19 with expert guides Steve and Janet Ray — the writers, producers and hosts of the award-winning documentary series The Footprints of God.

“The pilgrimage will spend 2.5 days in Galilee, one day in Bethlehem, three days in Jerusalem and one day in the south visiting Masada, Qumran and Jericho,” Ray said.

There will be memorable experiences for participants every day.

“We’ll renew baptismal vows at the Jordan River,” he explained. “Depending on the priest, we may get water sprinkled with a branch — or we may be asked to walk in up to our knees.

“We’ll walk the Via Dolorosa and we’ll all get to touch Mount Calvary. In Cana, we renew wedding vows. We’ll go on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. In Capernaum, we’ll have Mass at St. Peter’s house where Jesus lived for three years.”

Three must-see sites include Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre and Nazareth. “We would not have the Incarnation without Nazareth,” Ray said.

“It was a village of 30 caves — and Mary lived in one of them.”

In Bethlehem, pilgrims will visit the Church of the Nativity, the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. Depending on crowds, Legates may be able to touch the actual spot where Jesus was born.

With regards to safety, Ray notes he has traveled to the Holy Land more than 60 times.

“I have never felt danger,” he explained. “I cannot over-emphasize this. The violence is in Gaza, which is one little corner of this country. Since the security wall was built, there have been no problems.”

To register or for more information, visit legatus.org or call (313) 565-8888 ext 121.