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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

Walking in Christ’s footsteps

Q&A with Catholic convert Steve Ray who left business for the land of Christ . . .

Holy Land pilgrimage guide Steve Ray

Holy Land pilgrimage guide Steve Ray

Steve Ray can hardly contain his excitement when talking about the land where Jesus walked. The award-winning filmmaker, author and entrepreneur will lead Legatus members on a Holy Land pilgrimage from Oct. 10-19. Ray and his wife Janet are registered tour guides in Israel.

The duo has been to the Holy Land nearly 70 times, leading tour groups since 2005. They will take Legatus pilgrims to Cana, Galilee, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho. Pilgrims will walk the Via Dolorosa and visit Mount Calvary.

Ray spoke to Legatus Magazine editor Patrick Novecosky about his journey to the Catholic Church and his love for the land of Christ.

You once led a successful business. Why did you give it up?

I couldn’t do both things at the same time well. The No. 1 reason for my shift in focus from the business world to the Holy Land is that I fell in love with the Church. When I discovered the Catholic Church, it became a passionate love affair for my wife and me.

Bringing pilgrims to the Holy Land began when we took own kids there — and seeing the impact it had on them. We took our teenagers to Israel for the first time in 1995 after our family became Catholic. When we came back to the States, they began going to daily Mass on their own, going to confession every month on their own.

These are unusual things for teenagers to do. When I asked them why, they said, “Dad, we always knew the Bible was true. But when we touched the place where Jesus lay in the tomb and touched the place where the blood dripped from the cross, we knew that it was true with a capital T.” It really changed their lives.

When our daughter Emily was 15, we took her to the Holy Land. She went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with her friend and came back sobbing hysterically. After about 10 minutes of crying, she said, “Dad, I’ve been in that church with you so many times, but this time I realized that He was really there.” It profoundly changed her. The Lord spoke to her in that place. For me, it’s worth every penny to take my daughter there and have that kind of experience because it will stay with her for the rest of her life.

We realized that we would like to take everybody there. That’s how we got started with The Footprints of God video series. We figured that most people can’t go, so we’ll make movies and bring the Holy Land to them. We’ll show them that the Christian faith is rooted in history and in geography. I saw how much the movies affected people. They said, “Steve, you know the Holy Land better than anyone. Lead us on a pilgrimage.” We took our first group in 2005, and we sold a bus overnight. We’ve been doing it ever since.

Why is pilgrimage important to being Catholic?

It’s part of the very fabric and fiber of our tradition. It goes all the way back to the ancient Jews. If you wanted to see the glory of God, you went Jerusalem. That’s where the festivals were — the Passover, the Festival of Booths. They were all in Jerusalem. The Holy Family went on pilgrimage at least once a year from Nazareth all the way up to the mountains of Jerusalem.

It was something that the early Christians did as a penance. The word pilgrim means “sojourner” or “traveler” — one who’s in a strange land. They leave what’s familiar to them and seek after God. Pilgrimage has always been part of the fabric of the Catholic — and Christian — tradition from the very beginning. The Fathers of the Church wrote about pilgrims coming from around the world to see the cave where Jesus was born.

Pilgrimage is part of the human psyche, and it’s something we’re trying to resurrect. It’s been forgotten in modernity, and we’re trying to get people to think in those terms again.

What’s special about a Holy Land pilgrimage?

There are sacred place all around the world. You can go to shrines and basilicas — all wonderful places — but there’s only one place in the world where you can find holy ground. That’s because God touched it. When Moses stood in front of the burning bush, God said, “Take off your sandals for this is holy ground.” The day before there was nothing special about that dirt. But now it’s holy ground because God touched it.

When God touches things, he sanctifies them, and they’re never the same again. He walked in the land of Israel with his own feet. He walked on the water and was baptized in the Jordan. This is why water is sanctified for baptism. Jesus sanctified it when he put his feet in it. He was on Mount Tabor when he looked out over Jerusalem and said, “Go out into all the world and make disciples.” That’s where evangelism started. Jesus’ blood dripped to the ground in Israel, not in Rome or some other place. That’s where everything started.

When Pope Paul VI went to the Holy Land in 1964, he called it the “fifth Gospel.” You can read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but in order to get the full impact of those gospels — and the full impact of the life of Christ — you have to read the fifth gospel as well because that opens up revelations that you can’t get from reading the Book.

Do people still ask you if it’s safe to travel to Israel?

Yes. I had a funny experience in Oklahoma City, two blocks from the building that had been blown up by Timothy McVeigh. Someone asked me if I was afraid to go to Israel. I said, “No, I was afraid to come to Oklahoma City. Look at what happened two blocks down the road.”

There’s a misconception about safety in Israel because you see fighting on the TV news. In reality, those things do happen periodically, but the fighting happens in isolated areas like Gaza or Nablus — areas we never even get close to. They don’t affect any of the holy sites we go to. We take our children and our grandchildren without a moment’s hesitation. Over the last 20 years, no pilgrim has been hurt in the Holy Land. We are the customers, and they are not out to hurt us. It’s a very safe place to go.

Is there concern about tensions with Iran?

Not really. Other Arab countries are doing everything they can to keep Iran from acting in a rogue way because they would be impacted by any stupid actions taken by Iran. They’ll keep Iran in check. Iran knows that if it would send a missile to Israel, they would soon be wiped off the face of the earth. It’s not a concern at this point.

You led a Legatus pilgrimage to the Holy Land two years ago. What was special about that group?

I found them to be very devout, intelligent and inquisitive. They were classy people. It was a joy to take them through the Holy Land. Everybody worked well together, and we were able to do a few things with them that we don’t do with other groups.

For this year’s pilgrimage, we’re trying to get a solemn entry into the Holy Sepulchre where the Franciscans actually process Legatus members into the Holy Sepulchre. We’ll have the place to ourselves for 30 minutes to go in and see the tomb.

What will be different about this pilgrimage?

The hotels will be a bit higher scale for the Legatus group.  We’re staying at a hotel right on the Sea of Galilee. They’ll get up in the morning and see the fishermen coming in with their boats — just like Peter, Andrew, James and John used to. In Jerusalem, we’re staying at a hotel within walking distance of the Old City. We will have local priest as our spiritual director. Father Vincent Nagle is the secretary to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He is Jewish and American by birth. Hopefully we’ll get an audience with the patriarch.

What will be the highlights?

The Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is always a highlight for pilgrims. Our farewell dinner will be in Bethlehem with a Passover lamb. That’s always a highlight. The hour-long boat ride on the Sea of Galilee is also a lot of fun. We explain the sea and the geography of Israel.

People will like our local guide. He is a Roman Catholic Palestinian Israeli citizen. He’s a walking encyclopedia and excellent speaker with perfect English. He can really explain what it’s like to be a Christian in the Holy Land. We will also try to meet some local Christians, so pilgrims won’t just have seen the ancient stones, but will have met some of the “living stones” of the Church.

Janet and I will be taking video and pictures all along the way, so 30 days from when the pilgrims get home they will receive a professional quality 90-minute DVD of the pilgrimage. In addition to that, I’ll be uploading video every day to my YouTube site so the pilgrims’ family and friends can follow them on “virtual pilgrimage.”

Patrick Novecosky is the editor of Legatus Magazine. An abridged version of this interview was published in the September 2009 issue of Legatus Magazine.

Click here to register or for more details, call: (313) 565-8888 Ext. 121.

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.