Walking in Christ’s footsteps
Q&A with Catholic convert Steve Ray who left business for the land of Christ . . .
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.