By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Imagine what it would be like to celebrate Christmas, Easter, Ascension Thursday, and the feasts of the Annunciation, Visitation and Assumption all over an eight day span, along with other celebrations of the public ministry of Christ, including the Marriage at Cana, the Baptism of the Lord, the Beatitudes, the Transfiguration and the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

That’s what the 170 pilgrims who accompanied Cardinal Rigali to the Holy Land March 26 to April 2 experienced as they visited churches and basilicas on or near the sites most historians and archaeologists identify with the historic events in the life of Our Lord and Savior, as explained by expert Christian guides. {{more}}

By special indult the Mass for the major feasts are celebrated year-round at the Holy Land churches and basilicas. In Bethlehem, on March 30, at St. Catherine’s Church of the Nativity the pilgrims joined the Cardinal for the Christmas Mass.

The Easter Mass was celebrated the next day at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The grotto containing the tomb is located in a small chapel completely surrounded by the large basilica. It was a rare privilege for the Cardinal to celebrate the consecration of the Mass at the actual tomb, with the readings and other parts of the Mass outside its open door before the congregation, which was much too large for the chapel.

Joining Cardinal Rigali at this and all of the daily Masses throughout Israel and Palestine were Bishops John McIntyre and Michael Fitzgerald; Msgrs. Louis D’Addezio, Donald Leighton, George Majoros, Richard Skelly and John Wendrychowicz; and Fathers Patrick Brady, Keith Chylinski, William Donovan, G. Dennis Gill, Stephen Moerman, Timothy O’Sullivan and Jeffrey Stecz.

The only permanent deacon on the pilgrimage was Deacon Alvin Clay of Immaculate Conception in Jenkintown, and because of this it was his singular honor to proclaim the Gospel at each of the Masses.

“As you are proclaiming the word and mentioning the places the feeling is so profound you get a sense of the Gospel you never had before,” he said. “We’ve always had a sense of the solemnity of it, but when you are here it is real. It’s going to take me a long time to decompress. I feel so privileged, in fact too privileged.”

Another stop included following the path of the Lord’s final journey through Jerusalem to Calvary through the Stations of the Cross, done at dawn before the crowded Muslim market district where most of stations are located awoke for the day.

There was also a visit to Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, revered by the Jewish people as the only surviving memory of the Second Temple. For this generation of Jews, it is not, as its name implies, a place of sorrow. After almost 2,000 years of wandering and the terrible persecution of the last century, they have joyfully come home.

For Christians the absence of the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans as Christ predicted shortly before his death, is a reminder that the new and eternal Jerusalem is to come.

There was also a short visit to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, where His Beatitude Fouad Twal presented the shell, an ancient symbol of pilgrimage, to knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre who were with the group.

Contrasting with the magnificent churches erected by the pious is the simplicity of the Garden of Olives, where some of the trees that witnessed the agony of Christ still stand, and also the beautiful Sea of Galilee and the surrounding hills where Christ ministered.

All of this and much more were captured by videographers Diana and David Von Glahn and Sonya Sark who were commissioned by Select International, the tour provider, to record every step of the way. At some future date their finished product is expected to be televised on EWTN.

Summing it up at an April 2 final liturgy at the birthplace of John the Baptist, Cardinal Rigali recalled the many holy places visited.

“We have been very blessed during these days,” he said. “We have had various opportunities for reflection and prayer to consider what God has done for us and the blessings He has bestowed on us. The time has come when we must communicate to others what we have received. To do this effectively we must live His commandment of love, His commandment to ‘Love one another as I have loved you.'”

For immediate memories, many pilgrims were almost at a loss for words.

Tom Locher, of Maternity B.V.M. Parish in Philadelphia, who attended with his wife Catherine, said, “I’m 80 years old and I’ve never experienced anything like this. It is overwhelming. At the Christmas Mass in Bethlehem I thought I was going to bawl like a baby. I just wish every Catholic could come and do this.”

For Jim Morris of St. Alphonsus Parish in Maple Glen, attending with his wife Kathy, the River Jordan was memorable. “At the end of the day, all renewing our baptismal vows, I felt was really special.”

For Timothy Flanagan of St. Catherine Parish in Wayne and board chairman of the Catholic Leadership Institute, a special place was the Hill of Transfiguration. “The church was absolutely spectacular, it was designed around the whole concept of Moses, Elijah and Christ,” he said. “Celebrating Mass with Cardinal Rigali was just beautiful. It made you feel you were really there.”

“I’ve done a lot of traveling, but never to the Holy Land and I am so glad I finally did,” said Mary Roach of St. Dorothy Parish in Drexel Hill, who attended with her husband John. “It stirs devotion in you; I thought the wedding vow renewal was beautiful.”

Joe Naccarato, of St. David Parish in Willow Grove, said, “All of this was such an important part of Our Lord’s life. You can’t make one part more important because it is all part of God’s life.”

Maryann Stanton of St. Alphonsus Parish was especially moved by the Mass at the Nativity celebrated at St. Catherine Church in Bethlehem. “You can’t believe you are really here, it is so overwhelming,” she said.

Father Gill, acting above and beyond his usual duties as the archdiocesan liturgist, was the overall coordinator of the pilgrimage.

“I have confidence in the mercy of the Lord that he has shown to our pilgrims many blessings, especially the blessings of His grace, and an invitation to holiness and the conversion of life,” he said. “I can’t measure that, but I have confidence the Lord will bring this about. I think the pilgrimage was a success.”