St Barnabas Cluster Holy Land Pilgrimage, 17 - 25 March 2023

High Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, on the actual feast of the annunciation, (25 March), was a thrilling way to spend the last day of the St Barnabas Holy Land Pilgrimage last month. Our two priests joined the 50 on the altar to concelebrate Mass led by HB Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

The Pilgrimage was organised by the parishioners working in close consultation with Laila Tours, (based in Bethlehem), which arranged the coach, the guide, the hotels, the many visits to the Holy Places, and visits to Christian community projects supported by Friends of the Holy Land. Pastoral leadership was provided by Father Maria of St Barnabas Cluster, and Father Stanley, formerly of the Cluster and now based in Northamptonshire. The event was a great team effort. 

It was a very full programme, encompassing many visits to biblical sites, community projects and other places of interest. The tour guide, Mahran, displayed an excellent knowledge of the religious sites and their significance, as well as the historical, political and cultural complexities of this divided land. That, and herding the pilgrim cats, was no mean feat, which he carried out with skill, patience and humour. 

Locations visited are too numerous to list fully, but they included, in the Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of the Ascension, Jericho and the Mount of Temptation, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encompasses the site of Calvary and Jesus' tomb. In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, and the grotto marking where Jesus was born.

The pilgrimage then moved further north to the Galilee area, staying three nights in Nazareth. From here were viewed the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the site of Mary's home, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of the Transfiguration, and a must for any pilgrimage, a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee.  

Many of the holy sites reflect the complex history of the country. Early Christian sites were destroyed by the Romans, re-built by the Byzantines, destroyed again by the Persians, and subsequently re-built by the Crusaders. In the 20th century, a number of new churches were constructed, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Church of the Beatitudes.

 At a selected location each day, Mass was said. An outdoor Mass was celebrated at the Primacy of St Peter Amphitheatre by the Sea of Galilee. At Cana, married couples had the opportunity to renew their marriage vows, before viewing an ancient water jar from the time of Jesus and purchasing some modern-day Cana wine to take home.

An appropriate scripture reading and reflection, pertinent to each location visited, took place, such as a reading of the Beatitudes by Fr Stanley, on the beautiful Mount of the Beatitudes. 

Also included in the schedule were visits to Christian projects sponsored by Friends of the Holy Land. We had lunch at St Martha's House in Bethlehem, which offers day centre provision for elderly widows, and employment for young widows. There is no state welfare provision in Palestine. We also visited two Christian schools also supported by Friends of the Holy Land.

The Holy Land has a long, complex history with many cultures and religions. Christians are 2% of the population in Israel and Palestine, and within that there are many denominations, including Latin (Roman) Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican, to name but a few. Our visits included Christ Church, an Anglican church in Nazareth, founded in the 19th century. A strong message came across from all the Christians we met: “we are a tiny minority in the land that gave rise to Christianity - please do not forget us.” 

There were also many light moments, including several opportunities to join in dancing to local Arab music. We were encouraged to join Bedouin dancers at a restaurant in Bethlehem, to dance on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and to dance with the ladies at St Martha's House. It was great fun!

From our group of 38 pilgrims it was the first time to visit the Holy Land for 34 of us. Although at times the experience was overwhelming, we all returned home feeling very blessed and have a strong bond between us now, forged by this unique spiritual experience.

Margaret Rooney, Pilgrim