World Youth Day 2023 - Week 1

We are writing to you from the Holy Land, where we have been on pilgrimage for a week now. We have already had the opportunity to take a path that has led to new places of discovery and moments of encounter. Among these new places of discovery and encounter are some of the most important Christian sites in the world. 

Sunday 23 July - Bethlehem and Surrounds

Our pilgrimage in the Holy Land commenced at the Church of the Visitation in the town of Ein Karem. The Church of Visitation is the place where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and proclaimed her Madnificat prayer - ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord’. We were fortunate enough to have Bishop Kennedy say Mass. His homily challenged our pilgrims to do what Jesus did; find time to be alone with God, enjoy the company of others, and spend some time with St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary - the people who taught Jesus his humility. From there, we walked to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built over a natural grotto identified as the saint’s birthplace. After lunch, we visited Shepherd’s Field as we commemorated the appearance of the angels to the shepherds on that first Holy Night. Lastly, we visited the Church of the Nativity, the oldest complete church in the Christian world (6th Century) and the birthplace of Jesus. Bowing down to fit below the Door of Humility, we descended into the Holy Manager where a silver star on the floor marks the actual spot where Jesus was born. The star’s inscription reads - Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est (Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born). 

Monday 24 July - Via Caesarea Maritima, Haifa, Cana to Galilee

Our day commenced at St Jerome’s cave where in 386 AD, the saint spent 30 years translating the scriptures from Hebrew into Greek and Latin. Bishop Kennedy commented that St Jerome’s translation into English is the most authentic. Adjacent to the birthplace of Jesus and part of the Franciscan Monastery, we celebrated a spectacular Mass with other Australian pilgrims at St Catherine’s Church. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney reminded pilgrims that Jesus is the real flesh of a human being, like me and you. We then travelled north to the crusader port of Caesarea Maritima which was built by Herod the Great and overlooks the pure Mediterranean Sea. Cornelius, the centurion, was baptised by Peter here, becoming the first Gentile convert to Christianity (Acts 10). Later, we drove to Haifa to enter the Stella Maris Monastery at Mount Carmel. It was here in the lower cave that Elijah was said to have meditated on His Victory over the false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 1-40). 


Tuesday 25 July - Galilee Exploration

We woke at 4:15 am to make our way to Mt Arbel to prayerfully await the majestic sunrise over the Sea of Galilee. On driving back for breakfast we stopped at the ruins of a Synagogue, adjacent to the Valley of the Doves, where it is believed Jesus taught. Later that morning, we visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter - this is the place where Jesus challenged Peter and each one of us ‘Do you really love me? Feed my sheep.’ Mass was celebrated at the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by Fr. Greg. One Pilgrim, during the prayers of intercession, reflected on Jesus’ challenge to Peter by asking God to show them how to feed his sheep. Our Pilgrims have been fortunate enough to share their prayers at each Mass. Lastly, we ascended the Mount of Beatitudes in which Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5: 1-12). 

Wednesday 26 July - Sea of Galilee

Today was no doubt one of the highlights of the pilgrimage so far - we set out on a traditional ‘Jesus Boat’ sailing vessel to have a Private Mass in the centre of Lake Galilee. Unlike when Jesus calmed the storm, the Sea of Galilee was peaceful and restful. This allowed Pilgrims to reflect on the miracles of Jesus calming the storm and walking on this very water. Later, we journeyed to Capernaum, the once fishing village of the first apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John which became the hometown of Jesus and the scene of many of His miracles. Our day finished at Caesarea Philippi near the base of Mt Hermon and where the springs of Banias form the source of the Jordan River. During our second Formation session, our Pilgrims were challenged to reflect on Jesus’ question to his disciples “Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:13) at Caesarea Philippi. To be able to come to this sacred site for Catholics was a spiritual and reflective experience that all Pilgrims enjoyed.

Thursday 27 July - Nazareth Day

Our morning started by ascending the seventeen sharp bend path up to the summit of Mt Tabor where Jesus’ divinity shone forth in the Transfiguration (Mt 17: 1-2). Luckily, we arrived before all the other Pilgrim groups, so we had 10 minutes of quiet prayer before the hustle and bustle of these groups arrived. We continued towards Nazareth to visit Nazareth Village. This authentic non-profit re-creation of the village of Nazareth as in the days of Jesus helped our Pilgrims visualise how the land was 2000 years ago. The highlight for our Pilgrims was after lunch when we made our way to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Pilgrims enterned into the Basilica to witness a traditional cave that became the focal point to Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel “Let it be done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). This incredibly spiritual encounter for our Pilgrims was particularly significant as it was the place where “the Word became flesh” (John (1:14). Our Harvest guide, Habib, has constantly referred to this line in John’s Gospel, so our Pilgrims really appreciated being able to connect to Mary though seeing the cave. Pilgrims also visited the nearby Church of St Joseph to commemorate the life of Mary’s beloved spouse. If you remember our first day in Bethlehem (Sunday 23 July), Bishop Kennedy challenged Pilgrims to find time with St Joseph and the Virgin Mary - today’s journey in Nazareth enabled Pilgrims to find the time they needed with St Joseph and the Virgin Mary. 

Friday 28 July - Jericho, River Jordan, Dead Sea

Our Pilgrims were fortunate enough to celebrate Mass in the new ‘Duc in Altum’ Church at Magdala - home of Mary Magdalene, who became the first recorded witness of the Resurrection (Jh 20:18). The best part about this church is that the Altar is in the shape of a boat and Pilgrims were able to overlook the Holy Sea of Galilee during Mass. On the bus for two hours south to Jericho, the ‘City of Palms’. We made our way to view the Mountain of Temptation, the site of Jesus’ fast of 40 days. A memorable moment for Pilgrims (and Bishop Kennedy) was when the Bishop paid $5 for a camel ride! On to Yardenit on the Jordan River to remember the Baptism of Jesus and to renew all Pilgrims' Baptismal promises led by Bishop Kennedy. Our day finished at the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley and then with a magnificent view of St Georges Monastery from a cliff top lookout. 

Saturday 29 July - Jerusalem Exploration

We began our Jerusalem journey at the peaceful Church of St Anne where the Virgin Mary was born. Pilgrims took a moment to be with Mary and ask her their intentions. This is the Church where Jesus would come and stay during the Jewish Passover festival. Walking out of the old city, Pilgrims proceeded to the Mt of Olives to visit ‘Pater Noster’ Church where Jesus taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6: 7-15). Marvin, a Pilgrim from Uganda, taught several Pilgrims the Lord’s Prayer in Lunganda, his native language. From here, Pilgrims were really able to be with Jesus as they walked down the Palm Sunday Road to the Dominus Flevit Chruch (where we celebrated MAss), built on the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19: 41-44). After Mass, Pilgrims crossed the road and went into the Garden of Gethsemane and into the Church of Agony which contains the rock upon which Jesus is said to have prayed at before his arrest. After lunch, Pilgrims made their way up to Mt Zion to the Palace of Caiaphas and into the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu commemorating Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. Pilgrims were able to enter the site of the last supper. Our day finished at the Church of the Dormition where the Virgin Mary died or ‘fell asleep’ as the name suggests.  

Sunday 30 July - Old City Jerusalem

On our final day in the Holy Land, we arose early to commence the Stations of the Cross following in the actual footsteps Our Lord took along the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross). Pilgrims were emotional as they sang ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’. Our journey culminated at the site of the Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where we visited the sites where Jesus was nailed to the cross, His tomb, and the site where the Cross was found by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land about 326. One Pilgrim commented on how close Jesus’ tomb is to where he hung on the cross. Our afternoon saw us visit the Israel Museum where we viewed the Second Temple Scale Model of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus. Here we also view the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book Museum. Pilgrims visited the Western Wall in the Old City to witness devout Jews chanting their prayers at the wall as we as Catholics pray for peace in Jerusalem and throughout the entire world. 

As our Pilgrimage to the Holy Land comes to an end, Pilgrims leave here with the spiritual clarity they needed to become closer to Jesus. As we embark on the next phase of our Pilgrimage, we are heading to Lisbon to participate in all the festivities of World Youth Day. 

We thank you for following our journey and we look forward to sharing our stories soon.

Your Pilgrims in the Holy Land

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