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Where faith has its deepest roots

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

Dec. 24, 2014

I always considered myself somewhat of a homebody.  I enjoy familiar surroundings, spending time with family and friends.  I’m not excited about air travel. 

So, when I decided to participate in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this Advent, I knew that I was stepping out of my personal comfort zone.

Our tour guide, Christopher Cross, a native of Ausable Forks, led two of my sisters, their husbands, Father Doug Lucia, Father Jay Seymour, myself and a dozen other pilgrims on a journey of a lifetime.

I went to the Holy Land because it is the place where my faith has its deepest roots.  Here were the places where God Himself was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose again.

I had spoken to many priests, religious, and faith-filled lay women and men who have made this journey.  Its impact on them was profound.  I wanted to share in that experience because, as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have insisted: faith is not about concepts but about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Since my return, many have asked:  “What was your favorite part of the pilgrimage?” 

Every location spoke to my heart in a new and uniquely powerful way.  I find it very difficult to select one location over the other.  However, as I reflected on the pilgrimage as a whole, I was touched by the great devotion of the Muslim people to Allah as throughout the day we heard the call to prayer echo throughout the cities and villages. 

We saw beautiful mosques and experienced a wonderful friendliness with the Palestinians whom we met.  (They even convinced this shepherd to ride a camel!  My two priest companions were less convinced that this was a good idea.)

In the Jewish people I witnessed a tremendous seriousness and discipline about their faith—whether it was on the airplane, at the Wailing Wall or on the streets. 

The phylacteries, strapped arms, prayer shawls, dietary laws and strict Sabbath observance spoke loudly of their faithfulness to the Torah and their identification as the ChosenAA People. 

Among the Christian pilgrims, we saw many of the faithful participating in early morning (5:30, 6:00, and 6:30am) Masses.  The pilgrims were prostrate, knelt on and kissed centuries-old sacred places in veneration of the Divine presence.  Young and old, Eastern, Orthodox and Latin Catholics, chanted, lit candles and praised God.

We visited an orphanage in Jerusalem which was home for some 500 individuals: young children (including 99 from Ethiopia), youth and adults. 

Six Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul operated this loving Christian outreach to these beautiful and most vulnerable children of God.  These sisters were beaming with joy when we visited them on the last day of our pilgrimage—what an appropriate way to conclude our travels. 

These sisters exuded for all to see their own personal encounter with Christ. 

While the Holy Land boasts no geographic borders, for thousands of years, it has been considered sacred ground to these three major monotheistic faiths of the world:  Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. 

Suspicion, terror, and violence have been no stranger to this part of the world since the time records have been kept. 

Here, in the very cradle of these great religions, instead of peace and tolerance, division and tension was sadly evident.

For instance, a Christian who stepped over a particular line in the worship space at the Holy Sepulchre or who sang at Mass at that Holy Site could cause a major incident with another Christian of another rite.

The division among Christians continues to scandalize the world. 

We saw a two-story high banner in a town square in Nazareth that attacked the Christian creed and charged Christians as being worshippers of three gods.

We saw new Jewish settlements being built that continue to squeeze Palestinians out of their homes and livelihoods.

We stood beside signs that warned us of minefields just a step away.  We frequently heard popping sounds over the ancient city of Jerusalem.   We were told that they were not gunshots or bombs, but the sound of firecrackers thrown by Palestinians at Israeli soldiers.

We saw balloons carrying cameras floating over Jerusalem keeping an eye on East Jerusalem.

As it has for thousands of years, this place where the Prince of Peace dwelt among us continues to experience unease and tension. 

I don’t pretend to comprehend all the historical complexities of the troubling relations among some Christians, Jews and Moslems.  However, as I return to the United States and the Diocese of Ogdensburg, this pilgrim is grateful for the peace we take so much for granted and am convinced that as we each encounter Jesus even more closely through prayer, acts of charity and works of justice, we become more hope-filled because the Prince of Peace leads and feeds us.

I know that my fellow pilgrims and I have had our comfort zones stretched and our faith strengthened profoundly. 

Yes, our world yearns for the Peace that was born in that part of our world that blessed night so long ago. 
Our fractured world yearns to hear:  “Find your home in Christ:  Renew Faith, Nurture Hope, Discover Love.”


photo supplied
Bishop LaValley, Father Douglas Lucia and Father Jay Seymour celebrate Mass a the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth Dec. 6 during their Advent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The bishop said, “I went to the Holy Land because it is the place where my faith has its deepest roots.  Here were the places where God Himself was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose again.”

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