By Deacon Christopher Bongato
“We’re finally going.”
For two years the Diocese of San Diego, where I serve as a fourth-year seminarian, had been planning a trip to the Holy Land for those preparing to enter the priesthood. But the COVID-19 pandemic, political tensions in the region, and the ceremony in Rome to install Bishop Robert W. McElroy as cardinal delayed that pilgrimage several times.
That changed on Dec. 28, when the nine seminarians in our theology program and four directors who lead our formation took off for the three-week trip. We would visit holy sites for two weeks and then have a weeklong retreat, returning Jan. 21.
I experienced a mixture of relief, joy and excitement as our plane took off for Tel Aviv. The Franciscan Pilgrimage Program organized the trip, which was led by Father Noel Muscat, OFM.
One of the appeals of attending the diocese’s St. Francis Seminary, instead of one out of town, is having the opportunity to visit the Holy Land and Rome.
For me and most of the seminarians, this was our first trip to the Holy Land. Simply put, the Gospel came alive for us during that journey. In fact, many people call the Holy Land itself “the Fifth Gospel.”
In particular, four sites inspired me to see my faith with new eyes: the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
On Dec. 31, our group traveled by bus to the Church of the Annunciation, where a plaque inside a grotto on the main level of the church reads “Verbum caro HIC factum est” (The Word was made flesh HERE).
Masses are held there throughout the day. I had the opportunity to serve as a deacon at one of them. In the middle of the ceremony, the enormity of the message hit me, “The Word was made flesh HERE.”
We were surrounded by many images of the angel Gabriel greeting Mary, depicted from the perspective of different cultures, all accentuating the point that Jesus entered into our humanity.
We were able to more deeply contemplate this moment later that night as we went around the church in a candle-lit rosary procession, praying the Joyful Mysteries. Jesus’ life was just beginning to unfold in front of us as we moved with jet-lagged feet but open hearts.
On Jan. 2, we found ourselves at the Sea of Galilee, where we know Jesus crossed many times, called many people, preached, and performed many miracles. In comparison to other places, where grand churches were built over holy sites, the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding area have been mostly preserved as it was in Jesus’ time.
While on the boat in the middle of the sea, I could picture what the disciples and Jesus would have seen: the waves rocking the boat and the green hills beyond the water. In the middle of our boat ride, it became a bit more overcast, and the sea rougher.
Our large, sturdy boat navigated the waves with no problem, but I pondered how small the boat of the disciples must have been and the fear they must have felt amidst the bigger waves.
I looked up at the sky while laying down in the bow of the ship. I pictured Jesus in this same position, as He was during the Gospel account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. I reflected on what His presence must have meant to the disciples then, and what His presence means to our Church and our own lives now.
How much peace do we have knowing Jesus is in the boat? For me, among the rocking waves, I felt the most peace I have felt in the longest time.
We visited — and experienced — so many memorable places.
We stopped at Cana, where Jesus performed His first public miracle, turning water into wine for a wedding feast. Some of us even picked up some wine nearby.
We traveled to Jordan, where we visited the capital of Amman; the ancient city of Petra; and the River Jordan, where we prayed in the space where Jesus was baptized. We visited Jericho, the Palestinian city on Israel’s West Bank. We had the opportunity to swim in the Dead Sea, bordered by Jordan and Israel. We explored the archaeological site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found nearby, and the town of Bethany. We attended Mass at many of these sites.
Our time in Petra and the desert terrain of Wadi Rum felt like a grand adventure in the movies as we trekked through landscapes featured in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Indiana Jones.”
We traveled by 4×4 Jeep on ancient roads that were barely roads at all, but our tour guides knew where to go. They knew where to stop for shade and even for a break for tea. We stayed one night at a Bedouin camp, which allowed us to appreciate the beauty of the night sky and its importance for navigation, especially while traveling in the desert.
In Bethlehem, we arrived at the Church of the Nativity early in the morning. Since we just ended the Christmas season, the nativity was fresh in our minds as we said Mass in the Chapel of the Manger, which marks where Jesus slept as a newborn. We took our time to pray for families, as well as those who may have had trouble in childbirth, to hold on to the tenderness of Baby Jesus.
The last city we visited was Jerusalem, from Jan. 10 to 15, home to so many important landmarks. We were able to join a procession led by the Franciscans through the Via Dolorosa, reliving the Stations of the Cross. Although we walked through loud marketplaces, we quietly contemplated how so many pilgrims had walked the same path and how much love Jesus has for His people.
Between sightseeing and praying, we had an amazing opportunity to meet with the Latin Patriarch of the city, His Beatitude Pietbattista Pizzaballa. In a private audience, he explained to us the faith situation in Israel.
The patriarch shared the work being done in his diocese to serve the Catholic faithful, who represent less than 2% of the population there. And he told us about the work being done carefully and diligently to promote interreligious dialogue.
This conversation allowed us to more deeply understand the complex political and religious situation in the region, even among the different Catholic Rite Churches or Orthodox Churches that maintain the holy sites (such as Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Rite).
One place this was apparent was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encompasses Calvary, or Golgotha, where it is said Jesus died on the cross, and the tomb where He was buried and resurrected. Although not noticeable at first glance, parts of the Holy Sepulchre are maintained by different Christian churches.
During the day, it’s packed with so many people that we could barely squeeze in a few moments at these holy sites. At night, however, groups of between 30 to 50 people are allowed in. We were able to join one of these groups and had an amazing opportunity to pray for four hours. Although it may seem like a long time, to me it didn’t. I prayed for all those who asked me to pray for them back home.
Three of my brothers and I were ordained transitional deacons in December. I’m sure we all said a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy of this vocation we have been called to, as well as a prayer for strength in the midst of hardship to move forward to become holy priests. I have contemplated Jesus’ death and resurrection many times, but this made it so much more real for me.
I think from all that we learned, saw and experienced in the Holy Land, what matters most to me is how much more Christ revealed Himself in my heart.
We got to know Jesus more intimately and understand His true calling for us as we traveled to the places where He ate and slept, where His disciples ran in fear, and where they ultimately followed Him.
The pilgrimage was a chance to live the Gospel stories firsthand. I was able to hear Jesus’ call to me, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of Men.”
Christopher Bongato is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of San Diego. He is expected to be ordained to the priesthood this June.