Fr. Paul Hartmann led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this spring. (Photo courtesy of Fabricio E. Lomanto)

In 1999, St. Pope John Paul II wrote that for 2,000 years pilgrims have “gone in search of the ‘footprints’ of God in that land, rightly called ‘holy,’ pursuing them as it were in the stones, the hills, the waters which provided the setting for the earthly life of the Son of God.”

He was referring to the Holy Land, where earlier this spring Fr. Paul Hartmann led a group of 18 pilgrims on a 10-day journey.

Before leaving, Fr. Hartmann wrote a bulletin column for his parishes explaining the journey he was about to take, and his hope that it would transform not only the pilgrims but the parishes back home.

“I, and a small group of pilgrims, will be in the Holy Land, praying at the sites most associated with the incarnate life and ministry of Our Lord,” Fr. Hartmann wrote. “This will be my first trip of this kind, something that I have wanted to do since I was ordained. My anticipation for this trip only grew as it had to be postponed twice due to the pandemic. It will be a joy to finally make this journey of faith.”

Fr. Hartmann shared the experience with his parishes back home through daily posts on Facebook, enabling those who could not make the trip to feel a bit of the wonder and awe inspired by these holy sites. One parishioner commented that it was a “great way to travel without leaving the house.”

Fr. Hartmann documented each step of the way, sharing his immense knowledge of history and tradition. He was sure to tell those following along that he was praying and lighting candles for them.

“Please know that at every place where our pilgrimage group celebrates the Eucharist, or takes time in prayer, I will hold a special intention for every member of these parish communities,” Fr. Hartmann wrote. “While my time with you has become unexpectedly short, to be your pastor is to find my mission and meaning rooted in the events which occurred in the places we will visit during the pilgrimage.”

Norma Herbers went on the pilgrimage with her husband, John. Though she has visited Rome in the past, this was her first official pilgrimage. She said visiting the sites where things actually happened left a profound impression on her. In particular, she notes it “has changed the way I say the rosary. Because I can envision myself at each of those places.”

The pilgrims made their way through the Holy Land, focusing on a different theme each day. While visiting Caesarea, Mount Carmel and Nazareth, they focused on the theme of the Annunciation. Around the Sea of Galilee, pilgrims focused on Christ’s earthly ministry. At Mount Tabor, they reflected on Christ’s transfiguration, revealing his divinity and glory to Peter, James and John.

At the Church of the Wedding Feast at Cana, all the married couples in the group renewed vows, blessed rings anew and prayerfully blessed their marriages. Prayers were offered for all married couples.

While “bitingly cold and rainy,” the pilgrims visited the Western (Wailing) Wall. In the shadow of the Dome of the Rock, and with heavy Israeli military security, Fr. Hartmann prayed for peace in our world. He described it as “probably the most moving moment thus far — to touch the spot that history recalls as the place of the Lord’s birth.” Again, he lit four candles — one for his family, one for each parish and one for all babies born and unborn.

As pilgrims approached the place of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, they went through what was once an IDF minefield. Across the river, just a few yards away, is the country of Jordan. There, all in the group renewed their baptismal promises and did a blessing with the water of the Jordan.

Among the many chapels the pilgrims visited were the Franciscan Chapel of the Cenacle — the chapel closest to the site of the Upper Room and the Last Supper, where special prayers were said for all priests — and the Chapel of St. Peter in Gallicantu, the place of Peter’s denial of the Lord, where they prayed the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.

At the Mount of Olives, they walked the path of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, stopping at the midpoint at the Church of Jesus Weeping (Dominus Flevit). As they were leaving, the caretaker of the church addressed the group. There was a tree outside of the church similar to the tree that would have been used to make the crown of thorns. He cut off a branch of the tree and handed it to Herbers, explaining the branch was very young. The spikes were only 3 inches long and he said by the time it was older, the spikes would have been up to 6 inches long.

Herbers said, “Just holding that and thinking how cruel man can be to other men and what Jesus had to go through to save our sins — I just started bawling.”

On the last full day of the pilgrimage, the group woke up early, praying the Way of the Cross in the dark stillness of the mostly empty streets of Old Jerusalem. The last stations were in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, the pilgrims prayed and touched the spot of the Crucifixion of Christ.

Fr. Hartmann described celebrating Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as not only the pinnacle of the pilgrimage but of his life. Herbers agreed.

“It was beyond anything I expected. Because there were only 18 of us, our entire group was able to be inside the aedicule. And then, three of us at a time could go inside the tomb where he was celebrating Mass,” Herbers said.

Most people don’t get that experience, as their groups are too big. Instead, they sit in chairs right outside and they can hear the priest saying Mass, but they don’t get to actually see it. The Herbers’ turn to go in came right at the Consecration. Norma Herbers describes the moment as incredible, and she said she still gets shivers every time she thinks about it.