Dr. Patrick Russell explains the architecture of the ancient city of Beersheba, one of many sites a group of 19 pilgrims from Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology visited during a 16-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (Submitted photo)

Often called the “fifth Gospel,” the Holy Land offers Catholics a unique opportunity to rekindle their faith by walking in the footsteps of Christ and by experiencing the narrative of the Gospels in the physical places at the center of salvation history.

This year, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology led its own pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From May 28-June 12, a group of 19 pilgrims with roots in Milwaukee and the Midwest followed the steps of Christ throughout the Holy Land.

Following the events of Matthew’s Gospel, the group first visited Bethlehem, spending time with our Lord at the place of his birth at the Basilica of the Nativity. The group then spent several days in Nazareth, staying in a convent just steps away from the Basilica of the Annunciation. There, the pilgrims were able to spend private time in prayer, meditating upon the fiat of our Blessed Mother, amidst the beautiful and dimly lit pillars surrounding the place she was greeted by the archangel Gabriel. The pilgrims likewise toured the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee, celebrating Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes before the hungering crowds.

Adding to the experience, the group participated in a three-day archeological dig at Chorazin in Galilee, where under the guidance of an archeologist, the pilgrims uncovered artifacts from the early Christian period and were privileged to have hands-on experience with the early history of the faith.

The group from Sacred Heart spent the final days of its pilgrimage in Jerusalem, tracing the events of the Lord’s Passion from the Mount of Olives to Golgotha. As they walked the Stations of the Cross, the pilgrims were encouraged to keep in mind the glorious reality of Christ’s Resurrection and the joyful promise of his resurrected life.

“We are visiting this place, not because someone is in this tomb, but because it is empty. Christ is not in there! He is risen! Alleluia!” one Sacred Heart professor quietly noted as the pilgrims stood in the long line leading up to the Holy Sepulcher.

Upon coming back to the States, the pilgrims from Sacred Heart felt gratitude for the beautiful things they had experienced during their pilgrimage. During the 16-day experience, the group fostered a rich prayer life, beginning and ending each day with morning and evening prayer, and daily celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The pilgrims were likewise encouraged to strive to grow in discipleship with one another and to allow their experiences in the Holy Land to make them better disciples in their communities, parishes, homes and personal lives.

“I truly love how engaged my whole person was on this pilgrimage,” said one pilgrim. “My body and soul felt in sync. It felt so natural to have morning and evening prayers every day, and especially the Mass. I would love to keep up this level of prayer and meditation in my daily life, at home and with family.”

Another pilgrim noted that the pilgrimage provided her with “the opportunity to experience my personal faith free from all the clutter and noise, and really ‘hear’ and ‘walk’ my faith. Since I have returned, I have made a vested effort to really ‘see’ the people who touch my life each day and to continue praying the Rosary daily.” She also shared that her experience of “walking in the steps of our Lord, as well as using the Gospel of Matthew as a road map, brought clarity and renewed commitment to my own walk of faith.”

The following words of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provide a beautiful insight into the goal and mission of the Sacred Heart pilgrims’ recent experiences: “The more we appreciate the universality and the uniqueness of Christ’s person, the more we look with gratitude to that land where Jesus was born, where he lived and where he gave his life for us. The stones on which our Redeemer walked are still charged with his memory and continue to ‘cry out’ the Good News.”

The more gratitude we have for our faith and for our Lord, the more we strive to appreciate every aspect of him, his home, his childhood, his life, the richness of his person, and the great act of love he achieved for us. The ancient stones of the Holy Land continue to be an invitation for us to approach Christ with wonder and gratitude — they are an invitation for us to spend time with him in the very places where he poured out his life so that we may have it abundantly.

Those who traveled with the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have attended their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and they are eager to share the fruits of the experience with their local parishes and communities.