Sr Petronia: Saying ‘Yes’ with Mary in the Holy Land

Sr Petronia is a sister of Congregation and Order of the Servants of Mary. Here she shares her experiance of the diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she renewed her final vows. 

Tuesday 31st October

At the airport: Sixty-nine years ago on this day I was baptised, and I have felt like a pilgrim all my life. Today’s journey is something new and different. Is it a new call, a new adventure into the heart of God?

Wednesday 1st November 
All Saints Day

This morning I woke up and looked out onto the Sea of Galilee, the sea of the storm, the shore of the Easter meeting with Peter when he gave his confession of love. Was this the institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? It seems like it to me.
At the mountain of the Beatitudes the birds sang all through Mass, joining with us in thanksgiving to God. At the beautiful Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, the banquet was for the poor, those hungry for an assurance that God loves them, not despite their poverty but because of it. Within the sight of rich, Roman Tiberius across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus chose to give his message to the dispossessed and the outcasts.

At Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John, lie the ruins of their village. Perhaps this was one of the first house churches, that of Peter, covered with glass. The reflection of the tourists looking down at it sent me the message that we continue what began here. Finally, we went for the trip in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The sea was calm today, no storms, but soothing and serene with the sun beginning to set behind the hills. 

Thursday 2nd November
All Souls Day.
Today we began our journey with a visit to Cana, the town of the wedding. This is one of my favourite Gospel stories because there seems to be some tension between Mary and Jesus. He thinks the lack of wine is none of their business; she is showing compassion for the couple whose wedding it is. Compassion wins out; Mary is teaching Jesus something. Around the well in the church garden the married couples renewed their marriage vows in a short but moving liturgy followed by a kiss and much clapping.

We then went on to Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation. Bishop John and I sneaked away from the group and went down to the Grotto of the Annunciation where, as a Servant of Mary, I said my fiat again, ‘Be it done unto me according to your word’, to celebrate my Golden Jubilee and received a special blessing from him. I could not think of a more fitting place to have quietly responded again to God’s call than in that place. I felt it was a very intimate moment of grace.

Grotto of the Annunciation
We then went up to St Joseph’s Church for the Mass of the Annunciation and my renewal of vows in public as a religious Sister. Hail Mary, full of grace…I renew my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Congregation and Order of the Servants of Mary. Poverty: in which I own nothing and you, Lord, have given me everything. Chastity: in which I have no husband or children to shower my love upon and you have given me the whole of your creation as a wonder-filled gift. Obedience: in which I am led who-knows-where and what an amazing journey it has been and is. So my giving has been more of a receiving and my loving has been more of a having-been-loved. For all this, I thank you, Lord, and all those both living and dead who have journeyed with me. Amen.

We were reminded by Fr John that St Joseph seemed to get all his guidance from God when he was asleep, a good excuse for a lie in if you ask me!
Then we went to Mount Tabor where we exchanged the coach for minibuses as the coaches can’t manage the hairpin bends. It is such a climb, even in a vehicle, so I can’t think why Jesus took them all the way up there to be transfigured. I can’t see St Peter taking too kindly to a strenuous climb that would have taken all day in the searing heat.
On to Bethlehem in the dark.

Friday 3rd November
Bethlehem now is nothing like the Christmas cards: no sheep, no shepherds, no donkeys, but cars hooting, tourists wandering by and people going about their daily business. It is a town of narrow streets and steep hills.

Today we went to the Shepherds’ Field. Not much of a field really but it enabled me to see the reality of life for the Palestinians: the fence of division, the illegal settlements and the vulnerability of those on the West Bank. The angels’ message of peace on earth to the shepherds is far from being realised in the area where Jesus was born. 

Some Palestinian Christian children (lambs of another kind) were visiting the cave where the shepherds herded their flocks at night and I took the opportunity to get a picture with some of the small boys thanks to the Sister that was with them.

Despite the Shepherds’ Field and all the stories in Scripture about shepherds and sheep, I haven’t, up to this point, seen either: not one sheep or goat or shepherd. On leaving the enclosure, those in the party who had heard me bemoaning the lack of sheep, found a young boy holding a lamb for the tourists’ photo shoot, so how could I resist!

We set off for the desert and saw the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine built into the rock. In the distance, sliding down a rock face and creating a mini dust storm, there was a flock of sheep, at last! The desert isn’t so much sand but barren rock and sheer cliff faces, dry and arid.
From there we went down to Jericho, a fertile valley after the bareness of the desert. Our next stop should have been the River Jordan to renew our Baptism vows, but the authorities had blocked off any access so we had to turn back.

On to ‘The Tent’ for dinner, not really a tent but the inside of the restaurant that resembled a Bedouin tent. Laila, who owned the travel company, spirited Fr Alex and me away to another room and dressed us in traditional costumes, long flowing robes and Arab head gear, and we were led in to the beat of a drum and Arabic music, dancing and clapping. Someone said we looked like Mary and Joseph, but my reply to that was that we were more like Zachary and Elizabeth! Some of the party got up to dance and there was much laughter and good humour.
Fr John asked me if my novice mistress got fired after letting me through!

Saturday 4th November
First, a visit to the Milk Grotto; it is a tranquil little place that reminds me of how vulnerable and dependent God made himself. Then we went to St Catherine’s for Mass. The coach took us to visit the day centre for elderly women run by Laila. They are mostly widows whose husbands and children have either died or left for better prospects elsewhere. They are often left lonely and isolated with no means of support. They come to the centre where they can have a meal, medical attention and a bit of pampering not to mention some company. They were all there dressed in their best, determined to tell us how pleased they were to see us. We were given a cup of coffee and music started and many of them stood up to dance with us. It was such a small thing that brought so much joy to all of us.

A change of plan made it impossible to go to the Church of the Nativity and we went instead to see the wall of separation covered in graffiti, a sad testament to the tension and oppression. The only thing I could think of was ‘Jesus wept’.

There was a small herb garden with rubber bullet cases turned into wind chimes, hand grenades hanging as decoration and an olive tree, the symbol of peace. I managed to get a picture of a dove with a bullet proof vest with an olive branch in its mouth.

We travelled to Jerusalem and went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the empty tomb of Jesus. We queued for over an hour to get in; only a few at a time were allowed to enter.
Walking through the narrow streets gave a sense of the hustle and bustle of Jesus’ time.

Sunday 5th November
I woke up in Jerusalem and the psalm came to mind, ‘we shall go up with joy to the house of the Lord’. We trundled through Jerusalem back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and up to the place of the Crucifixion. While I was queuing I thought of all those parents who have had to watch their children die or hold their dead children in their arms through sickness, violence, wars, drugs or natural disasters and felt a heavy heart and Mary’s grief.

At the Catholic chapel for Mass, the first hymn brought out my grief in tears until the reading told us of the Resurrection, that the tomb was empty, there was nothing in it. Grief was replaced by bewilderment, searching, people running and a fast beating of the heart. An empty tomb speaks of a different vision. An empty tomb speaks of the sting of grief being overcome: ‘I will turn your sorrow into joy’.

The postcard aspects of Jerusalem are easy to get from a variety of viewpoints, but the sounds and smells, the invasion of the senses, cannot be captured on a postcard. The distinct characteristics of each quarter occupied by the various groups are visible through the shops and direction signs, but to reach the thoughts and experiences of those who live there is not so easy. The money changers are still there as they were in the days of the Temple, but how do those in each section of Jerusalem meet each other?

The Via Dolorosa: How has this trip helped me to come closer to the Lord? There are two ways of looking at it. Do I go back in time and place myself in the situation of 2000 years ago? Do I try to imagine his way of the Cross and his death on Calvary, the crowds enjoying the spectacle, others bewildered at it and their loss of hope in what they thought might have been? The Pharisees, Sadducees and Sanhedrin, the Romans and Samaritans and Gentiles of Jesus’ time are the Armenians, Greeks and Catholics, the Jews, Muslims and Israelis of today. So the alternative is to place myself in the here and now.

Is the Via Dolorosa the visit to the different quarters of Jerusalem that has no integration or exchange? Who is Jesus on the road to Calvary today? Who is being crucified today? Who are those enjoying the spectacle and who are those bewildered in their loss of hope in what they thought might have been?
What about the journey to Calvary that takes place at home for those we meet from day to day? What do we do to build bridges and reach out to help carry their crosses? Does it begin with a smile or a gesture of connection?

To go back to the question at the beginning, how has this trip helped me to come closer to the Lord? The honest answer is I don’t know yet. What I do know is that Jesus is on his road to Calvary in all the hopes and dreams that are dashed with broken promises. He is on his way to Calvary when we forget about compassion, when we refuse to put ourselves in the shoes of others and he dies on Calvary when we ignore or are indifferent or even enjoy the spectacle.

Monday 6th November
Today we went up to the Mount of Olives, first to Pater Noster Church, where the Our Father is displayed all around in the different languages of the world and everyone is keen to find their own language. It reminded me of Pentecost when all the nations understood God’s message.
The garden of Gethsemane is still a garden and a visit to the church there, where the rock where Jesus prayed that evening before his death is venerated. After a big meal of food and drink at the Last Supper it is understandable that the Apostles fell asleep; they still hadn’t taken in the importance of the evening.

We walked down the narrow road, the road of Palm Sunday, across the Kedron valley, a place so familiar from the Passion story, the view of Jerusalem when Jesus wept and is still weeping over the Jerusalem of today.

The next visit was up to Mount Zion and the Church of the Dormition. There is the statue of Mary in repose, as if asleep, and the controversy over whether she died or just fell asleep and was assumed into heaven arose. The Church has left it open. We then went to the Upper Room and the place where Jesus was imprisoned and Peter wept after hearing the cock crow.

Finally, in the dark, we went to the Western Wall: ‘for the peace of Jerusalem pray’ were the words that came to mind. At the end of the day it seemed to be one of confusion, disappointment, anger, panic and regret surrounding the whole Passion story.

Tuesday 7th November
The last day, and we went to visit the Crusader Church, thought to be Emmaus, for the final Mass of the pilgrimage. The Convent of the Ark, with the portrayal of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant was the final image of the experience.

Many people told me I would see Jesus in a different light during this journey, but I think I have had a more profound understanding of Mary. She has played a big part for me during this pilgrimage. I have felt her presence there in the background all the time, which I was never expecting. The Mary of the Gospels seemed to be there teaching, supporting, conversing, ministering and

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