Holy Land Pilgrimage: Learning to know Christ more deeply

by Fr Mike Maguire
Recently, the ‘under 5’s’ went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The under 5’s are a group of Westminster deacons and priests who have been ordained less than five years, meeting a few times a year with Fr Gerard Skinner for ongoing formation. Pope Francis describes ongoing formation as: ‘A reminder that the one experience of discipleship of those called to priesthood is never interrupted. The priest not only learns to know Christ but, under the action of the Holy Spirit, he finds himself within a process of gradual and continuous configuration to him in his being and his acting, which constantly challenges the person to inner growth.’
Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then, led by Bishop John Sherrington, was an exciting venture of walking in the footsteps of Jesus together as brother-priests, servants of the Lord for our diocese, as we embraced a new and shared way of ‘learning to know Christ.’
The scriptures play a crucial role in our relationship with the Lord as we learn to know Christ, but to be able to experience in the Holy Land what we hear and proclaim in the scriptures every day: to follow Christ’s journey from his birth in Bethlehem, his public ministry throughout Galilee, on to the place of his Passion, death and Resurrection in Jerusalem truly brought the Scriptures alive in new and exciting ways. It was the eminent and inspiring scripture scholar Fr John Hemer MHM, having taught scripture to most of the group during our seminary formation, who helped us to bring together a reading and living out of the scriptures, both in our own search for personal inner growth and to help us open up the Word of God to our brothers and sisters, as together, we all learn to know Christ more deeply.
One of the first places we visited was the Basilica of the Nativity, in Manger Square, Bethlehem, where some of us lined up for a prayerful two hours to venerate the place where Jesus was born. Just before we entered the cave, 
Fr Gerard read a homily of Pope St Leo the Great, from the office of readings for Christmas Day. I was struck by his famous words: ‘Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.’
Priesthood is the means by which Jesus wants me to live out the fullness of his dignity. It was a privilege to venerate briefly, with the help of ushers anxious to close the church, the place where the one who gives my dignity was born.
Fr Damian Ryan
On our second day we drove to the Chapel of the Ascension, where an impressive giant footprint is believed to be the right foot of Jesus. We then walked down to the Mount of Olives, a beautiful peaceful place where Jesus had taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, displayed there in many languages and dialects. Jerusalem from the hilltop was stunning, including the dome of the rock, a holy site for Muslims and Jews. Celebrating Mass at Dominus Flevit was particularly moving, overlooking Jerusalem in the distance. We walked down the Palm Sunday route into Jerusalem and stopped off at the Garden of Gethsemane. It was extraordinary to be at the spot where Jesus had prayed so fervently before his arrest. We then proceeded to visit the place where Peter denied Jesus and the Upper Room, where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. There was even time to stop by the tomb of King David.
Fr Andrew Jaxa-Chamiec
Day three began by concelebrating the Mass of the Resurrection in the Latin Patriarchate, before visiting the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. The great experience of the day was to follow the Via Dolorosa, to make the Stations of the Cross at the actual sites, pressing through the crowds as Jesus did. We entered the Holy Sepulchre through the Ethiopian Chapel, where our appearance was graciously accepted, and joined in the Franciscan-led procession, a daily occurrence since 1624, ending with Benediction. Famously the Holy Sepulchre is a place of quarrels, even violence, between different groups. Even beside his tomb, how desperately is Christ’s peace needed in our divided world!
Fr Patrick Allsop
To walk in the footsteps of our Lord was a life-changing and profound opportunity, both personally and spiritually. Two of the most moving experiences were an early-morning visit to the site of Calvary, and our last day, when we celebrated Mass in the Church of St Joseph, believed to sit on the site of the Holy Family’s house in Nazareth, about 100 meters from the house of Mary. Here we renewed our priestly promises in preparation to come home to our parishes and to continue the gift of our priesthood.
In the eight days of our pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Our Lord, we prayed and celebrated Mass together; we socialised together; we laughed and sometimes cried together; but, above all, we lived our priesthood together in new ways, as we look forward to doing so in the years ahead.