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Back where it all began

Tell us how your passion for faith began?

Quite simply, I had a powerful encounter of God as a young teenager where the scriptures were opened up to me in a fresh way at a Christian horse-riding camp. I recall returning from a trail ride towards the end of that week where an unexplainable outpouring of God’s love came upon me that changed my life forever. Suddenly God became so real and personal that I found a boldness to believe in His wonderful plans for my future. I couldn’t help but be moved at the deepest level as I felt singled out by a lavish Father. It seems we think we make the choice to follow Him but I discovered He had been following me from the very beginning and I was still childlike enough to really believe that truth.

Somewhat humorously, I quickly became known as ‘Fr Phil’ at school after challenging my Headmaster to tell the parents and students more about Jesus in the weekly college bulletin. He quickly turned to me and said: “Philip, for the next 8 weeks you will write in my headmaster’s column. I want you to tell them all about this Jesus you have found!”

And how did the pilgrimage business get going?

After leaving school my heart for mission grew strong but rather than sensing a calling to the priesthood, I found myself strangely in the travel industry. I was handed an amazing opportunity at the age of 22 to set up my own city-based travel company from a school friend’s father. My passion to bring people to a similar faith encounter of my early years soon led me to establish Harvest Pilgrimages to fulfill this heart’s desire. Little did I know that my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land (with a dear Marist Father mentor) would literally open the floodgates for tens of thousands of future Catholics to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

I found a boldness to believe in His wonderful plans for my future.

image: Phil in the Holy Land (1986)

 

What special insights have you discovered about pilgrimage in the Holy Land?

Firstly, it has always made perfect sense to me that pilgrims should journey through the Holy Land in the sequence of Jesus’ life. This is the reason Harvest intentionally begins in Bethlehem with the Nativity of Jesus before entering the early years in Nazareth. After extended time to explore His public ministry on the shores of Lake Galilee, the pilgrimage culminates in Jerusalem to relive Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. This gives clear context to walking the life of Jesus and to allowing the drama of the Gospels to play out before our very eyes.

We think we make the choice to follow Him but I discovered He had been following me from the very beginning.

Also, we must remember that we are called to the Holy Land to receive a fresh awakening of faith. We become vulnerable to blessing as we leave the familiar behind and allow the tangible graces of this land to have its way with our hearts. While our guides offer stunning insights for our minds to savor, the need for transformation seems to trump information when it comes to those searching for deeper answers and a sense of God’s presence in a new way.

It’s really critical to allow space for moments to pause like Mary and to ponder all these things in our hearts.

We become vulnerable to blessing as we leave the familiar behind and allow the tangible graces of this land to have its way with our hearts.

My favourite pauses include floating in the quiet centre of Lake Galilee after communion, sitting in the prayerful grounds of the Mt Beatitudes, or resting up against a 2000 year old olive tree in a secluded section of the Garden of Gethsemane during our extended ‘Time Out’ periods.

The Masses celebrated by our Chaplains at breathtaking settings really consecrate the precious moments each day.

Can you be more specific about the genuine experience on offer?

For example, we recreate moments like:

Dinner with Christian Families in Bethlehem – An awesome way to enjoy fellowship and taste the local cuisine as we ‘break bread’ together in local family homes.

Breakfast with Jesus – A never to be forgotten exclusive BBQ breakfast on a private beach setting by the shores of Lake Galilee in the spirit of John Chapter 21.

Jesus Sandals – Yes, we’ve researched with local historians to design and gift our pilgrims from 2020 with a pair of custom-made AD33 Jesus Sandals.

Tread the Jesus Trail – Be guided through the most authentic section of the rustic mountain pass frequented by Jesus in lower Galilee (fitness dependent).

People and Plight Encounters – Be inspired by the witness of bereaved family members of both sides of the Middle East conflict along with a visit to the House of Mercy outreach to the vulnerable in Haifa.

It’s such a dynamic way of exploring and experiencing faith.

What would you say to those considering taking such a trip to the Holy Land?

My desk is inundated with stories from those who write to express their gratitude and amazement at the “before and after” effect that only two weeks in the Holy Land can make. One must take courage to set out on pilgrimage without really knowing fully the reason why.

People’s hearts just seem to get a sense that it’s something they must do – even if their logical minds say otherwise. They come back seeing the Gospels through new eyes. They have a renewed faith to pray with a surer hope for loved one’s past and present.

It’s both undeniable and inexpressible but no one returns with any regret. It’s as though Jesus has gone before us to prepare fresh encounters on the roads of long ago.

It’s such a dynamic way of exploring and experiencing faith.