The road ascending Mount Tabor, is characterised by the hairpin turns that make for a thrilling taxi ride. But as you catch your breath at the summit, you’re struck with spectacular views of the Holy Land. Just as the disciples did when they witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, you feel the desire to stay and soak in all that your senses will allow, as you stand in yet another place where human nature has met the divine.
For Flavio Varnier, who travelled to the Holy Land with his wife, Celia, and over 70 other pilgrims from the Western Sydney area, the historical and religious experience was unlike any other journey he had taken before. “You just try to imagine touching buildings and walking down roadways that are thousands of years old. You don’t have that concept in Australia. We’re a very young country in comparison,” he says. “It’s like seeing the birth of the Catholic Church.”
One morning, Flavio made his way through the old city of Jerusalem, following the dark round numbered plaques that mark the Via Dolorosa. Taking turns to carry a cross as they prayed, his group made their way through narrow cobblestone streets where millions of pilgrims before them have walked the same route Jesus did to his crucifixion. Behind glass panels is the rock of Calvary, where he knelt before and touched the place where the cross of Jesus once stood.
“It is hard to describe the affect experienced whilst praying the Via Dolorosa and reaching the Tomb of the Lord’s Resurrection,” says Fr Lewi Barakat, who later travelled the same route as Flavio did. As the Assistant Chaplain on the tour, Fr Lewi concelebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The celebration of Holy Mass over the Tomb of Jesus was the spiritual climax of the pilgrimage. I couldn’t help but rejoice in Christ not being there, only to receive His Body as food for our souls in the Holy Eucharist!
For Fr Lewi, playing the role of chaplain added richness to his travels. “Being a Chaplain was an honour. The highlight was being up close to witness Christ speaking and moving in the hearts of others. Building relationships with the pilgrims in our group and learning about their own walk with Christ and how He was drawing them to a deeper communion with His Church was a truly meaningful and edifying experience.”
The pilgrimage through Jordan and Israel combined familiar landmarks already known through sacred scripture, liturgy and life in the Church with the surreal feeling of being able to see first-hand the places of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection.
The starting point was Mount Nebo, Jordan. 710 metres above sea level, pilgrims looked out over the sunbaked fields of distant Israel, sharing the view that Moses had of the Promised Land. Later, they arrived at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, the oldest complete church in the Christian world. Bowing low as they entered the grotto, pilgrims were shown the silver star on floor of the Holy Manger, marking the spot where Jesus was born.
“I was filled with gratitude and a sense of awe before God,” Fr Lewi says.
But the more we went along the more I could see the beauty in the ordinary aspects of the human life he took on for himself. The humility of God to dwell amongst us and to walk through life is still unrecognised by many.
At Capernaum, a private ‘Jesus Boat’ was ready for us to board for a private Mass on the Sea of Galilee. Here, they stopped for private reflection. “I couldn’t help but recall the great works of Jesus by those waters,” Fr Lewi says, “The peaceful waters brought me images of Christ the Prince of Peace and how he has the power to calm powerful winds and stormy waters.”
With engines off, the boat floated quietly, allowing pilgrims to pause and listen to the breeze sweeping around the mountains and the water lapping gently against the stern. “I reflected on Jesus’ call to the first disciples and on my own response to the invitation to follow Him, to become a ‘fisher of men’,” Fr Lewi shares. “I would have loved to drop a fishing line in the water — I love fishing!”
As a chaplain and a pilgrim, the journey has given him new graces and insights for his ongoing ministry. “Having been now to the Holy Land, I can say with personal conviction that there isn’t a person I wouldn’t consider this to be a gifted experience for,” he says. “If anyone has the means and an open heart to practice Christian pilgrimage, I would only encourage them to prayerfully prepare and go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I say this because in my experience the history and mystery of God has been wed in my heart.”