Iona Presentation College Head of Religious Education Gemma Thomson speaks first hand to The eRecord her recent journey to Israel as part of the Tantur Easter Encounter Program.
By Gemma Thomson
How does one adequately describe the opportunity of a lifetime, one that is a journey of personal transformation, faith-filled in many rich ways and is a new window to a whole new way of life?
In addition to the detailed four-part narrative and heartfelt recount of the 2017 Tantur Easter Encounter program in Jerusalem, Israel, by Archdiocese of Perth Auxiliary Bishop Don Sproxton, I feel compelled to speak of the key messages and experiences that have impacted me, personally and professionally, as a result of this once in a lifetime pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages touch our hearts, inform our minds, transform our actions in daily life and enrich our lives forevermore in a myriad of ways. They provide us with a new sense of wonder and awe in God’s creation and the sacred mysteries. We are encouraged to arrive at a deeper understanding of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and the importance of his salvation in our lives.
Additionally, pilgrimages are an opportunity to continue our own spiritual and intellectual growth, and to come to a deeper appreciation of our sacred text by being able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
As Head of Religious Education at Iona Presentation College, I teach my beautiful students about the nature of Jesus, being both human and divine, in our Religious Education classes. The mother of one of our tour guides, Kamal, opened her home to us in Beit Jala, Bethlehem and highlighted the fact that, in her opinion, a full and complete pilgrimage requires pilgrims to visit both religious sites (divine) and also meet and get to know the local people of the Holy Land (human).
She asked us to encourage pilgrims to come to Israel, not only for the holy sites, but to also cherish the opportunity to truly get to know the local people and understand their customs, environment and daily way of life. Our pilgrim group was blessed with the opportunity to discover the heritage of many local people throughout our time in the Holy Land.
On Good Friday, Stephanie Saldana, author and founder of The Mosaic Stories Project, presented an emotionally-charged, thought-provoking seminar centred on the need to preserve the heritage of Middle Eastern refugees as they assimilate into their new lives in foreign countries.
Ms Saldana spoke of the need to do all that we can to help refugees who come to our country and flee to various places around the world, to maintain their cultural heritage as it is often the last connection that they have to the place that they once called ‘home’. We should be encouraging refugees in our communities to share with us their local cuisine, sing their local songs in the language that Jesus spoke, and to recount stories of their homeland.
Different layers of identity were part of the borders that we witnessed during our time in the modern state of Israel.
Father David Neuhaus SJ identified in one of our lectures, that “as Christians, we must realise that every time we make borders, (such as the wall that divides Israel), we are going against what Christ died for…our togetherness”. There is a need to start thinking about our commonalities, as people, rather than always focusing on the differences that distinguish us.
A lack of ‘togetherness’ was certainly evident in the fact that the Palestinian people have to line up in unpleasant conditions at the checkpoint in Bethlehem in order to be able to go into Israeli-controlled territory to work and provide for their families, with them commencing to line up hours before dawn. I will never forget the harrowing moment of having hundreds of eyes looking desperately back at me, as I passed through seamlessly on the opposite side of the path…as a tourist.
One word that remained at the forefront of my mind throughout the entire pilgrimage was ‘hope’. I was amazed at how the young people in Palestine had hope for a future in the country they call home, despite unemployment being at approximately 27 per cent in 2017.
People seem to have an acceptance of ‘their lot’, and while they have nothing, they are willing to give everything. The most beautiful gift that they gave us was their stories, which they want you to hear at all costs. Many young people are committed to obtaining an education, so that they can assist their home villages in living a better life, rather than escaping to hope of a better life elsewhere.
At the Mount of Beatitudes, we reflected on the fact that those who stand beside us, still need us, even when we are dealing with our own troubles. This message is ever so prevalent when a pilgrim returns from a transformational experience such as this one, as they quickly mould themselves back into the usual routine. We need to ensure that we continue to stand in solidarity with the Christian people of the Holy Land. We need to be mindful that our words can create worlds, and there is also a need to see with our ears, even from afar.
During our visit to Capernaum, our vivacious tour guide from Nazareth, Ghada Boulos, shared a very powerful message with us, one that I will always remember. Ghada spoke of the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim, in that “a tourist walks in the Holy Land and a Pilgrim let’s the Holy Land walk within themselves”. My experiences and “God moments” in the Holy Land will truly continue to walk in my heart forever.
In our final celebration of the Eucharist at Emmaus-Nicopolis, Emeritus Bishop Brian Finnigan, encouraged all pilgrims to ‘leave the Holy Land with reservoirs of hope, confidence and peace in our hearts, vowing never to forget the people and places that we have visited here’.
This Pilgrimage has enriched my life in more ways than one. I am grateful for the opportunity to walk in the steps of Jesus, as the Orthodox and Christian calendars coincided for the Easter liturgical celebrations in 2017.
I am grateful for the numerous excursions, lectures and ecumenical opportunities that we were able to participate in as a pilgrim group, who I now consider my ‘Pilgrim Family’, but above all, I am grateful for the hospitality, compassion and memories made with the local people in Israel, and for the opportunity to experience the mystery of God in such a special way, with wonderful, like-minded Catholics.