Fr. Eamonn O’Higgins, L.C., has been a spiritual guide of the Holy Land Pilgrimage for Priests Course for the last 3 years. We asked him about this pilgrimage for priests:
Q. Priests are normally those who organize pilgrimages for people to the Holy Land; you organize pilgrimages for priests there?
A. For the last 10 years or so we have organized a pilgrimage for priests to the sacred places of the Holy Land. The pilgrimage, in January and July every year, is a three week meditative journey through the Old and New Testament, visiting all the major sites in Israel, delving into their history and significance; Bethlehem, the Jordan, Galilea, Mount Carmel, ancient Shechem, Jerusalem and more.
Q. Why a pilgrimage for priests?
A. Many priests have never visited the Holy Land. The three week course is designed to renew their priestly vocation and commitment. We have found that many priests come at significant points in their lives and ministries; anniversaries, sabbaticals, changes in their ministries…Priests come to recharge their spiritual energies, to find our Lord in his Holy Land, to renew (at times even recover) the profound sense of purpose of their priesthood.
Q. What places help priests the most?
A. It’s hard to pick out any one place. Each place speaks to each one in a particular way. For me, one of the most significant moments is the journey on Lake Galilee. We move out to the center of the lake, cut the engines, read the relevant Gospels and stay in silence, in prayer. I imagine each one of us thinks back on our own call, the things we have accomplished only through the Lord’s grace, the storms we have weathered…
Q. The pilgrimage finishes in Jerusalem?
A. Yes, the climax is the renewal of priestly promises in the Franciscan Cenacolino, practically the place where Our Lord instituted the priesthood. It is a very powerful moment as we all lie prostrate, as we did at ordination, and invoke the saints. I think it is then that some of us realize again that it is Our Lord who has called us to share in his priesthood, and he is calling us (‘naming us’) again from the Cenacolino, after years of ministry.
Q. But is it dangerous visiting Israel these days?
A. There is always tension in Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are check-points on the roads and one sees more soldiers than police on the streets. Precisely because of the political tension security is very high. The points of conflict in the recent past have been geographically circumscribed. Still, our touring bus is clearly marked ‘Priest Pilgrimage Course’ and we follow the indications of our local travel agent in Jerusalem. Even with the conflict in Gaza last year we were able to fulfill all the itinerary. There is calm in the normal life of the country.
Q. Is this a pilgrimage exclusively for priests?
A. Yes, and the atmosphere is a priestly one. Over the years we have had priests from Australia, New Zealand, India, Tanzania, Spain, England, the United States, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina…Each night after supper a priest will share with the others his own vocation story and his ministry experience. There are many moving moments; no story is the same, and yet the signs of the Lord’s presence are there in each priest’s experience. There are spiritual directors present and the priests also minister to each other over the weeks.
Q. Is there a problem of languages?
A. Yes, but its Pentecost rather than Babel. Translations are done in English, Spanish and Italian; each hears in his own language! We would happily venture into other languages as well. When we pray the breviary together we alternate between languages and you can sense the common faith in different languages.
Q. What do the priests get out of the pilgrimage?
A. You have to ask them. We set up a website with a sample of their answers. From what I’ve seen the priests are reassured in their vocation and ministry, something for which there is a great need. They are renewed in their theology and spirituality, and they sense that they are on the right path, the Lord’s path. In a real way, the Lord embraces each one and send each one on his way again, confirmed and reassured.
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On the NET: