Youth Pilgrimage to Israel: In Search of the Empty Tomb

The following is an article by Matthew Klein, catechist at St. Margaret’s Shrine in Bridgeport. St. Margaret’s Shrine, along with Sacred Heart Parish in Bridgeport, received grants from the St. John Paul II Fund for Religious Education and Faith Formation, which in part funded a youth pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Learn more about their experience below!

A little over 100 youth from our Diocese recently returned from a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel. In total, there were close to 8,000 youth and chaperones from all over the United States belonging to the Neocatechumenal Way that participated in this adventure to the Holy Land. The meeting was organized to celebrate the 20th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s visit to Israel in the year 2000, and to encourage the youth to experience the land that many call the Fifth Gospel.

A joyous wave of young people poured into Israel and followed itineraries that evoked the dynamism of the people of Israel and Jesus’s life to better understand and internalize the roots of our faith. This fusion of Old and New Testament mirrored the message of St. John Paul II’s trip, and became a tangible reality for the pilgrims.

From Nazareth to Galilee, to the desert and oasis of En Gedi, all the way up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion, the pilgrims walked in the footsteps of Jesus to touch and experience His presence in their lives. being on location for so many of the Gospel passages allowed for a certain blending of time. Reading the passages in their place of origin and then having the time to reflect on how the Word lives in us today brought the love of Christ front and center to our daily lives.

This Kerygmatic message was particularly evident in Caesarea Philippi, where we listened to the passage of Matthew 16, as Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Little did we know that Jesus asked the disciples this question in front of the Grotto of Pan, which the ancients believed was the gateway to the underworld. In this context, with all of its immense significance, Jesus projected his defeat over these forces of evil and ensured the disciples that they and our Church respectively will prevail over these forces through His spirit.

From here, we learned that after this Gospel passage, Jesus made a beeline to Jerusalem, and that in six days’ time, he would fulfill the ultimate act over evil and then transmit His victorious resurrected spirit to us. Needless to say, this Word of God for us was a balm to our hearts, depositing a reservoir of courage to draw from as we go about our daily lives, at times on calm seas and at times storms tossed from daily challenges. Visiting and encountering the empty tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in this framework helped us better understand the existential joy that the Church proclaims there and everywhere, every day.

The pilgrimage concluded with a vocational meeting on the Mount of Beatitudes, presided by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, not far from where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

“To follow Jesus, we need to be crazy!” the archbishop said. “So welcome to the club!”

Archbishop Pizzaballa also encouraged the pilgrims by invoking God’s blessing and the gift of the Spirit on the young people and their families so that they may walk according to God’s will in the style of the Beatitudes. He went on to say how the Beatitudes are always relevant and a strong Word for those who truly want to be happy.

The Archbishop closed his remarks with a word of encouragement for the American youth.

“My prayer for you is that when you go back to your country, you can say, ‘Yes we also have been in the Holy Land, we saw the empty tomb, and we met the Risen One,'” he said.

At the end of the meeting, several hundred young men stood up to be on a pathway for a potential vocation to the priesthood, as did many young women for the consecrated life. There were also about 200 families who stood up for a missionary placement across the globe. All those who stood up for these vocations will enter a time of discernment and assistance to help them follow this call that the pilgrimage helped to ferment.

We would like to thank the various parishes and locals who gave monetary assistance to the pilgrims. Their openness to listen and encourage the pilgrims helped bolster that initial impulse to attempt this pilgrimage which at many moments seemed impossible. Finally, we would like to give our deepest gratitude to the Foundations of Faith for sponsoring numerous pilgrims and helping us believe that this endeavor was worthwhile and possible.