Preface: Where I’ve Learned this Info
Personal experience. I am in my fifth year working for the Pilgrim Center of Hope, a nonprofit Catholic evangelization apostolate in San Antonio, Texas. Our founders and directors, Deacon Tom Fox and his wife Mary Jane Fox, after a personal conversion to Jesus Christ in the 1980s, left their careers in hotel management and travel to work full-time for the Catholic Church. Since 1992, they have organized and led pilgrimage groups to the Holy Land. Their passion for their Holy Land and pilgrimage mission is unmistakable — which is why the bishops of the Holy Land, His Beatitide Fouad Twal and his auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, along with other bishops across the United States, have collaborated with the Foxes in pilgrimage ministry. The Foxes were awarded the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s “Living Stones” Award in recognition of their outstanding support of the people in the Holy Land, who are called the Mother Church and the “Living Stones” (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). They are Knight and Lady of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
What Catholics Must Consider before Holy Land Pilgrimage:
The Holy Land is our spiritual homeland; our faith was born there. As when we love anyone, loving Jesus compels us to visit the land he sanctified with his life, death, resurrection & ascension. The Holy Land is called the Fifth Gospel, because it reveals so many things we could never learn by reading the Four Gospels. Besides my own hometown, the Holy Land is my favorite place in the world.
What saddens me: Most Catholics do not have even a basic understanding of the Holy Land — or what our Church teaches about it.
As Pope Francis’ pilgrimage has highlighted, the Holy Land is unlike any other destination. Its political complexity and divisions, long history, and religious-cultural variety have important implications for pilgrims. If you are ‘shopping around’ for a Holy Land pilgrimage but don’t know what questions to ask, you will spend a lot of money, on what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you be shortchanged.
Questions You Should Ask a Pilgrimage Organizer:
1. How does your pilgrimage program follow the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Holy Land Pilgrimage Guidelines?
If you are a Catholic considering pilgrimage, you need to read these guidelines. If your organizer is not aware of these guidelines, make them aware. Then, look for someone else to organize your pilgrimage! The Catholic Church has been present in the Holy Land since its beginning, and if your pilgrimage organizers are not united with Church leaders on the basic elements of Catholic pilgrimage there, then you’ll most likely have an inadequate experience.
2. Is this a trip, a tour, or a pilgrimage? Pilgrimages are a devotional practice with a history as old as our faith. Unfortunately, the term ‘pilgrimage’ is often misused by tour companies that want to sell packages to churches, religious groups or individuals. In my line of work, I know that most people desire a pilgrimage, but end up with a tour. Their guide will likely rush them through as many sites as possible, and give them little (if any) educational background about the Holy Land and its people, or spiritual formation. Where I work, we refuse to call our pilgrimages ‘trips’ or ‘tours’ because — simply — they are not. (Read more here.)
3. Will our licensed guide be a Christian? Due to political divisions in the Holy Land, most guides who are licensed by the State of Israel are not Christians. So, when you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, you might end up with an explanation like, “Here is the place where some people say the man Jesus rose from the dead.” Or, when you visit Bethlehem (if your organizers even put it on the itinerary), your Israeli Jewish guide might not enter into Bethlehem with you because it’s Palestinian Territory.
Do yourself a favor: insist on having a Christian guide. Palestinian Christians, having descended from the first Christians, can share rich insights with you about the holy sites because our spiritual heritage has been passed on to them through the generations. Their ancestors are the ones who told their children, “This is the place where Jesus multiplied the fishes and the loaves,” and “This is the mountain where Jesus died for our salvation,” etc. Why deprive yourself of hearing the Gospel from a direct descendent of someone who saw Jesus and/or the apostles with their own eyes? Requesting a Christian guide is also our responsibility; using their services shows our solidarity with Holy Land Christians who face hardships and discrimination.
4. How many people will our group consist of while we’re in the Holy Land? (Pose the question this way, because some tour companies organize several small groups who fly separately but create a large group while in the Holy Land.)
To have a maximum experience in the Holy Land, you need to go with a small group; no more than about 45 people. When more than 1 busload of people are in a group, you miss out on some experiences: You will spend more time waiting in lines, in security checkpoints, waiting for bathroom breaks, and waiting overall for your group to get from one place to another. You won’t be able to patronize ‘Mom-and-Pop’ Christian-owned shops and restaurants that cannot accommodate large groups. You will not be able to celebrate Mass in the smaller holy site chapels; for example, it will be impossible for a group as large as 45 or more to celebrate Mass in the Tomb of Christ.
While on pilgrimage, unexpected situations almost always arise. The smaller your group, the more flexible your leaders can be in switching around itinerary items. Your group leader can also have the freedom to ask questions like, ‘Would you all like to spend more time in prayer now, go to Confession, or have a group Scripture reflection?” Smaller groups spend less time waiting, which means more time for prayer and meaningful experiences. Small groups’ leaders can be more mindful of your health / age, and give you personal attention which is impossible in a large group.
5. What is not included in the listed price? Read the fine print!!! When comparing prices, ask whether the price listed covers roundtrip airfare (and from which airport), airline taxes and fuel surcharge, hotel taxes, three meals a day, tips for the guide / bus driver /hotel and restaurant staff, entrance to all places on the itinerary. Ask where you will be eating, and what type of meals you will have. Ask where you will be staying. Ask all the questions you want; most people think they’re getting a great deal when they see a low price, but you get what you pay for. Remember: If this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, know what you’re getting for your money.
- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – Holy Land Pilgrimage Guidelines
- Pilgrim Center of Hope
- Blood Brothers by Archbishop Elias Chacour – We recommend all our Holy Land pilgrims read this book prior to their departure.