We heard for years that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be life-changing and knew the experience would be incredible, but we weren’t anticipating just how much! From the first sunrise at Magdala to the last sunset on the spectacular roof of Notre Dame Hotel in Jerusalem, every step of the way brought our relationship with the Lord deeper, by walking in His footsteps. For me, it was walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, looking at the same views Jesus would have, and dipping my feet in the same body of water that He miraculously walked on top of. The biggest takeaway for me was picturing Him here, in all these locations, as one of us. I often forget how Jesus was once in human form the way the disciples and His friends knew Him. This reminder and picturing Him in these actual places has changed my daily prayer to more of a conversation with a close personal friend. I am grateful for Father Mark Haydu’s perfect meditations for each holy site that lead us into a deep prayerful and personal time with the Lord. Specifically, his meditation in the Garden of Gethsemane made me feel like I was one of His disciples, with Him praying on that holy night.

Every day of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land was special in its own way, and each day was incredibly filled with visits I never knew I had to see! Starting the morning in prayer, watching the sunrise on the Sea of Galilee, was a beautiful way to set the tone for each day we spent in that area. My mom started watching Fr Eamon Kelly’s sunrise walks on “Facebook Live” about 3 years ago, and once we booked this pilgrimage I started watching his sunrise reflections as well. It was a joy to meet him in person and experience the beauty Magdala has in real life! It was an incredible way to begin the first half of our journey, staying at this peaceful place that was built out of love and miraculous discoveries. We were blessed to be given a tour of the Magdala grounds and remains of the 1st-century town with Mary Wolff, who had lived and volunteered at Magdala.

Something that stood out and touched my husband’s heart was the mosaic in one of the chapels of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. In the mosaic, the bottom half of Mary Magdalene’s clothing is worn, ragged and also depicts demons, while the top half is beautiful and renewed through Jesus’ touch. It’s a good depiction of Jesus and the Church, not being just for the holiest of holy, but for all sinners that are called to Him. I was touched by our visit to St Peter’s Primacy. This was the spot where Jesus made Peter chief among the apostles and ultimately the birth of the Catholic Church.  Touching, praying, and being near that limestone rock, venerated as Mensa Christi, was especially powerful for me as to where the Church began. It was hard to leave this beautiful area and peaceful Sea of Galilee, but Jerusalem did not disappoint!

Being a city lover, driving into the busy streets excited me, and I loved being so close to the gate entrance into the Old City of Jerusalem. I was not expecting to love Jerusalem so much. I knew all the holy sites we would visit would touch me personally, but I was not expecting Jerusalem to be so fascinating. It was incredible to experience a city that is not just holy for us Christians, but also a holy spot for 3 of the world’s major religions and some sites being shared by all three religions; the ‘Status Quo’ is an understanding among the religious communities with respect to the shared religious sites and many rules which must be followed! I, for one, neglected to remember our amazing guide Khalil’s directions that morning (even though he reminded us several times!); I forgot to check my purse and had a cross in my purse that I was carrying around to place on all the holy sites. I was stopped by the guards before entering the Temple Mount. There were no exceptions, and with my small hand-sized crucifix, I was not allowed in. While I hated to delay the group with my poor guide Khalil trying to fight for me, it allowed my husband and I to go back and revisit our favorite site of all, the Holy Sepulcher. We had started our morning on the Via Dolorosa, walking the Stations of the Cross and ending at the Holy Sepulcher, where we had Mass inside the Tomb. Although the entire pilgrimage was life-changing, that morning is an experience I set apart, as it was truly a place where you get that feeling in your heart- that you know something remarkable happened here. Our Mass inside Jesus’s empty tomb was an experience and feeling I hope I never forget, as well, kneeling and praying at Calgary was another indescribable moment.

We are so grateful for all who helped make this incredible pilgrimage what it was! Not only were the places we visited impactful, but all those we shared it with that truly made our pilgrimage even better. We enjoyed sharing and hearing the experience of faith of everyone in our group and it is what really made our pilgrimage a true pilgrimage!

Upon returning home I am grateful for Mass to transport me back to all these places that I loved so much. Now when I listen to the readings and Gospels they are filled with images of my memories of actual locations; it’s a beautiful thing which I am so grateful for! My husband and I both hope to return to the Holy Land and hope that sharing our experiences encourages others to make the trip as well!

Gina & Bill O’Malley

Published On: July 20th, 2023 /