"You're never going to be the same."
Several pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte were told that they would never look at their faith in the same way after visiting the Holy Land. For the 12 pilgrims, led by Father Adrian Porras of St. Barnabas Church in Arden, touring the Holy Land March 4-11 really did make the Scriptures jump off the page, they agreed.
"As I read the Bible, it will be much more alive for me," said parishioner Mary Alice Girardi. "I'm a very visual person, to be able to see these places I read in the Bible. The Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane – I can now visualize all those places, which will be added meaning to reading the Holy Scriptures."
Letha Hinman, a parishioner at St. Barnabas, said her understanding of the Bible and her desire to understand it more was enriched by her pilgrimage.
"I felt closest to God the Father at Mount Tabor. I really found that really moving," Hinman said. "I felt closest to the Son of God at the crucifixion site. And closest to the Holy Spirit, I would say, at the Jordan River."
Father Porras said it was most rewarding just to be there, walking on the same ground that Jesus walked 2,000 years ago and visiting the places monumental in the Lord's life.
"To go there was kind of an anchor to one's faith," Father Porras said. "You have a picture of it when you read the parables and the stories. Visiting these places, it's kind of like anchoring one's faith deeper. Really deeper."
Father Porras said he felt God's presence most at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
"When we visit a loved one's grave, we're paying respects. We were doing that with Him," Father Porras said. "To go into the tomb, to touch where the cross was placed, I think it was pretty spiritual. I felt really close to God."
At the Church of the Nativity, St. Barnabas parishioner Lia Beard said she experienced a "profound moment" touching the location where Jesus was born.
"I knelt down and kissed the spot, the star on the ground. It was a humbling moment, where your lips are on ground. Your face is as close as it can get to the rocks. There's not a more profound way that I could have been humbled before Christ.
"I stood up and I realized could still feel the imprint of the star on my lips – the screws or nails that put the star in place – on my lips."
Walking upstairs to the main church, she said she started to think about her own flaws and how God made her, knowing she would be inadequate in some ways.
"Knowing who His Son would die for, He made Him. This baby was born for me. Just as much as He would be born for anyone else," Beard said. "That a baby would be born for me, to save me from all of my inadequacies – I cried. As I looked around the church afterwards, everything that was associated with Christ and God, and I couldn't control myself. I cried more."
For Anne Rega, from Holy Family in Clemmons, actually seeing the Garden of Gethsemane was faith-affirming for her. It's exactly as she pictured it, she said.
Before going on the trip, she said, the trip organizer was the voice who told her she just had to physically experience where Jesus lived.
"She was 100 percent right. I can visualize being with Mary, and I don't think I'll pray the rosary again the same," Rega said. "It brings tears to your eyes, and I'm not someone who cries right away.
"I think my life will be different. I think I will be more at peace with understanding, and putting more trust in God than before. I was doubtful sometimes before. I'll let it go and trust in God more."
For Barbara Kolesar, this pilgrimage has helped her to feel closer to the Lord at an important time in her life.
"I just lost my husband, and you question a lot of things," Kolesar said, tearing up. "I needed a little jumpstart, I guess, in my faith. And I think I got that."
Touring the Sea of Galilee region was the most rewarding for her, she said.
"Not only was it the place for most of Jesus' ministry took place, so many good stories from the Bible happened there. The Church of the Loaves and Fishes, the Sermon on the Mount, and seeing the 2,000-year-old boat was impressive."
For Milt DeJean, coming on this pilgrimage was a gift from his children to his wife, Beanie, who he admits is much more spiritual than he is. But the nearly 87-year-old said he did learn from this experience.
"I think it will make me more reflective on the final stages of my life," he said. "It will make me more reflective and think a lot more about God."
Beanie DeJean said she felt the closest to God on this pilgrimage during the Masses that Father Porras celebrated each day of the pilgrimage. Pilgrims offered Mass at the grotto at Gethsemane, the Chapel of St. Helena at the Church of the Nativity, the Primacy of Peter Church and the main Church at Cana.
The Church of the Nativity was the most moving for Beanie DeJean, but for fellow pilgrim Rob Girardi, Cana topped his list. That's where he and his wife of 31 years Mary Alice renewed their marriage vows.
The Church of the Annunciation was also moving for him.
"The Holy Mother has played a big part in my life, and I think that affected me the most," he said. "It was quiet when we visited with very few people. It was the biggest part for me, being able to spend some time with the Holy Mother."
Many of the pilgrims said they were looking forward to the Way of the Cross, the "Via Dolorosa," and that's where Beard said she felt like there was a competition for her faith.
"What I was hoping for was to feel closest to God on the Stations, on the walk around the city, because I figured that would just be a holy experience. I figured I would just be bawling by the end, and I'm not a big crier," Beard said, but "because it went through the old city, merchants were peddling items, and with the Muslim call to prayer in the background I felt like I was almost at war for my faith. Especially since so few people here are Christians."
Beard said she hopes the "little things" in her will be changed by the pilgrimage.
"And I might not know if this trip changed me until I'm old and decrepit," she said.
Walking the streets of Jerusalem and even at the holy sites, the pilgrims were greeted by people with a mixture of cultures, faiths and languages.
"What I didn't expect was meshing of all the different people that are here — Jew, Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli, Bedouin, and everything in between. It was a cultural shock, pretty big," Rob Girardi said.
Kolesar said she was impressed at how all the cultures and religions seem to coexist in the same region, at least for the week she was in Israel.
Mary Alice Girardi said she didn't realize how much separation and division there is in the towns and amid the people.
"I think in my prayers, I will include prayers for peace for the region," she said.
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
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