Tears flowed at the Church of the Nativity, Basilica of Agony for Holy Land pilgrims
Pictured: Father Adrian Porras elevates the Eucharist during Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem March 8. He and a group of pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte are on a week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Join the virtual pilgrimage with us at http://lentholyland.tumblr.com.
"And so she brought forth her firstborn Son. And she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Kneeling before the place where Christ was born, standing where the Gospel of Luke describes His birth, brought tears to the eyes of the pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte visiting the Holy Land this week.
"It was like a dream come true," said Barbara Kolesar, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Clemmons. "We saw the manger where Mary and Joseph lay Jesus, and it was just overwhelming."
Fellow parishioner at Holy Family, Anne Rega, added, "You just cannot believe the chills up your spine as you're going through all of these services and visiting all of these sites. It's a onc- in-a-lifetime experience."
In his homily at Mass at the Chapel of St. Helena at the Church of the Nativity, Father Adrian Porras of St. Barnabas Church in Arden talked about how the birth of Jesus allowed God to communicate with mankind without invoking fear.
"It's interesting in the Gospel when the angels appear – they always say there was fear among those who see the angels," Father Porras said during his homily. "The holiness, the glory. The Scripture tells us that it is something that makes the human body shake because we're not used to that type of vision.
"Christ was another way. He was a way God descended upon us, so we can look upon Jesus and not have that fear. He could speak to us in a way in which we can listen. And follow and grow and not always tremble, in a sense."
Shaking herself, Beanie DeJean, former Winston-Salem resident, said she felt so special to participate during Mass at the Church of the Nativity.
"The first time I was a Eucharistic minister, when I returned to my seat, I was shaking. I felt so full of the Lord. And at that moment, I prayed to never lose that feeling.
"And I haven't. I felt it so strongly today."
Her husband Milt agreed that it was a special experience, but deferred questions about expressions of feeling to his wife.
Letha Hinman, parishioner at St. Barnabas in Arden, who read the first reading at Mass about the birth of Jesus, said she was so happy that she kept it together during the reading. Recalling the experience brought her to tears.
Later in the day, the pilgrims visited the Mount of Olives, where the Garden of Gethsemane sits next to the Basilica of Agony, the place Jesus prayed His last prayer before He was betrayed and arrested.
St. Barnabas parishioner Mary Alice Girardi said praying in the Basilica of Agony is something she will remember each Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
"It was so powerful to pray at such a beautiful church, but in my mind I kept hearing the laments and the sorrows that you hear on Good Friday – over and over. It was a very moving experience."
She said a hymn she sings in the choir, "Oh Holy Jesus," kept playing in her head while she was inside the church.
At the Garden of Gethsemane, Kolesar said the olive trees looked exactly like she imagined them from the Scriptures.
"The beautiful olive trees are in such stark contrast with the agony of the garden," she noted.
As the pilgrims walked back to their bus from Mount Zion, where they saw the room of the Last Supper, DeJean reflected on the "beautiful and moving" day she had.
"In so many places where I was today, I felt with God," she said shaking as tears were starting to fall from her eyes.
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
Follow along with the pilgrims
See lots of photos, quotes, reflections, faith facts and videos from the Holy Land as the pilgrims walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Join the virtual pilgrimage: http://lentholyland.tumblr.com
Feeling the Presence of Jesus with every step
Holy Land pilgrims tour Galilee, Mt. Tabor, Church of the Annunciation
"As we crossed the Sea of Galilee in our boat, what dawned on me was this is where it all began."
That's how Father Adrian Porras of St. Barnabas Church in Arden opened his first homily in the Holy Land. At an outdoor altar at the Primacy of Peter Church on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a small group from the Philippines joined the 12 pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte for Mass.
"And it really began with a simple invitation: A man telling fishermen to follow Him," Father Porras continued. "It's where it all began. We know the invitation isn't just once. It's always."
During Mass, a pilgrim from the Philippines, Arlene Banta, read the first reading and the Responsorial Psalm with an ear-to-ear smile.
"It was a great experience for me. Emotional to participate in a Mass here," she said afterwards.
As the pilgrims traveled from the Sea of Galilee to Tabgha and the Church of the Loaves of Fishes, marking the spot where Jesus' miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes occurred, and then on to Capernaum, where Jesus spent so much time during His three years of earthly ministry, they took time to reflect and pray. Each place was such a holy location, and the pilgrims wanted to savor each moment during what had been scheduled as a very busy day – their first full day in Israel during this week's Lenten pilgrimage.
Beanie DeJean, a former Winston-Salem resident who recently moved to New Jersey, said being in the Holy Land is a dream she thought would never come true.
"I am impressed at the simplicity of the homes here in Capernaum. He must have been so humble to live here," she said. "To see the places where Jesus walked, Jesus fished, Jesus healed – it's overwhelming.
"It's amazing to be at a place where Jesus healed. I am hopeful something special will happen to me in my life and my husband's life. Maybe it will happen here. Now."
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
Follow along with the pilgrims
See lots of photos, quotes, reflections, faith facts and videos from the Holy Land as the pilgrims walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Join the virtual pilgrimage: http://lentholyland.tumblr.com/
About the pilgrimage to the Holy Land
CHARLOTTE — For the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI has challenged the faithful to visit the Holy Land, the place which first witnessed the presence of Jesus, Our Savior, and Mary, His Mother.
Father Adrian Porras, pastor of St. Barnabas Church in Arden, is taking up that challenge. This week, he is leading a pilgrimage of a dozen first-time pilgrims to Israel. I am covering the March 4-11 pilgrimage for readers of the Catholic News Herald to experience a virtual pilgrimage of their own this Lent.
"I thought it would be a great time to finally go see all the holy sites we read about in the Bible all the time," Father Porras said. "To finally see the Jordan River and the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached.
"I'm most looking forward to being in the place where Jesus carried the cross and was crucified. I think it's going to be very intense."
In addition to those holy grounds, the pilgrims will cruise on the Sea of Galilee, visit the location of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, Joseph's carpentry workshop, the wedding at Cana, the Church of the Nativity, the site of the Last Supper and more.
"The trip stops at the major Biblical places, the places that we hear of Jesus in His public ministry. To stand in those places, it will be astounding," Father Porras said. "To be where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, I think will be really important."
Father Porras said he also hopes pilgrims will gain a deeper knowledge of Scripture through the pilgrimage.
"I've never been in that area of the world, ever. To be in that part of the world will be fascinating.
"I think it will be beneficial to have a visual of these places I read about, to feel the desert experience Apostles lived through and traveled in, to have a visual of all the places we read and hear about."
Father Porras also said he hopes this experience will help him in telling homilies in the future. "When we talk about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, to have that experience to have been where that happened, hopefully, it will help with my preaching."
The intimate pilgrimage is being attended by about a dozen parishioners of St. Barnabas Church and Holy Family Church in Clemmons.
For retired English teacher Barbara Kolesar, this pilgrimage was on her "bucket list."
Originally from New York, Kolesar moved to Advance, N.C., with her now-late husband in 2006. Kolesar is an active volunteer and tutor in her community, and she also serves at Holy Family Church as a lector and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. She travels often to see her daughters and grandchildren, and she said she felt this was her "year to go" to the Holy Land.
"I know there will always be political issues in the area," she wrote recently via email. "I am delighted to go with an experienced group leader to this most special place on earth, especially around the Easter holy days."
She said she looks forward to traveling with her friend, attending daily Mass and walking in the steps of Our Lord. "I am eager to deepen my understanding of this holy ground and share the mysteries of our faith with other Christians."
For fellow New York transplant Anne Rega, this pilgrimage will be her first trip across the Atlantic. Rega moved to North Carolina in 1992. She said an ad in her parish bulletin inspired her to think about the pilgrimage.
"My two adult children encouraged me to take this trip. They said their dad would have wanted me to take this trip, as I am very happy when I am in church," she said.
For St. Barnabas parishioner Letha Hinman, it's finally her time to visit the Holy Land. Her husband was there during a Navy deployment many years ago.
"We both agreed this would be a good time of my life to go," Hinman said.
Despite an uptick in violence over the past few months in the region, Father Porras said he isn't worried about any danger during the pilgrimage.
"It does concern me, but the tourist area is so very vital to the people," he said. "They go above and beyond to ensure the visitors are safe."
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
Walk in the footsteps of Jesus
About Father Adrian Porras
Born in El Paso, Texas, Father Adrian Porras moved with his family to Greensboro in 1980.
After attending college in Brevard and finishing at Belmont Abbey College, Father Porras joined a religious order, Marians of the Immaculate Conception, and continued his education at Dominican House of Studies and The Catholic University of America.
When his order decided to leave the Diocese of Charlotte, Father Porras received permission to remain in the diocese and serve as a diocesan priest. Prior to his ordination, he served as a deacon at St. Mark Church in Huntersville.
After his ordination in 2001, he served as parochial vicar at Holy Family Church in Clemmons, pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Mars Hill and Sacred Heart Mission in Burnsville. In 2008, he was named pastor of St. Barnabas Church in Arden.
He spends his free time reading, seeing movies and playing sports, including being active in adult soccer leagues in Asheville. His favorite reading topics include theology, history, spirituality and biographies.
He has two beagles, Oliver and Petey.
Father Adrian has led two prior pilgrimages: in 2010 to Assisi and Rome, Italy, and in 2011 to Lourdes and Fatima.