Pilgrimage allows young adults to experience Holy Land, Rome

WALTHAM -- Father Michael Nolan was preparing to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the spring of 2020, until the coronavirus pandemic forced him to change his plans. But after waiting for almost three years, this January he was able to take a group of young adults to Israel and Italy through his nonprofit, Seven Miles From Jerusalem.

Father Nolan, who is the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Waltham, began organizing pilgrimages for young adults in 2017, inspired by the work of Birthright Israel Foundation. Seven Miles From Jerusalem is meant to help young Catholics learn about the faith and deepen their relationships with God, while also supporting Christian businesses and charities in the Holy Land.

Father Nolan led a group of 20 young adults, most of them college students from the Boston area, on a pilgrimage to Israel and Italy from Jan. 1-16. Apart from a few pairs of siblings and cousins, most of them had never met before.

Also accompanying them for most of the journey was Father Fernando Ayala, who was ordained a priest for Boston in 2021 and then sent to study in Rome. Father Ayala said he had been on several pilgrimages during his time in Rome, but this was his first one with young adults.

"To visit the Holy Land for the first time with people who are close in age was truly a beautiful experience. As a young priest, it fills you with hope" to see that "there are people willing to learn more about the faith," he said.

Father Ayala recalled that on the first day, most of the pilgrims did not talk much to each other. But that changed over their two weeks together.

"I can confidently say that by the end of the pilgrimage they ended up as family. Seeing their personalities unveil more the more they grew in closeness with the Lord. That is exactly what our faith is meant to do and it happened! Just like the disciples truly discovered themselves in the Lord, this group of young adults did as well," Father Ayala said.

Michael Gensler, who came all the way from the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York, decided to make the trip after hearing about the program through two friends.

"Being with two amazing priests for most of the trip as well as an awesome tour guide in the Holy Land, there was definitely no shortage of guidance culturally, historically, and spiritually," Michael said.

Over meals, during their bus rides, and at the various hotels and holy sites they visited, they talked about questions of faith. One participant had never attended a Mass before, and the others were at varying stages of their faith journeys. Those who had more knowledge or experience offered guidance to those who had less, and the priests sometimes held impromptu question-and-answer sessions.

"It was amazing to see how God works through people of all sorts of different ages and stages of formation in the faith," Michael said.

They not only bonded with each other, but also with locals and other pilgrims they encountered along the way. At Bethlehem University, they met Israeli and Palestinian students who described their experiences living there. They also visited an orphanage, where they played with the children and donated supplies they had brought. In their free time, they explored the shops and restaurants, and sometimes struck up conversations with the craftspeople and shopkeepers.

One pilgrim had brought a guitar, and a few others formed a choir with her to sing at the Masses. One night, when they were rehearsing in the lounge area of their guest house, their music attracted the attention of a few other international travelers, who joined them for songs and conversation.

Katherine Torres, a student from Wellesley College, said she felt that she encountered God through her interactions with people during the pilgrimage.

"We made friends across religious, cultural, and language barriers, and it was so beautiful to see the diversity of God's kingdom," she said.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, the pilgrims traced the story of Christ's earthly life. For Andrew Arcieri, hearing their tour guide describe the Holy Land as "the fifth Gospel" rang true.

"The Holy Land speaks for itself as a witness for Christ and His Church, which provided me and the other pilgrims with a unique experience and account of Christ's life," he said.

At most of the holy sites they visited, they stopped to read relevant passages from the Gospels. They also celebrated Mass every day.

"My spirit felt nourished after every homily, and I learned so much, not only about Jesus and the Catholic Church but also about myself and my faith. It was truly a time of reflection for me and asking myself how I wanted to proceed in my walk with the Lord," Katherine said.

Their first destination was Nazareth, where they visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and other sites associated with the Holy Family. They then went to Ein Karem to see the Church of the Visitation and the birthplace of John the Baptist.

In Bethlehem, they went to the Shepherd's Field and the Basilica of the Nativity. On the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the Magi's visit to the infant Christ, they attended a multilingual Mass at the Church of St. Catherine, which is adjacent to the basilica built over Christ's birthplace.

"Hearing parts of the Mass in Arabic, Italian, and Latin was an amazing testament to the universality of the Catholic Church," Michael said.

After recalling the events of the infancy narratives, they then focused on Jesus' ministry in Galilee. Among the places they visited were the Jordan River, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, and Magdala. They also rode a boat on the Sea of Galilee, explored the ruins at Beit-She'an National Park, and hiked up Mount Tabor, the possible site of the Transfiguration.

They spent a few days in Jerusalem, visiting the Cenacle, Gethsemane, the palace of Caiaphas, and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which includes the sites of the crucifixion and the tomb of the Resurrection.

Their final stop in Israel was Emmaus, the place from which the program takes its name. Father Nolan talked to the young adults about what it means to be "seven miles from Jerusalem," like the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, on the verge of an encounter with Christ.

Hugh Buxbaum, who had visited Israel once before, said he can now picture the places mentioned in Scripture and have "a deeper appreciation for them."

"That is a wonderful thing. As a pilgrim, the Jordan River carries more meaning than a river somewhere in Israel where Jesus was baptized. It's sacred ground where I have been; a place where I have made a tangible connection with my faith," he said.

On Jan. 11, the group flew to Rome, where they stayed at a guest house outside the Vatican. Just as their time in Israel had followed the life of Christ, they now turned their thoughts and feet in the direction of St. Peter and St. Paul, who were both martyred in Rome.

On their first full day there, they celebrated Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, near the tomb of St. Peter and the recent burial place of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. They were joined for this Mass by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. He then invited the pilgrims to visit him that afternoon. He told them about the order's mission to support Christians in the Holy Land and gave them a blessing.

The group went on a whirlwind of tours to see Rome's artistic and historical treasures, including the four major basilicas; the Scala Sancta, the steps Jesus climbed when he was taken to Pontius Pilate; the catacombs of St. Callixtus; and the Vatican museums, culminating in the Sistine Chapel.

They spent the last few days of the pilgrimage in Assisi, where they had more time for rest and reflection. They visited the many sites associated with St. Francis and St. Clare, as well as the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where they were able to view the body of Blessed Carlo Acutis. On their last full day before returning to the U.S., they talked about the expectations they originally had for the trip and what they had experienced in that time.

Though they have been home for a few weeks now, the pilgrims still keep in touch via WhatsApp. Several of them have met again to attend Mass at Father Nolan's parish, and they hope to spend more time together in the future.

"I feel that I have left the pilgrimage with new friends and pillars of support that I can learn and grow with as we all pursue God," Katherine said.

Andrew said the pilgrimage brought him "closer to Christ in a way that would not have been possible through any other means."

"I have met so many wonderful people on this pilgrimage that I know my experiences and memories with them will certainly strengthen me as I continue my journey through life," he said.

Those interested in learning more about Seven Miles From Jerusalem can contact Father Michael Nolan at sevenmilesfromjerusalem@gmail.com.