Salem parishioners return safely from Israel pilgrimage

BRAINTREE -- Father Robert Murray was celebrating Mass on the Mount of Olives when war broke out.

Father Murray, pastor of Mary Queen of Martyrs Parish in Salem, was with 30 pilgrims at the site where Christ wept over Jerusalem and ascended into heaven. As Father Murray celebrated Mass, sirens wailed and bombs exploded. It was Oct. 7, and Hamas had launched a deadly surprise attack on Israel, another salvo in a long, bitter conflict.

Father Murray and the pilgrims had left Boston for the Holy Land on Oct. 5. On Oct. 14, thanks to the support of the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Risk Management and the Trinity Tour Travels company, all of the pilgrims touched down safely at Logan Airport. Technically, they didn't miss a day of their trip: Oct. 14 was their scheduled return date.

"It felt extraordinary and it felt sad," Father Murray said during a media availability at Salem's Immaculate Conception Church on Oct. 15.

Bill Card, who went on the pilgrimage with his wife Lorrie, said it was "surreal" to celebrate Mass on the Mount of Olives amid the sounds of war.

"It was very emotional," he said. "Spiritually, it was unbelievable to see some of the places we saw, but having this go on in the background, some of the ironies were unbelievable."

"There's a parallel line," Lorrie Card said. "How Jesus would be weeping now, with all of this conflict."

When the attack on Israel began, the pilgrims had no idea what was happening until they received text messages from their loved ones watching the news at home.

"We didn't know what the scale of the conflict was," Bill Card said. "We found out in real time in Jerusalem."

Trinity Tour Travels was one of the few companies continuing to give tours after the war had started. On Oct. 8, the pilgrims continued sightseeing in Jerusalem, with a heightened awareness of what was going on around them.

"We didn't know if something would happen," Lorrie Card said, "but we walked in faith."

On Oct. 9, the pilgrims were in Bethlehem, touring the Church of the Nativity, when their tour guide told them that shelling was imminent. They would have to pack their bags and get ready to leave immediately.

"Our faith is in God," Father Murray said, "but we have to take care of ourselves, and we need to be very careful about what we do and how we proceed."

The pilgrims boarded a bus to Nazareth, three hours north and away from the worst of the violence. They spent a day there, then went to see Galilee, Cana, and Capernaum. All the while, the Office of Risk Management was monitoring the situation.

"I simply maintained contact with them, provided them with some information relevant to what was going on on the ground," Office of Risk Management Director Joe McEnness said Oct. 16.

Father Murray was also in contact with Father Robert Kickham, secretary to Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley. Father Murray thanked McEnness and Father Kickham for their support and reflected on his own role.

"I think that my most important job was to be the spiritual leader," he said, "to remind people that God is with us, but also directing ourselves away from the violence."

Father Murray said that he tried to remain as calm as possible, though it was difficult.

The pilgrims supported each other by praying and talking together, even though some spoke English and others spoke Spanish.

"We feel as though it kind of created one family," Bill Card said, "even though there was a language barrier between many of us. We learned a common language together, which is prayer."

On Oct. 11, the pilgrims took a bus to Amman, Jordan. From there, Trinity Tour Travels managed to get the pilgrims on emergency flights from Amman to Ankara, Turkey, then from Ankara to Istanbul.

"We had to negotiate visas in and out of Amman and into Turkey," Father Murray said, "and we had to negotiate passports from different countries."

Some of the pilgrims had passports from countries other than the U.S., which made travel arrangements more difficult.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 14, Istanbul time, the pilgrims took off for Boston. They arrived at Logan Airport late at night on Oct. 14.

Upon landing, Father Murray felt "tremendous relief" but also "great sadness" that he and the pilgrims could not complete their journey as planned. Nevertheless, he is grateful for what he did get to see during his first trip to the Holy Land.

"It was the journey of a lifetime," he said, "to be able to be in the same garden that Jesus was in when he decided that he would go all the way to his death and resurrection."