As a Catholic Spending Holy Week in the Holy Land was the Greatest Experience I had in My Life

When I took the job for Gaza in the occupied Palestinian Territories, I didn’t know I will have the grandest pilgrimage I will have in my life.

Although I lived in Gaza most of the time, I had at least 2 weekends in a month to enjoy the old city and visit all nooks and cranny inside it. Reliving the stories I read in the bible at the same time understand the plight of my Palestinian friends against the oppression they were dealt with in this modern times.

I arrived in Israel in early February of 2016 and settled-in first in Jerusalem while waiting for my papers allowing me to enter into Gaza.  The Christian world was preparing for the Lenten season. It took a while before I was able to appreciate where I was until I get to visit around town and inside the old city. I was happy to have made acquaintances with other Catholics from Spain and Mexico who’s been living in Jerusalem for over a year and are well versed with the happenings in and around town and of course the Passion of Jesus Christ.

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Palm Sunday entering one of the gates to the old city of Jerusalem
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Entered the gate to welcome Jesus Christ

The feeling while in the old city at this time – at Lent was overwhelming. Like all other Christians, being in the place where Jesus lived, walking in the path he walked on meeting his disciples, and while carrying the crossed for our sins humbled me.

For a while I forget why I was in Palestine, all I can think of at that time was the Passion of Christ Jesus, relieving in my head his stories, the stories of his apostles and of Mary and the persecution they received in the hands of those who claim to be high and mighty.  It’s hard not to remember your catechism and you can only do that when you are faced with it in real-time.

I was so happy, no words can explain my feelings when I was there and all the time I was there until I have to leave Israel.

To appreciate the Old City, the Holy Land, one has to be in the moment and feel the spirit of the city speaks to you and bring you back to the time when you become part of the bible history. 

 

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Until the celebration of Easter, of His resurrection. Giving hope to the people that all our sins are forgiven and were given opportunities to become a better person for others year after year.

It was a fitting introduction to the challenges I am set to tackle accepting the job in Gaza. It was an opportunity for me to know the places and the people according to history and to the experience, I had with them daily.  The chance to work with my now Palestinian friends, to help them overcome the consequences of their situation and of the people they helped make me realize that religion knows no boundaries.

It is not enough to just say been there-done that without bringing with you the spiritual high that you experience while in the holiest of the land, the land that is full of history that had been told for centruries on. 

In Palestine, my being Catholic is no issue. Between my coordinator, also a Catholic and me, all our staffs and the people I met in the community to help and to mingle are all Muslim but it was never an issue. The Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are the most progressive thinkers I met, but unfortunately, their situation is one of the world’s greatest irony – the oppressed become the oppressor.

Their experience since 1948 up to now is a product of hatred and self-entitlement of those that persecute them.  And I continuously pray that the history written in the holy book, the Bible, in the new testament and that of the Quoran will eventually come to reality in the present time and we can achieve the peace we all dream of.

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. — Matthew 22:35-40

I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything. This may not be the best mission for me (work wise), but I can say this is the best experience I had working and living in the Middle East.

Let us continue to pray for peace and freedom to the Holy Land!

Traveling with Purpose

Two thousand and sixteen was my best travel year so far! It was not just simply traveling; it has purpose and meaning.

I was working in the holiest of the land and was able to do my pilgrimage to two other sites that all Christians wish to walk through and relieve the journey of the first pilgrims beginning from Jesus Christs.

Although I lived in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied Palestinian Territory three weeks in a row, I get to spend at least two weekends in a month in Jerusalem when I am commuting to work in the West Bank five days in a month. Inside Gaza, I attended the only Catholic Church – the Holy Family Church every Saturday located in the middle of the old city under the Latin Patriarchate and joined the less than 100 Catholics living there in the celebrations.

When in Jerusalem, every weekend I get to go and walk in the Old City of Jerusalem and experience first hand (over and over) the sights and sound of the lives of the first Christians, Muslims, Orthodox, and Jews. Walking on the pavement where Jesus carried the cross to Mount Calvary and be laid in the tomb that is now enclosed by the Basilica of the Holy Sephulcre. I even got to spend the Holy Week in Jerusalem when I first moved to Israel, and it was surreal.

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The door of the Basilica of the Holy Sephulcre (Old City, Jerusalem / 2016)

“In my opinion, if you really want to experience the grace of being in the Holy Land visit first as a pilgrim with every intent to live out the life of Jesus, Mary and his apostles, then return as a tourist to better appreciate the experience”.

When I took my two-weeks break towards the end of November 2016, I decided and went to visit the seaside province Galicia in the northwestern part of Spain via Madrid spending a week in the small town of Santiago de Compostela and end my days for a week embracing the statue of St James.

I didn’t do the famous walk along the Camino. I went straight to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I immersed myself in reading books about the pilgrimage, at the same time meeting those that completed the journey with certificates to show for it. I was also in touch with one of my former colleague that made the same pilgrimage years back after he recovered from a traumatic health condition. Staying put was enough for me back then — I was there at the time when I needed to sort myself and see what I would do next.

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At the courtyard with the Cathedral of Santigo de Compostela in the background (Galicia, Spain / 2016)

It was one of the most exciting experiences I had. I was supposed to spend it with a friend from long ago, but I guess that trip was meant for solo travel because a companion would have been a distraction into my communion with the higher spirits when I was there.

My pilgrimage in Europe would not have been complete without me visiting San Pietro in Roma.

I missed my train from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid. I thought my train was 5 in the afternoon and when I got to the train station, I realized that it was meant to be 5 in the morning. The night before I packed my bags and planned my day of nice pork meals and hang around the church courtyard until I go to the train station embracing  St. James one last time and said my goodbye. In the end, I had to pay extra to buy my new ticket, leave much later in the night and instead of me resting before I take my early flight to Rome I arrived very late and spent only a few hours with my friend instead of one whole night and meet her family.

Then it was time to go and fly to Rome. I have few friends and family in Rome, part of my trip was a reunion of some sort — meeting again friends from Nepal and the last housemate I had in Gaza Strip before she ended her mission earlier, and a very old college buddy who was running a hotel close to Roma Termini while I stayed with family. I get to see again the small city of Vatican. The last time I was there John Paul II was still Pope, and he passed away the year after that. Then I get the chance to visit his crypt and venerate the now Saint John Paul II and attend the weekly greetings made by Pope Francis.

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At the altar of the Saint Peters Basilica (Roma, Italia / 2016)

Then it was time to go back to my original playground, the Holy Land with the promise that I will spend my Christmas in the town where Jesus was born with good friends and be home to my family in the Philippines in the New Year!