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Documenting a Papal Pilgrimage Like a Real Human Being

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Part travelogue, part spiritual journal, Diana von Glahn’s series is a unique and valuable offering

In May of 2014 Pope Francis traveled to the Holy Land to visit some of the historic, sacred sites of the region while commemorating the 50thanniversary of the historic visit of Blessed Pope Paul VI to the cradle of Christianity. Now, the latest offering from Diana von Glahn and her team at The Faithful Traveler, A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, documents the stories that emerged from Pope Francis’ trip, and gives us a richly detailed look into the sights and sounds, people and issues that characterize this part of the world. Here’s the trailer.

If you’ve seen previous films from The Faithful Traveler, you know that what distinguishes it from other travel programs is, first and foremost, its host. Diana von Glahn’s engaging and dynamic personality turns serious when warranted, and jovial when an occasion for mirth arises, but she is always both informative and reflective. The series invites us to sit down with the people whom Diana meets as she travels alongside the papal pilgrimage route, humanizing the sometimes dehumanizing news that the mainstream media feeds us about the Middle East. At the same time, she does not shy away from sharing her own spiritual observations of what makes a journey to this part of the world an experience unlike any other.

Throughout this new series the filmmakers do an excellent job of tying in historical events with the present day. For example, we see archival footage of Blessed Pope Paul VI arriving in the Holy Land and meeting Jordan’s King Hussein back in 1964; then we see and hear Paul VI’s successor, Pope Francis, and King Hussein’s son, King Abdullah, meeting each other 50 years after that first visit of a pope to a majority Muslim country. We are given a similar juxtaposition for the historic meeting between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I, which reopened ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches after centuries of silence, and the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I to continue building upon that relationship.

As interesting as these headline-making stories are, however, it is the personalization of the Holy Land that, for me, is the real heart of this series. We learn about the Catholic community in Jordan, and the work of Father Nabil Haddad to build understanding between Christians and Muslims there, as Diana takes us to Father Haddad’s rectory to talk with him about Pope Francis’ visit and the importance of interreligious cooperation. As pilgrims from the Holy Land and all over the world enter Manger Square in Bethlehem to attend a papal Mass, Diana’s conversations with those attending bring across the excitement surrounding such an event, something that comes across clearly on screen. “Few moments in my life,” Diana observes, “has been as exhilarating as this.” It’s a feeling expressed by many participating in this papal pilgrimage, such as Venezuelan pilgrim Gustavo Franco, who describes the clever way he got Pope Francis to notice him in a crowd in Jerusalem.

As we all know, not everything in the Holy Land is sweetness and light. To her credit, Diana takes a look at some hard truths in this series, such as when she sits down to talk with a couple about the challenges of being a Christian and supporting a family in the Middle East. In her interviews with everyday people of faith, and even in her trips to the marketplaces in search on interesting new foods, we come to see that the Holy Land is something more than a geopolitical, historical, or theological construct. “There’s so much more to this land and these people,” Diana observes, “then what the news decides to show us.”

Catholics often bemoan the fact that television travel programs gloss over or play down the spiritual significance of locations being visited, even occasionally sinking to the level of misrepresenting history and belief. Religious programs, on the other hand, can sometimes exhibit an off-putting, homespun quality. Here however, not only does Diana invite us to embrace both the pope’s journey and her own, but the series itself combines all of the best aspects of contemporary filmmaking, from great editing to careful research to animated illustrations and special effects. And perhaps this, then, is the greatest strength of this series.

Beyond its interest as a record of Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, and as a close look at the people, places, and issues that define that part of the world, A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land serves a broader purpose. It is exactly the sort of quality, creative work that we have been called upon to support as part of the New Evangelization, and which some of us who are particularly concerned with the state of our culture have been begging Catholic media outlets to produce. Rarely are our plaintive cries for good content heard. Here, however, is a piece of filmmaking that you can happily share with others, Catholic or otherwise, which not only embraces the joy of being Catholic, but simply looks great.

A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land begins broadcasting May 1 on a number of Catholic networks. For schedule dates and times and to learn more, please visit www.thefaithfultraveler.com.

William Newton is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, the University of Notre Dame Law School and Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. Learn more at wbdnewton.com and follow him on Twitter at wbdnewton. He blogs at Blog of the Courtier.

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