For 800 years, the Holy Land Franciscans have been entrusted with a sacred duty: guardianship of the most precious sites of the Christian faith.
It all started back in 1217, when the founder of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis of Assisi, called the first chapter of his Order of Friars Minor. He sent his brothers out into the world to preach the gospel. Included in the first provinces he established was the Province of the Holy Land. The friars have been living and working in the region ever since.
The world of the Gospels
Fr. David Wathen, OFM, is director of the Franciscan Monastery Pilgrimage Office in Washington, D.C. He has been leading pilgrims through the Holy Land for nearly 30 years, and lived in the Holy Land for nine years. He shared his insights with us.
Christians should see the Holy Land, the birthplace of Christianity, for themselves. Fr. Wathen explains: “The Gospel writers wrote with the assumption that their readers were familiar with the setting [of their stories]. These are the things the evangelists assumed. But we aren’t.”
When people, “See the land with their own eyes, they … have a better appreciation for the setting of the Gospel stories. This can enrich their faith. Now they can picture it in their minds.”
A powerful experience
To see the places where Jesus was born, grew to adulthood, led his ministry—all of these lead pilgrims to a greater appreciation and understanding of the mysteries of our faith.
Fr. Wathen says, “To see firsthand where salvation history culminated in the life of Jesus Christ, especially in Jerusalem, to be able to walk the same path that Jesus walked, during the final days of his life on this earth—his Passion, death, and resurrection—is a powerful and faith-enriching experience.
“People tell me that the pilgrimage is one of the best experiences, if not the best experience, in their lives. Their faith has been strengthened. People can confront crises in their lives better.”
On a recent trip, Fr. Wathen was leading a woman who had lost her only son in an accident. She was having a difficult time confronting it. At a Mass, she was asked to give the reading about Abraham offering his son Isaac in sacrifice. It was a powerful experience. She saw it as God speaking to her directly, and helping her to better cope with this tragic loss in her life.
The “Fifth Gospel”
St. Jerome called the Holy Land pilgrimage the “fifth gospel.” Biblical scholar Bargil Pixner wrote, “Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.”
It is important that people understand that a pilgrimage is not just another vacation, and the Holy Land friars aren’t merely tour guides—pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. The Holy Land Franciscans offer spiritual direction to pilgrims.
Fr. Wathen says, “Intellectually, you experience a tour. But a pilgrimage is more intimate, in that we’re not really being impressed by a gospel site because of its beauty. We’re not there for the aesthetics, we’re there for the message. And the message is a teaching of Jesus. Listening to the story of Jesus walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee while you’re on a boat in the Sea of Galilee … Jesus slowly reveals himself to us as the Lord and Savior of the world. We want the pilgrims to have a close encounter with Christ. When you’re on a tour you pass through the site; when you’re on a pilgrimage the site passes through you.”
How safe is a Holy Land pilgrimage?
One of the main concerns of many considering a Holy Land pilgrimage is safety. Fr. Wathen reassures us: “The media typically presents the Middle East as a place where there is a lot of violence, a lot of conflict … they give the impression that it’s an inherently dangerous place to travel, when in fact it’s very safe, because the area where recent conflicts have broken out is some distance from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I’ve never seen any violence perpetrated against pilgrims that I have accompanied. And many have been pleasantly surprised to never feel any danger at all at any time.”
Not just pilgrimages
The Holy Land Franciscans have an important mission, and they do much more than lead pilgrimages. Throughout the region, they have established ministries, including the largest Roman Catholic parish church in Jerusalem, and parishes in Syria, Jordan, and Cypress. They run a nursing home and daycare center in Bethlehem. Their work supports schools, scholarships, and affordable housing for Christians in the Holy Land. With the help of their Franciscan sisters, they run a home for boys.
And in the conflict zone of Aleppo in Syria, the friars are providing food, water, and aid to all they can, regardless of religious affiliation.
St. Francis sent his brothers out into the Province of the Holy Land to spread the Gospel. And 800 years later they are still doing this work.