After my father’s death, I inherited his personal library. As a Protestant pastor, my father had many books on religion. Within that collection of books, I found St. Augustine’s Confessions. It was the beginning of my journey into full communion with the Catholic Church. We had been Wesleyan Methodists during my childhood. Dad switched denominations when I was in middle school and spent the rest of his life as a Presbyterian pastor. As an adult, I spent some time in non-denominational churches, Baptist churches, and even a brief time in a United Church of Christ.
Within six months of my father’s death, I discovered the writings of three saints that became the catalyst for conversion. St. Augustine, from my father’s library. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, from the local bookstore. I had not deliberately set out to become Catholic, but God was using the gifts he had planted in me to get my attention. I have an M.A. in literature, so God placed one book after another in front of me until I hungered for the spirituality of the saints and the Church home they called home.
On August 14, 2005, after waiting on the annulment process, I entered the Catholic Church, and I received the Eucharist. My love and appreciation for the liturgical calendar, the Communion of Saints, the Magisterium, the array of religious Orders, and the Church-in-time grew.
It was a new world. There were times, especially in those early days, that I was moved to tears when I received Jesus in the Eucharist. It was always with a spirit of thanksgiving. I was thankful that the Catholic Church had held strong and had been preserved throughout history so that I could stumble along in the year 2005 and have my name added to the RCIA roster.
The teaching on the Real Presence had the greatest impact on me. How could it be that the Lord that I had loved for as long as I could remember was showing up at the parish just down the street? How could it be that I had been invited to that banquet table and could receive him? Who was I that I could receive the One I had long ago received through a private prayer of invitation. Now, he came to me body, blood, soul and divinity in this Eucharist. Yes, I was a beneficiary of a faith that had been handed down through the generations, preserved and protected, and waiting for my yes.
By grace, I had discovered the Eucharist, and after I had been catechized and a previous marriage deemed non-Sacramental, I was invited to the Table.
Immediately, I began writing about this new faith, this Eucharistic Lord. My column Catholic by Grace was published in 63 diocesan newspapers. I have been a syndicated columnist for ten years.
In May 2014, I was invited to go to the Holy Land with the Catholic Press Association as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. I traveled with fellow CPA members, one of whom was John Feister, editor-in-chief of St. Anthony Messenger (Franciscan Media). As we visited one holy site after another, John talked about the Franciscans and explained that they are custodians of the places we visited in the Holy Land. We saw the Franciscans. The brown habits were everywhere.
I returned in November on a second pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and the things John said began to take root, to grow, and what grew was that same spirit of thanksgiving that I’d had as I thought about the Catholic faith after my conversion. How blessed was I, that the faithful who came before me had protected the faith, preserved what I longed to receive!
A pilgrimage is a gift. It is a journey through sacred territory that leads the pilgrim to Jesus Christ. Perhaps the greatest pilgrimage one can take is the pilgrimage to the land where it all began. There is nothing to match sailing on the Sea of Galilee or receiving the Eucharist at the Basilica of the Annunciation, or worshipping Our Lord in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
There are few places as beautiful as the Mount of Beatitudes. Few things as precious as witnessing the renewal of marriage vows at the Church at Cana. This land – from Bethlehem to Nazareth, from Jerusalem to Ein Kerem – is filled with grace because Christ walked here, preached here, healed here, died and rose again here.
St. Francis of Assisi traveled to the Middle East in the 13th century because he wished to touch the places that bear witness to the truth that Jesus Christ came to redeem the world and bring the love of God to each one of us. As the Franciscans say, “there is no Incarnation without a place. For us, loving this land means to love Jesus.” And so, the Catholic Church has entrusted the Franciscans with the work of preserving these holy sites so that we might visit them, and pray there, and receive graces as we touch the places that testify to what we believe.
I saw them at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And in their faces, I saw reverence, wonder and awe.
I saw them at the Tomb where Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And in their faces, I saw the holiness and God’s glory.
It was Friday, November 14, 2014, about three o’clock. We had already visited the Tomb that day. Most of the pilgrims returned to the hotel to rest, but a few of us went back to the Tomb. Our host showed me a seat situated on the spot where the mother of Our Lord stood and watched her Son die.
I thought of my son, born on Christmas Eve in 1985, this son who is now so close in age to Our Lord at the time of his death. This Son, who is going to be a missionary, and I cried, not for sorrow, but for the gift. A gift to give. A gift I have loved and am ready to give back.
It was a pale comparison to what Mary did. How she loved. The gift she gave. But I felt her with me. I felt like I was also with her at the Cross.
Pilgrimage, like the Eucharist, is about as close as we can come to time travel. It is all made present. Right now.
My friend Ceci, our host, took me behind the Tomb, where we venerated a lesser-known place. You can reach in – through the back of the Tomb, and touch the spot where his Sacred Head rested.
We made our way around the Tomb, though not getting in line, as we had done that earlier in the day. This Friday. This day of Our Lord’s death.
The music. The male voices. A capella. The words were in another language. But the cognates of the words made them familiar, a language that was not my own but higher, universal, and the posture of those around me told me this is holy. This music is so very holy.
And then, I saw them. Dozens of them. Brown habits. Each Franciscan holding a candle. Singing.
All eyes on the Tomb as they approached. It was glorious. That is the only way to describe it. Just glorious.
One Franciscan went before the door of the Tomb. A ritual began. A beautiful, holy ritual. He turned to face his brother Franciscans.
There were three standing directly before him, and these three led the response. Dozens more stood behind the three.
It was like heaven. Like something out of the Book of Revelation.
The people in line had parted to let them through. The scrolls had been opened. They did not read the words – but sang them. The response came.
And all eyes were on the place where the Lamb claimed our victory.
The tears came. I had almost missed this. We had turned to leave just moments before they had entered the Rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Had we hurried along even by a few minutes, I would have missed this most grace-filled moment of my pilgrimage. I stood just an arm’s length from the three facing the Tomb. By now the leader had entered the Tomb to pray.
I was taken back to the morning of the Resurrection. A woman races to tell the disciples. He is not there. I do not know where they have taken him.
And the disciples ran to the Tomb. The gospel narrative finds its glorified message here. In this moment. At the Resurrection.
I stood there, a woman, like the women who came before me, like that woman.
These holy men had come, like the men who came before them, Franciscans through the ages, beginning with St. Francis of Assisi. And now, like the ones that stood before the Tomb on this day.
I have pondered this moment again and again. I think I will be contemplating it when I am an old woman.
I have this faith because of the faithful who came before me, who preserved what Jesus Christ had handed down to St. Peter and the apostles and to a Church that has trod carefully and deliberately with grace-filled steps through time.
I have the Eucharist because of them.
I also have this faith-filled place to visit. I can make a pilgrimage to the place where it all began, because these men have preserved what happened here. They have walked carefully and deliberately with grace-filled steps through time…
…to stand in mercy’s seat, to touch the very stones that cry out, to weep, to bless, to remember.
And I stand and weep. I reach out and say yes, taking a burning candle.
We are a pilgrimage people. Pope Francis at his Wednesday Audience on November 26, 2014, said, “The Church is on a journey through history to Paradise.” St. Francis of Assisi would agree. The pilgrimage of the soul, the pilgrimage of the body – they don’t run parallel; they are one.
With a great debt of gratitude, I thank the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans, for the Gift.
We are a pilgrimage people, and they have protected and fostered the gospel message and the places that testify to that message. Come and see this place where angels sang, where Christ healed and preached the good news, where death was swallowed up in victory.
Forever and ever.