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December 20, 2009

Visiting the land of Jesus Editor Joyce Duriga takes a media tour of Israel’s holy sites and the town of Christ’s birth

By Joyce Duriga


Just for fun

If you can work it into your journey, take a side trip to the Dead Sea and go for a float. You won’t sink. The water in the Dead Sea has a high mineral content so your body does not sink below the surface. It is said that it is called the Dead Sea because nothing can live in it.

Located on the southeast border of Israel with Jordan, it became so mineral rich because water flowing in has no way to exit. Sources say the salt content is about 32 percent, which is about nine times saltier than the world’s oceans.

You have to watch your feet because hardened salt crystals cover the beaches and they can be sharp. Once you are in the water it is an amazing experience to hold both arms and legs out of the water and have your body stay afloat. Then if you roll over onto your belly, it feels like rolling over onto a ball.

The floor of the Dead Sea is a slippery mud. It takes some careful balancing and patience to wade in deep enough to float. People who visit the beaches are encouraged to cover themselves completely in the mud, let it dry on their skin and then wash it off. It’s said to be good for the skin.

You may want to visit the Dead Sea soon because the water levels are dropping rapidly. Some researchers say the Dead Sea could be dry within a few decades.

Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee. I fell in.

See, there were these large, round, slippery stones in an area of the shore where I was wading. In between those closely packed stones were sharp edges of sea shells mixed with sand. It made for tricky wading.

Oh, and I had a Bible in one hand, some stones in the other and a backpack on my back so my balance was all off. It was the makings of a fall to be sure. And it was pretty funny.

This impromptu baptism of sorts occurred Nov. 20, the second day of a weeklong trip for Catholic journalists sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

We were visiting this tiny church marking the site where it is believed Jesus appointed Peter to care for his church. It is located right along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which really isn’t a sea but rather a lake.

I got wet from the waist down, my feet sustained some minor cuts and I ruined the office camera. There were tourists around me when I fell and they all just stared at me. I still laugh when I think of falling in.

To top it off, we didn’t have time to return to the hotel so I could change so I spent the rest of the day walking around in wet-todrying jeans. Good thing the temperature was around 70 degrees. I offered it up.

Memories made

Falling into the Sea of Galilee is not an experience I am likely toforget. I’m also not likely to forget the visit to Israel. Seeing this historical place in the Bible completely animates Scriptures.

Now when I read or hear in Scripture that someone “went up the Jerusalem,” I can picture the warm golden limestone walls surrounding the Old City and the numerous villages built into the hillsides. When I hear of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, I can picture both places and the distance between them, the rolling, rocky hills, and desert plains.

In this way, I feel closer now to Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Apostles. Even to people in the Old Testament, like King David.

A Bible is a necessary companion on a trip to the Holy Land. You can download a list of main biblical references for Holy Land sites from the Christian Information Centre’s Web site (see

This valuable center is adminsterd by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the group of religious Franciscans who were given “custody” or adminstration of the Catholic sites in the Holy Land by the Vatican more than 600 years ago. Pilgrims see them everywhere they visit these shrines.

This was not a spiritual pilgrimage in the way that many Catholics visit the Holy Land. This trip was what I called “speed sightseeing.” Our guide, who was Jewish, took us to as many of the important Christian sites that we could pack in to each day. Israel is about the size of New Jersey so it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere.

The focus of the trip was to promote religious tourism. Still, it is hard to visit the land of Jesus without being moved.


One of the first places we visited was Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation. Mary’s “yes” to God when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her has always touched me in a deep way. She said “yes” as we are to say “yes” to God. Since I am not always good with the “yes” the Annunciation offers me inspiration and hope. Visiting the cave where it is believed Gabriel appeared to Mary literally gave me goose bumps.

This basilica houses an upper and lower church with the lower church containing the grotto.

I was surprised to learn that many of the Christian churches throughout Israel are newer, by history’s standards. Most of the ones standing today were built over the last 80 years. Many times they sit upon remains of churches built by the Crusaders or during Byzantine times.

Given the land’s tumultuous history, churches were razed for various reasons and at various times. These sites do not claim to be the exact spots where events occurred, but in many cases, archaeological study and tradition say they are close. More than 2,000 years of pilgrim’s fervent prayers and supplications surely make them sacred.

A church whose gardens are like an oasis on the hill is the Church of the Beatitudes in Lower Galilee. This is the site near the Sea of Galilee where tradition holds Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. This octagonal church is beautiful but the gardens around the church are what makes the trek up the hill worthwhile. There are all kinds of flowers and lush green trees on the grounds.

Definitely bring your Bible here and sit on one of the benches or rocks nestled within the lush gardens and read Jesus’ words. There is also a nice view of the Sea of Galilee from this hill.

The town of Jesus’ birth

Once we got to Jerusalem we spent half a day exploring nearby Bethlehem, which is located in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. It was here that evidence of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians was most apparent.

Israelis are not allowed to travel to the West Bank at this time so we paid for a Palestinian guide to take us around. He was Catholic. Christians are a minority in the Holy Land and many have left in recent years because of the conflict.

Traveling to and from Bethlehem required going through security checkpoints. Bethlehem is just a short distance from Jerusalem but there is a noticeable difference between Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian neighborhoods seem visibly poorer and run down.

Our guide took us past portions of the security wall built by Israel starting in 2004 that divides Israel from the West Bank. Some sections are up to eight meters high. This was the first time I have been to a land under siege. It makes you realize how good it is to be free.

In Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity. The church is built over the cave said to be the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. In the lower chapel of the church pilgrims can venerate a portion of the cave floor located underneath a star-shaped metal cover. Pilgrims stream by, bending to touch the stone or to kiss it.

Next to it, a few feet away, is a small chapel marking the site of the manger where Mary placed Jesus. It is the size of a large closet. At the time we visited, people were tucked in the U-shaped space celebrating the Eucharist.

For me, being down in the cave inspired recitation of the Hail Mary and Glory Be.

Since at one time pilgrims used to take pieces of stone from the walls of the cave, tapestries now line the cave’s ceiling and walls to deter theft.

Via Dolorosa

Included in most every pilgrim’s journey to Jerusalem is a walk along the Via Dolorosa, a street in the Old City believed to be the path Jesus walked on his way to Calvary. Since the time of Jesus’ death, Christians have been commemorating his path. This is where we get the tradition of the stations of the cross.

Along the Via Dolorosa are chapels marking many of the stations and you can stop to pray there. The last five stations are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

As you get closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the number of vendors selling their wares to tourists increases. Tucked in tiny, narrow shops along either side of the narrow, stone road, the proprietors often stand at the entrances urging you to come inside.

You can get any number of things. Religious articles like crosses, rosaries and statues. Bright, plastic toys for the kids. Rugs, tables, food. You name it. There was even a vendor selling Chicago Cubs, Bears, White Sox and Bulls’ T-shirts.

To pray along the route is a lesson in focus with all of the vendors offering distractions. Of course, you can always go back and shop once you are finished.

Holy Sepulcher

You end up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Much can and has been written about this historic church. It holds the cave believed to be Jesus’ tomb. It also contains Golgotha, or Calvary, and the Stone of Unction where it is said Jesus was laid and prepared for burial.

St. Helena built the first church on this site in 326. Crusaders built the present church. Several Christian churches are represented here: Eastern (or Greek) Orthodox, Armenian, Roman (or Latin) Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox.

The church itself, like the region, has a controversial and tumultuous history, with the groups of mens’ religious communities inside it often coming to blows over the hundreds of years.

To stem the fighting, all of the communities signed the Status Quo Agreement of 1852, a complicated agreement that outlines which groups have primary control of the church and their assigned portions. The agreement also appointed a Muslim family to be keepers of the door key and this remains the procedure today.

Israeli military patrol the outside of the church in the case of violence. The most recent skirmishes occurred in 2008. Patrols increase around Easter and Christmas when skirmishes are more likely.

A visit to the church is moving and well worth the wait. Being so near to the spots where Jesus suffered and died can be powerful — candles burning, icons and paintings that have darkened with age, people praying all around you. If you get there during the times when one of the groups of friars or monks are praying it is a real sight.

Be patient with people while you are there. You are sure to be jostled around.

Soldiers and security

It was not uncommon for us to see members of Israel Defense Forces patrolling the streets or sites carrying what looked like machine guns, especially at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Every male and female Israeli who is non-Arab, not an ultra-Orthodox Jew and over 18 must serve in the military. Once released, they are required to serve in the reserve.

It was starlting to see armed military patrolling. We often saw groups of 30 or more soldiers in uniform carrying guns, but they weren’t patrolling. The large groups were visiting museums for education.

I never felt unsafe while I was in Israel but we were there during a time where nothing controversial was going on and always had a guide with us.

Most of the people we spoke with — Israeli and Palestinian — said they wanted peace but that it would not come in their lifetime.


A trip to Christian holy sites in Israel would be difficult for anyone with physical disabilities or who has difficulty walking, especially in Jerusalem’s Old City and Bethlehem. Here, there are lots of uneven stone pavings, hills and narrow corridors. It is definitely not wheelchair friendly.

Some places aren’t even car friendly. They were built for a time when donkeys and feet were the main forms of transportation. Some of the older pilgrims we saw used hiking sticks for assistance. Comfortable and sturdy shoes are a must.

Chicago-based Stauros USA occasionally offers a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for people with physical disabilities. For more information visit or call (773) 484-0581.

Going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the places where Jesus walked, enriches your faith because you see the places you hear so much about. Pilgrimages in general can be enriching to Catholics. Many people visit Rome. Others visit Marian shrines like Lourdes, Fatima or Guadalupe in Mexico City.

While not everyone is free to travel great distances for a spiritual trip, we can all make a pilgrimage. Chicago has three basilicas that you can use for pilgrimage destinations, not to mention the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Maryville in Des Plaines and the National Shrine to St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown in Libertyville.

If you want to go on a small trek, consider visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Wherever you go or whatever you do, spend some time thanking God for the gifts he has given you. And watch out for any rocks on sea shores. You don’t want to fall in.