A trip to the Holy Land brings Scripture to life
FORT WORTH — On his very first night in the Holy Land, seminarian Joseph Moreno was awestruck.
Looking out over Nazareth, he realized this is where the Holy Family lived. This is where Jesus played as a child and where He learned and where He worshiped.
“It hit me. I'm praying the same Psalms they were praying in the same place where they prayed,” Moreno said.
Moreno and fellow Fort Worth Diocese seminarian Linh Nguyen were among 18 seminarians and two priests who traveled to the Holy Land July 2-13 for a pilgrimage made possible by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
With historic origins in the First Crusade, the Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem are tasked with the preservation of the holy sites of the Christian faith, the continued support of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land and other Christians in the region, and strengthening the faith of its members.
About 23,000 Catholics from all over the world belong to the Order, which is divided into 52 Lieutenancies, 15 of which are in North America. The Southwest Lieutenancy – which includes Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico – pays all expenses each year for a group of seminarians to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Like Moreno, Nguyen found the trip to be “such a blessing and an amazing experience.”
It's one thing to study the Scriptures and the history of Christianity but seeing the places where those events happened and the geographic and cultural details adds depth to the words, Nguyen said.
The group traveled to many biblical sites, including the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Transfiguration, Bethlehem, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jerusalem.
At 5 a.m., they walked where Jesus carried the cross on the Via Dolorosa, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus' empty tomb. It’s also the site where Jesus was crucified.
The 20 of them squeezed into the tight spot to celebrate Mass where Jesus rose from the grave. Moreno said he touched the slab where Jesus' body was laid.
Worshiping in the Holy Land strengthened his faith in unexpected ways.
“If you make the trip as a pilgrimage, you can never look at the Bible the same way again,” he said. “It makes the pages come alive.”
'They need our prayers'
Members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre are encouraged to make their own pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Bill and Tessy Ross, district representatives of the Order for the Fort Worth Diocese, made their pilgrimage in 2006. They renewed their wedding vows at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.
Tessy Ross said, “It’s the trip of a lifetime.”
The Southwest Lieutenancy meets every October, with this year’s meeting set for Albuquerque. In 2021, the group will meet in Fort Worth. New members are nominated by another member, a priest, or a bishop, with final approval coming from the bishop. About 175 faithful from the diocese belong to the Order.
Each year, the local Knights and Dames host the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Bishop Michael F. Olson will celebrate Mass at this year's event on Sept. 14. Bishop Olson also asked members to participate in the 50th Anniversary Celebration Aug. 21 for the Diocese of Fort Worth. For special occasions, members wear robes and regalia.
Every year, the Southwest Lieutenancy sends more than $1 million to the Holy Land, Bill Ross said. Those funds go to maintain sites and to support Holy Land parishes, hospitals, schools, and orphanages.
Tessy Ross said the regional body helped fund a nursing program at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic college in the Holy Land.
Moreno and Nguyen visited Bethlehem University during their Holy Land trip and were moved by the sacrifices local Christians make. With limited opportunities, the population is shrinking.
Christians living in Bethlehem cannot leave the town without hard-to-obtain documents and undergoing extensive searches of their cars, Moreno said.
Even though Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is less than seven miles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, many Christians there have never visited because they are unable to get approval.
Moreno said, “People who have been born in Bethlehem can't leave the city. The situation is pretty bleak for Christians.”
“They need our prayers.”