MORE than 40 Morpeth pilgrims have fulfilled a life-long dream to take a trip to the Holy Land.
The group from St Robert’s Church embarked on the week-long pilgrimage, entitled In The Footsteps of Jesus, for a special spiritual experience last month.
The 42 pilgrims left Morpeth at midnight to head to Luton Airport for their flight, arriving in Jerusalem just in time for supper.
But they were up bright and early at 5.30am the next day to visit the Holy Sepulchre Church, which sits at the heart of their faith on the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Fr Lawrence Jones, who led the pilgrimage, said: “These places are at the centre of our faith and thankfully, because it was so early in the morning, they weren’t very busy.
“We had Mass there and then we were among the first pilgrims to go into Jesus’ tomb that day. It is so small that you can only get two or three people in at a time.
“Of course, the guide tells everybody that the tomb is empty because Jesus rose from the dead. People usually visit tombs to see where somebody is buried, but we went there to see that Jesus is not buried there.”
The pilgrims also visited the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place, the Garden of Gethsemane, St Peter Gallicantu Church and the Via Dolorosa, as well as the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. At Cana members of the group renewed baptismal and marriage vows.
One of the most emotional experiences was a stay in Bethlehem, which was organised to support the local tourism industry.
Fr Lawrence said: “It was very emotional to be at the site of Jesus’ birth and we stayed there primarily because it is important that we support Bethlehem.
“It is very near to Jerusalem so very often pilgrims stay in hotels there and just visit Bethlehem for a few hours, but Bethlehem is very poor. It has a very high unemployment rate, even more so for Christians, and a lot of young people go abroad to find work.
“Staying there was our way of supporting the economy and the hotels there, and I’m glad to say that we were told that this year there are more pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, which is good for everybody.”
The town is in the West Bank in Palestinian territory and is separated from Jerusalem by a large wall, which shocked some members of the group.
“You do feel uncomfortable because it is just so awful to see people separated like that, particularly for the Palestinians because they are not allowed freedom of movement,” said Fr Lawrence.
“Some of them do work in Jerusalem, but they have to get permits and that is difficult.
“Israel would say the wall is there for security, which it is in a way, but it divides people. It is not the solution. I’m sure the wall will come down one day, like the Berlin Wall did.”
However, the pilgrims were cheered to witness positive relations between the different communities.
“What is remarkable is how people get on, despite everything,” said Fr Lawrence.
“We stayed in Christian hotels in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but a Jewish hotel in Galilee, and on the whole people just get on with their lives peacefully and work together.
“In Jerusalem we came across a pizza place that was run by a Christian and a Muslim, while Israeli soldiers were sitting outside playing cards with the locals. That is the side that people don’t see on the news, that people do co-operate and get on and the three religions on the whole live peacefully with each other.”
The pilgrims prayed for peace every day throughout their trip and have returned to Morpeth with an olive tree and a dove oil lamp as symbols of peace.
Fr Lawrence is familiar with the Holy Land, having spent three months studying there, and he was proud to share its delights with his Morpeth parishioners.
“I’m excited about the place anyway, but it was such a pleasure to take people there and see that they got as much out of it as I do, even if it was just for a short visit,” he said.
“There were a lot of elderly people, some in their 80s, who were really sprightly and full of energy. Most of the group had never been there before and it was something they had wanted to do all their lives. This was a fulfilment of their life-long ambition and they got a tremendous amount out of it.
“There are a lot more people from the church wanting to go and a lot of people regret that they didn’t go this time so we will go back, perhaps next year or the year after.”
Stevie Matthews, who took part in the pilgrimage, said: “We went to the Holy Land not knowing what we would find. The Buddhists have their Enlightenment and that would perhaps be a good way to summarise, walking where Jesus walked, enhanced our understanding of His great love.”