If visiting the Holy Land is on your bucket list, we want to give you some practical tips and suggestions that may be helpful. Now I know what you’re thinking: who in their right mind is traveling to the Middle East these days? If you’ve seen the news lately, you know that this volatile region has been experiencing unrest and violence. But, as history has shown, it won’t last forever: peace will return one day, and it will be safe once again to travel to the Holy Land. And when that day happens, you will be ready!
If you’ve been following our series over the last several months, you might have the sense that a lot goes into planning a pilgrimage – and you’d be right. With so many places to see and things to consider, you may even wonder where to begin. When I first started planning our trip, it felt a bit like showing up at Costco without a list: overwhelming and confusing. It’s possible to figure out a lot by searching around on the Internet, but here are a few other things to consider. If you take the time to plan well, your pilgrimage is sure to be a wonderful experience that you’ll cherish forever – and it will be relatively stress free.
Perhaps the first and most important consideration is the size and composition of your group, as this sets the tone for your entire pilgrimage. If you sign up with a tour company you find on the Internet or through a travel agency, it will be a much different experience than if you were to go with a group from your church, a Catholic tour group, or even a group of Catholic friends. Visiting the sites of Jesus’ birth, Death, and Resurrection can be a profoundly moving experience, especially if you are with like-minded people. On the other hand, if you’re with people from different backgrounds and various faiths, you may not be able to pray together or even share your experiences openly.
As to be expected, the size of group greatly impacts the logistics of the trip – things like where you stay, the restaurants you visit, and how long it takes to move from place to place. Our group was small – limited to 30 people – so we were able to stay in convents and guest houses, which were quiet and peaceful. Ordinary hotels can be nice, too, but don’t offer some of the perks of guesthouses – such as having Jesus nearby in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
Another thing to keep in mind is the schedule or pace. If you want to feel like a true pilgrim, you might want to stick to the Christian holy sites and not visit many (or any) secular sites. There are all sorts of historical places and museums that, while interesting, have little to do with Jesus’ life or our Christian heritage. It’s a lot to take in, and you’ll want to have time to stop and pray at each site, versus just running from place to place taking pictures.
Again, the tour company you choose determines the schedule – what you’ll be doing each day and how much down time you’ll have. Because we chose a Catholic tour organizer, our group was able to celebrate Mass each day at various churches and holy sites.1 We had time to pray the rosary not only on the bus while traveling, but also at special spots along the way – some of the places mentioned in the mysteries themselves. We were blessed to have priests accompanying us on our pilgrimage and their presence was invaluable.
Finally, I can’t overestimate the importance of your local guide, as it is their job to lead, teach, and keep you safe throughout your journey. They are the source for nearly all your information – historical, spiritual, and practical. Whatever details he or she chooses to share determines, in large part, your understanding and perception of the land and its peoples. We were amazed at the wealth of knowledge of our guide, Rula. She answered all our questions about the background, culture, and landscape of this complex and diverse country. As a fellow Christian, she understood what we were seeing and helped the places to come alive with both historical details and stories from Scripture. As a Palestinian, she helped us understand the cultural and political dimensions of life in the Holy Land – the challenges for her people and the larger Christian community.
Of course, personal safety is always a consideration when planning a trip to the Holy Land, and you must carefully weigh what you are comfortable with. We travelled freely, but it’s not the same situation for the Palestinians who live there. Checkpoints exist between the Palestinian and Israeli border crossings, and armed guards are visible at some holy sites for the protection of pilgrims. Sadly, conflict and strife has become a way of life for them. Before we went last September, the civil war in Syria had many in our group feeling a bit uneasy. But in speaking with our guide, Rula, she assured us that it was safe and that life went on as usual. We were so glad we took her advice!
At some point, I pray that each of you will consider making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It will be life changing, not only for you, but also for the local Christian people. It’s hard to imagine what life is like for them, and it becomes more and more difficult for them to stay as their numbers dwindle. They desperately need our support. They need our prayers, yes, but they also need us to come – to support their shops and businesses and make it viable for them to stay.2 Without local Christians, the holy sites risk becoming mere museums – sterile and distant. If you feel that Christ is calling you, go and seek Him – encounter Him in a special way in the land of His birth. You’ll see, He won’t disappoint! You are sure to be awed, inspired, challenged, and moved by all that you see and experience, especially His powerful presence.
– Kelley Holy
1 Our tour was organized by the Pilgrim Center of Hope out of San Antonio, Texas. It’s run by a Catholic deacon and his wife, Tom and Mary Jane Fox. Check out their website for more information: http://www.pilgrimcenterofhope.org/ As well, there are other wonderful, Catholic tour companies who organize pilgrimages of this type.
2 It’s possible to order items online from Christian shops in the Holy Land. Here is the website for a great store we visited, where you can see some of the products they have to offer: