Fr. Paul Soper, Director of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese of Boston, is one of 29 priests joining Cardinal Seán O’Malley for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between April 8 and April 15. We’ve asked him to share his experiences beginning with preparations for the trip.
By Fr. Paul Soper
And so, here we are, just about ready to begin. I’ve always found that counting nights is much easier than counting days – one more night, and we’re off!
I’ve been doing the obvious things to prepare, like laundry, and packing, and checking the status and whereabouts of my passport about a thousand times.
I’ve been studying maps of the places we will go – I love maps.
I’ve been loading up my Kindle with improving books to read on the plane, although, truth be told, airplane rides put me to sleep very quickly.
I’ve been reading the Gospels – both straight through and with commentaries. These places are not just places. God chose to reveal himself most perfectly in one tiny spot on earth, and in one tiny moment in history, in the person of Jesus Christ, who shows us the face of the Father. Although I live twenty-one centuries later and half way around the world, my identity as a man, as a Catholic, and as a priest is strongly rooted in that place and in that time. Because I read and study and live and breathe the Gospels, Galilee and Jerusalem are in a very real way my homeland, and tomorrow, for the first time, I’m going home.
I’ve been assembling my list of prayers – I’m carrying them with me in a little notebook. I will, of course, be praying for my family – my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins. I’ll be praying particularly for my cousin who is currently serving in Afghanistan. At every site, but particularly at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I will be praying for my parents and grandparents, and all of my family that has gone before me in death. I’ll be praying for my friends and coworkers, whom I love very much. Several are ill, and several have new children or grandchildren – I’ll be praying for them especially.
But I am bringing one intention above all others in my heart. Although I miss being a parish priest, I am grateful that Cardinal Seán has given me the freedom to focus exclusively on the implementation of Disciples in Mission – the pastoral plan. My first and last prayer at each of the sites on our pilgrimage will be for the twelve Phase One Collaboratives: Belmont, Beverly, Billerica, Brookline, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, Lynn, Lynnfield, Methuen, Middleborough and Lakeville and Rochester, Newton, Salem, and Weymouth. I’ll be praying for their Pastors, for the Pastoral Teams and Councils, and most especially for the people of the Parishes of the Collaboratives. I’ll be praying that they become strong, stable, intentional, and effective centers of the New Evangelization. The Holy Land pulses with the number twelve. These twelve will be foremost in my mind and my prayers.
Cardinal Seán is making a significant investment of his time and energy and prayer – all of which have been drawn upon rather deeply of late – for the sake of the spiritual lives of the thirty or so priests who will be on this pilgrimage together, and therefore of those of the people for whom and with whom we work. I believe that he is doing so because he, like so many of us right now, finds that the Holy Spirit is at work in remarkable and surprising ways, in Boston and in the whole Church. I don’t go really easily to that place in my thinking – I’m kind of a rationalist who wants to find gentle and gradual explanations for everything that happens. But I cannot deny what I see. I am convinced that we are on the verge of something extraordinary. And where better to seek an understanding of the extraordinary than where it all began …
The antiphon for the third Psalm for Evening Prayer tonight (Sunday) is: Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” I was reading Evening Prayer tonight at Logan, waiting for our flight to New York, and came across that antiphon, and said to myself, “Ok, I’ll go to Galilee, then, because I really want to see Jesus.”
And that’s the point of this whole thing. I can visit Mount Vernon (I have – its really cool), and there I can learn an awful lot about George Washington. I even met a docent dressed like George Washington who, for the sake of teaching the group, might pretend to be George Washington. But that’s about the most I can hope for. As George Washington’s life rushes into the past with the flow of history, we are further and further from him, and that gap cannot be bridged.
But everything is different with Jesus. He is the center point of human history. All time bends around him and the events of his life, death, and resurrection. That’s how liturgy works. We do not reenact the events, nor do we merely recall them. Rather, we are, in a sacramental (and therefore very real) sense, present at the Last Supper during the Mass. Thus we say at the blessing of the Paschal Candle on Easter Night: “Christ, yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. To him belongs all time and all the ages.”
Therefore, at least as it seems to me, going to the Holy Land has the tinge of sacrament and liturgy about it. And that’s why I’m going. I like history very much, and what better place to encounter a rich and relevant history – but I’m not going to find history, because I’m not going to look for the living among the dead. I am accustomed to encountering Jesus in the liturgy and in the sacraments, in the visceral smell of the incense and smoothness of the oil and sweetness of the wine. Now I want to feel the ground he felt under my own feet. I want to be splashed by the water which he calmed. I want to see the light that the blind man saw for the first time. I want to pray where he prayed – especially on the mountains and the garden. I want to carry my own puny burdens on the same road on which he carried all the burdens of the world.
I really want to see Jesus. And I have no doubt that I will.
Cardinal Seán and a group of 29 priests of the Archdiocese of Boston have traveled on an Easter pilgrimage to the Holy Land this week, and they’re bringing the readers of TheGoodCatholicLife.com blog along with them.
All this week, our colleague George Martell is traveling with the pilgrimage, embedded with the Cardinal and his priests so we can bring you photos, blogs, videos, and audio reports from the Holy Land from the pilgrims at such places as the Basilica of the Annunciation, Mount Carmel, the Sea of Galilee, the Church of the Transfiguration, Qumran, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Upper Room, and more. This once in a lifetime opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus with Cardinal Seán and the Archdiocese’s priests as an Easter retreat experience.
Please stay tuned to www.thegoodcatholiclife.com, as well as www.BostonCatholicPhotos.com and www.YouTube.com/BostonCatholic and our Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/bostoncatholic and Twitter account: www.twitter.com/bostoncatholic for the latest updates from the Holy Land.