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
On Tuesday, April 9, we visited Nazareth, and the Basilica of the Assumption. The experience was primal. This one place, remarkably well attested, is the single place on earth where the Word became flesh, and everything changed.
I specifically chose not to research all of this ahead, so as not to know what’s to expect.
The basilica itself is huge, shaped like a giant tent, for at the moment of the Incarnation, The Lord came and set up his tent among his people – within the hearts of his people.
One enters the basilica on the second level, and there I was immediately bewildered by color. In every part of the second level, the walls are covered with images of the Virgin Mary – gifts from just about every country in the world – huge, floor to ceiling images. In these images she looks like all the peoples of the world: here, an African; there, an East Asian; there again, a Slav. In the image from the United States, appropriately, it is impossible to determine her ethnicity, as her face is almost abstract, representing all of the peoples of our nation. Color everywhere. Light everywhere.
Then we descended to the first floor of the basilica. There one finds an archeological dig; the Franciscans have been great archeologists. One finds unearthed the remains of a grotto and a small, simple altar, with a mark on the floor in front of it. Since very early in the second century, only a couple of generations after the event itself, (like being told by your grandparents that thus and such happened right here), Christians have venerated this spot as the site of the Annunciation.
And so I knelt down – we all knelt down – holding onto an iron gate less than ten feet from the place itself. Who am I to have been there? I felt very small. I also felt very disconnected from time. I have no idea if I was there five minutes or two hours (though the actual time was quite short) – there was no time there. Using C.S. Lewis’ phrase, there I felt an overwhelming (literally) sense of “All moments are now.”
One can see into the lower basilica from the upper, and vice-versa. The lower is plain, simple, gray, quiet. The upper explodes with color and light. In the Incarnation, in Mary’s womb, in the person of Jesus, both the human and the divine are present, both fully, without admixture or confusion.
Then we went to see the Church of Saint Joseph, just across the plaza from the basilica. Again, in a well attested, very ancient tradition, this is where Joseph and Mary and Jesus lived. In the lower part of the Church, in the excavations, one sees the remnants of a simple home, with a pool carved out for ritual washing.
Finally, we went to Mount Carmel, and saw one possible site (not nearly so well attested as the sites in Nazareth) of the cave in which the prophet Elijah waited to see the cloud rising over the sea (the Mediterranean), signaling the end of the drought. We had Mass there, at the chapel of Stella Maris, Saint Mary Star of the Sea.
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.