By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Am I Really Here?

This is perhaps the question I am hearing posed most frequently these days by my fellow pilgrims. Sixty-five in all, we arrived yesterday in the Holy Land from Edmonton for our Archdiocesan Jubilee Pilgrimage. Indeed, it is difficult at first to grasp the extraordinary blessing of being present in this territory made holy by the presence of Jesus himself. Am I really here?

Far more wondrous is the working of God's Holy Spirit in our lives as we visit the sacred sites. Our guides may be leading us on an itinerary of place, but the Holy Spirit wants to work through them to move us along an itinerary of conviction (to borrow a phrase from Fr Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation). As the apostles traveled these lands with Jesus, listening to his words and witnessing his deeds, they gradually grew in the conviction that Jesus is Lord and God, a certainty confirmed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As we visit many of the same places they did, we, too, ask the Holy Spirit for a renewed conviction concerning the truth of Jesus, so that we might live henceforth as ever more authentic disciples.

And we're not wasting any time! No sooner were we off the plane than we were in the buses headed straight to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. There St. Peter baptized Cornelius, and from that locale St. Paul set forth for Rome. We were taught many things about the long history of that place, but from the outset we knew that what matters most is the significance of the venue not for human but for salvation history! God is at work in time to bring about his saving purpose! Caesarea is important because it signalled the spread of the Gospel beyond the Jewish nation, through both the baptism of a non-Jew (Cornelius) and the carrying of the Good News from there to Rome.

From Caesarea we made our way to Tiberias, where we are staying right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Our arrival yesterday coincided with the liturgical feast of Saint Andrew, and we heard at Mass the Gospel passage of Jesus calling Andrew and his brother, Simon (Peter), on those very same shores. That coincidence, I'm convinced, was no coincidence.

Today, having witnessed a beautiful sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, we set off for Cana. There a number of married couples renewed their marriage vows. One young couple in our group even became engaged. (Talk about bragging rights for the fiancee!) From there we went to Nazareth, and here we experienced extraordinary moments of grace. We celebrated

Mass in St. Joseph's Church, built over the cave identified by tradition as Joseph's workplace. This was of great significance for us, since the patron of our Archdiocese is Saint Joseph the Worker. Following Mass we went to the Basilica of the Annunciation, raised above the ancient grotto identified as the place where Mary gave her fiat to the angel Gabriel and thus conceived in her womb the Incarnate Son of God. As I watched our group stand before the grotto in long and silent prayer, I could sense that they were as deeply affected by the experience as I had been when I first visited many years ago. On the base of the altar in the midst of the grotto are inscribed the words Verbum caro hic factum est, the Word was made flesh here. It is impossible to describe in any adequate fashion the movement in the heart upon reading those words and grasping their meaning. They themselves form an astounding annunciation.

I am sure we could have spent the rest of the day quietly meditating on what we had just experienced, but the day did not end there. We traveled north to Caesarea Philippi, where St. Matthew tells us Peter made his confession of faith and Jesus identified him as the rock on which he would build his Church. In that place there is an enormous and imposing rock wall formation. With this in view, we read aloud the Gospel passage and could feel the full import of Jesus words. No earthly or spiritual power could ever prevail against the Church, because it is built on the unshakeable rock of Peter, himself made strong by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Our itinerary of conviction has begun.