Memoria of St John Paul II
As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we are forever bound, in a unique way, to the earthly places where our Saviour was born and lived; where He ministered by teaching and preaching, by healing and forgiving; where He suffered His passion; where He died and rose again; where He appeared to His apostles; and where He ascended to His Father. As Christians, we have a special connection with the Holy Land and its Holy Places. We cannot be indifferent to our brothers and sisters in faith who live today in the land where Christ walked. Our support for them, and our solidarity with them, is crucial, especially in this time of global pandemic.
As Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, we not only provide financial and material assistance to the Church in the Holy Land; we also visit, as often as we can, to be ‘in person expressions’ of the bond of communion we share within the Universal Church. At the moment, we cannot physically visit our friends in the Holy Land. So, we’re doing so spiritually, in our hearts and minds, by the wonder of technology, through these precious days of virtual pilgrimage together.
A pilgrim is someone who makes a journey to a holy place out of religious devotion. The word pilgrim comes from the Latin peregrinus meaning a foreigner coming from abroad, literally from a ‘field beyond.’ Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land are not travelling from one foreign place to another. When we go in pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we are spiritually coming home, returning back to our beginnings and foundations. We journey to where things began, to where our first ancestors in faith saw the Lord Jesus face to face as He consoled His people and redeemed Jerusalem.
From the source, the living spring who is Christ, all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. How we need to revitalise our proclamation of the Gospel, to re-evangelise our society and culture, starting with ourselves. We return to the roots of our faith so that we can share the fruits of our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The fundamental reason for our pilgrimage is to become more like Christ by entering more deeply into the mystery of His person and everything that happened in the places where He dwelt among us.
The Holy Land and the Holy Sites are, and always will be, places where heaven has touched earth; where the Word of God pitched a tent and made a home with us in the flesh; where the feet of Our Lord walked to herald good news, to declare peace, to bring happiness and announce salvation.
St John Paul II, whose memory we keep today, visited the Holy Land in the Great Jubilee Year 2000. Frail, and walking with a stick, he spoke simply and movingly at the site of Christ’s baptism: ‘In my mind,’ he said ‘I see Jesus coming to the waters of the River Jordan not far from here to be baptised by John the Baptist.’ He continued: ‘I see Jesus passing on his way to the Holy City where he would die and rise again; I see him opening the eyes of the blind man as he passes by.’[i]
Such beautiful words are important for us. Notice how they are in the first person and present tense: ‘I see Jesus coming to the waters;’ ‘I see Jesus passing on his way;’ ‘I see Jesus opening the eyes of the blind man.’ This is the mind of a pilgrim. This is the desire and disposition of a disciple’s heart. As we encounter the places sanctified by Jesus, then, with the eyes of faith, we want to see Him and meet Him, alive in the present moment. We want to hear Him speak words of life directly to us, here and now. We are visiting the Holy Sites on this virtual pilgrimage because we want to meet Jesus.
I was last in the Holy Land in 2018. I paddled at sunset in the edge of the Sea of Galilee besides the Church of the Primacy of Peter in Tabgha. At this site our risen Lord ‘showed’ himself to His disciples. He cooked their breakfast on a charcoal fire, hence why, in the 9th century, an earlier Church there was called the Place of the Coals. It amused me that, today, there is a sign on the fence which prohibits barbecues.
After they had eaten, the Gospel tells us the Lord Jesus asked Simon Peter a familiar question three times: ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you really love me?’ Are you sure you love me?’ This is the present, here and now, question which Our Lord puts again to you and me as we tread in His steps. Of course, we’ve read this question many times in the Gospel. We’ve heard it, over and over again, in the liturgy. Hopefully, we will also each have answered it, perhaps sometimes even rephrasing it saying, ‘Yes Lord, I love you; but do you love me?’ If we don’t already have a personal sense of the Lord’s love for us, then we need one. We cannot flourish as disciples without it.
Each of us will make our love for Christ real in our own way, in our prayers and by feeding His lambs and looking after His sheep, whatever that might mean. But our pilgrimage invites us to enter deeper within our heart and, at this particular moment in our life, make again our loving response. ‘Do you love me?’ asks Jesus. This question can never be answered once and then consigned to history. We must answer it again every morning. We answer it through every prayer, in every challenge, and by every act of selfless service. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you really love me?’ Are you sure you love me?’
Our Blessed Lady gave her loving yes at Nazareth. So, each day, we must renew our own loving yes to God’s plan for our life. Our Lord gave His loving yes to His Heavenly Father in the Desert of Temptation and the Garden at Gethsemane. So, each day, we must renew our loving yes in the face of doubts and struggles and trials. At the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, we renew our loving yes to His life within us and our world; our loving yes to justice and peace, to truth and reconciliation; our loving yes to hope.
Dear friends, our pilgrimage means lovingly saying yes to Christ in union with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Saying yes is an act of faith. Yes, I believe. Yes, I will follow the Lord Jesus. Yes, in my mind and in my heart, I want to meet and know His loving, living presence. In short, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
And so, in the words of St John Paul II, ‘let us set out in the footsteps of Christ!’[ii]
[i] Pope John Paul II, Jubilee Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Visit to Al-Maghtas, 22 March 2000.
[ii] Pope John Paul II, Letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation, 29 June 1999.