“Jesus said we should go and proclaim the gospel. And the gospel was proclaimed. People came to believe. But not in the written part of revelation… if the Word became flesh, it became flesh in a place. Where is that place? That is the Holy Land,” Owusu told CNA. “The Holy Land also testifies to the Word made Flesh, and that makes it more real to us.”
“By going to the Holy Land, the Holy Land becomes real in the life of Christians because of what it stands for,” he continued. “It is, as Pope Paul VI put it, the ‘fifth gospel’ which is not written on ink, but written on stones.”
Owusu works in the pilgrimage office of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, the Franciscan Custody’s outpost in Washington, D.C. The monastery itself hosts replicas of holy sites and holds various events to help link visitors to the land where Jesus Christ walked.
The Holy Land includes Israel, the Palestinian territories, and parts of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
The diversity of Christian sites there range from the churches and other places marking events like the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry along the Sea of Galilee, and of course Jerusalem, where the site of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Added to these places are the living legacy of the Jewish people. The Wailing Wall, located at the base of the site of the Temple of King David, gathers thousands of Jews who pray and celebrate at the start of every Sabbath.
Muslims too consider Jerusalem a holy site, and the heights Temple Mount, once the site of the Temple, now hosts both the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden, gleaming Dome of the Rock shrine.
Father Macora said that in his time in the Holy Land, he has witnessed “quite a number of stories” of spiritual enrichment or transformation among Christian pilgrims. People decide to go to confession for the first time in decades because of a visit to the Holy Sepulchre.
“Once I was asked by a friend to guide a woman at the Holy Sepulchre. I don’t think she was practicing her faith, but after she came out of the tomb she was weeping. So she was hit by the experience,” he continued.
Owusu said the Holy Land has played a large role in the Christian imagination “since time immemorial.”
“Believers have always wanted to go back to their roots, to see the places where our salvation history took place. For example, St. Francis of Assisi was so eager to go and see where Jesus was born, where he was crucified, and where he rose again.”
A Holy Land pilgrimage “really helps Christians in their belief, it ignites their faith and helps us to understand the Scripture in a different way.”
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Macora has seen pilgrims weeping at the altar in the quiet Basilica of Agony, near the Garden of Gethsemane, the site where Jesus prayed before Judas handed him over to be arrested.
The Franciscan priest, an American who grew up in a military family, has served in the Holy Land for more than 20 years. Among his current roles is guardian of the Flagellation Monastery in Jerusalem.
Meeting local people is an important part of the experience, he commented, as they are “definitely part of the enduring fascination of the Holy Land.” Some people, such as the region’s shepherds, maintain cultural practices similar to those of biblical times. The guides who accompany visitors and pilgrims are very important, serving as “an ambassador of his or her people.”
He also cautioned that the enduring problems and recent history of the Holy Land, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are something that first-time pilgrims can misunderstand.
“I think that they have to understand how complex the Holy Land is,” said Macora. “I think that they need to hear both sides of the story. There is a conflict going on and there are all kinds of sharp rivalries, even between Christians themselves.”
Israel is about 75 percent Jewish. Its Palestinian population, largely resident in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, is about 18 percent Muslim and two percent Christian, with both Christians and Muslims tending to identify as Palestinian Arab. The Christian population has largely declined due to emigration. Only about 16,000 of the 870,000 residents of Jerusalem are Christian, a significant drop in recent decades, CNEWA reports.