Diocesan pilgrims walk along the Via Dolorosa, the same path Jesus took while carrying the cross to Calvary in Jerusalem as part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (COURTESY)

Local pilgrims walk in the steps of Jesus

Jerusalem  |  One of the greatest challenges of understanding the life and times of Jesus Christ is that no matter how often one reads the Gospels or the writings of St. Paul, it can be difficult to truly imagine the actual places.

Deacon Jun and Colleen Roca of Epiphany Cathedral in Venice just recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a new view of their faith as their journey changed the black and white words on the pages of the Bible into living color, offering a new understanding they will carry in their life going forward.

The Rocas were part of a group of 46, ranging in age from 16-87, who were accompanied by two young priests and other friends and family for an epic journey.

This was no vacation. There was no time to relax. This was a time to grow closer to the Lord and experience the key places that still exist some 2,000 years later while walking in His footsteps. 

“It is a time when the spiritual life becomes a tangible reality,” said Father Joseph Gates, of St. Isabel Parish in Sanibel. “Israel is rightly called the 5th Gospel, it puts in perspective what we hear at Mass every Sunday. Being there in the heat of summer – I’m amazed at the apostles for their physical stamina in following Jesus. Climbing through barren hillsides speckled with rosemary and lavender, water in short supply, the heat of the sun and not to mention dodging the different venomous animals that lurked in the dark places. Picking a variety of men who were used to the Sea of Galilee, a comfortable tax collector and others. For the men following Jesus I have a profound respect.” 

A special moment on the journey was a visit to Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. In addition to the pilgrim couples renewing their wedding vows, two in the group were actually married there. Charles Emry and Sharon Niecestro, of Epiphany Cathedral, were married there. The pilgrimage included daily Mass, celebrated by either Father Gates or Father Eric Scanlan, Administrator of Incarnation Parish in Sarasota. They were ordained together in 2013.

Other highlights included visiting the site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, the River Jordan, the Holy Grotto of the Nativity, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the same path Jesus took while carrying the cross to Calvary. These were just a few of the highlights of the pilgrimage.

Father Gates said the holy sites were remarkable and touching, particularly the Church of the Nativity, located high in the Judean hillside while the frescos of Our Lady and her Son that decorated the upper church were breathtaking. 

“It’s a once in a life-time experience that every person should embark upon,” Father Gates said. “As the Jews were required to annually travel three times to the Holy City of Jerusalem, we as Christians should try at least once in our lifetime to walk the region our Savior did, if only to open our eyes to the Sacred Scriptures we hear every Sunday.”

Colleen Roca reflected that her favorite part of the trip was being in Old Jerusalem and then spending a Holy Hour of prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Deacon Roca said he felt humbled each time he read the Gospel during daily Mass, however he was struck with awe during the passage where Jesus divided the fishes and loaves for the 5,000 at the same spot, on the shores of Galilee. Both also agreed that Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth was particularly powerful.

The Rocas both added that because the trip was so recent, just a few weeks ago, it is difficult to put in to perspective. However they both agree they need to write down what they experienced and share it with others they encounter.